There have been one or two interesting reactions to my previous blog about the whys and wherefores of killing off Lynn Kellogg in Cold in Hand, bringing into question the nature of the writer’s relationship with his or her long-running characters.
It was somewhat serendipitous, therefore, that, walking on the Heath the other day and catching up, via my iPod, with various accumulated podcasts, I chanced upon a Radio 3 Arts & Ideas programme in which Matthew Sweet talked to a trio of American novelists, Jane Smiley, Marilynne Robinson and Richard Ford.
One of the subjects Sweet returned to, with Robinson and Ford especially, was that of the relationship between writers and those characters who recurred in their work, in Robinson’s case the Ames and Boughton families from the small Iowa town of Gilead, and in Ford’s, Frank Bascombe, who has been the principal character in three novels and, most recently, a quartet of inter-connected short stories.
Given my own connection with Charlie Resnick, about whom I’ve written 12 novels, a clutch of stories, two television screenplays, a number of radio plays, and about whom I’m about to write a stage play, I was interested to hear what each had to say. This exchange, in particular, struck a chord …
SWEET: How present does he (Frank Bascombe) seem to you? Does he make demands?
FORD: Oh, that’s very romantic!
SWEET: It’s a romanticism, I would suggest, quite a few authors feel.
FORD: It’s baloney! Maybe they are gullible victims of that kind of romanticism. I’m not, actually. I’m the author and what that means is, I authorise everything. So, if I could say Frank made a demand on me, it’s just a way of saying I make a demand on myself. I mean I certainly carry around with me a notebook and I write in that notebook all the time, and I put things that he says and feels – that I would like to assign to him to say and feel – and then I haul them out of my notebook in the way of Ruskin who said composition is the arrangement of unequal things. I take these unequal things and make something out of them. But otherwise he does not have any existence for me.
This almost gleefully debunking of the more romantic version of the author-character relationship comes closest, I think, to my own. Sorry to have to tell you this, gentle reader, but they ain’t real, they don’t have lives of their own – other than the lives we agree to give them. Or not.