The craft of writing, like all art forms, is a slippery pig. You get a grip, but it has lots of tricks up its sleeve (alas, mixed metaphor). Moving from nearly 50 years of playwriting to prose fiction, some skills stand firm, others are wobbly.
Among new challenges: point of view. Is your narrator imbued with godlike vision (It was the best of times…), is it first person (Call me Ishmael…) or “close third” (He thought, What have I done?) Lately, I’ve gravitated to close third, though each chapter is from a different person’s point of view—Roy’s POV in Chapter 11, Maggie’s in 12. Maybe it’s closer to the way you write a play.
Something struck me this week that I hadn’t fully realized in writing (in collaboration with Elizabeth) 40 plays, 200+ dramatic sketches, 23 stories and 8 novels: some characters come easier to me than others. In some cases, it’s because the life model is vividly before you. In others, it’s that you’re writing the role for an actor who lives inside you: that’s surely been true of Elizabeth, Camilla, Kevin. With others, you wonder.
In the current project, I wonder. Eleven characters, and each chapter shifts POV. It’s working well, I think, because it’s a story about these diverse souls intersecting—no single protagonist. What’s unsettling is how easy it was to write Roy, one of the more pathetic, despicable creatures we’ve ever created. Where did he come from?
I think of one of our comedy lines: My whole life flashed before me, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Sorta like that. Does he live inside me? I’ve surely written nasty characters before, but this one I seem to know like a brother. It’s a bit like those news articles you see now and then: a woman has a baby, though she didn’t know she was pregnant. The story opens a door, and Roy is standing there.
He brings to my mind Ray and Chuck. Ray had a used-car dealership, and Chuck was his mechanic, whose vital work was to get the cars at least to run around the block. I worked there two summers in high school, sweeping floors, polishing cars, some office work, but mostly sitting there listening to Ray expound on politics, the economy, the lesser races, and his wife—Ray and Chuck shared an obscene distaste for their wives. Ray subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and read it diligently through many customerless days. He aspired to wealth but wound up committing suicide on the verge of being indicted for fraud.
I’ve tried to use them in plays, but they’ve never managed to be more than supporting cast. Yet they were perhaps the first men with whom I felt intense empathy—not sympathy, but more what you’d feel with a yowling cat or a dripping radiator, an attunement, an intense unwanted connection.
That’s what I feel with Roy: I don’t want to be anywhere near him, but he’s inside me. It’s a shock, like discovering you have a zoo in your head and no one has cleaned the cages. All you can do is to reach for Ernie in Chapter 13.