Click here for Part I
Here's the second installment in Mark Blagrave's (Silver Salts) ongoing series of posts recording his thoughts and reflections on the experience of being a new novelist. Today, Professor Blagrave shares what it's like to meet the living relatives of characters he's written about.
The Implied Author Part II:
Meeting the Relatives (aka You Can't Libel the Dead)
by Mark Blagrave
Most writers have friends who regularly beg them not to write about them. The pleading is usually a mixture of I-dare-you and would-I-ever-love-that. When you are a playwright, you’re lucky to get through a dinner party or staff meeting without someone exclaiming about some particularly smart line or outrageous behaviour: "You should put that in your next play." I always smile and nod. Sometimes, if I am feeling crusty, I mutter “nobody would believe it.” I never use the material. I just haven’t ever worked that way. I don’t keep a journal where I record slices of life for later use. I don’t (knowingly) base characters on actual people I know. Probably that means there’s something wrong with me — some kind of fear of intimacy issue or something, perhaps because I was bottle, and not breast, fed.
Real people whom I have no chance of ever meeting, on the other hand, fascinate me as material. My last two plays have been based on the lives and adventures of two extremely obscure, but nevertheless historical, figures. The first is the adventurer whose account of the wreck of the Sea Venture on Bermuda may or may not have inspired Shakespeare in writing The Tempest. I did (almost) everything I could to get to know him: read everything he wrote, including a dictionary of the Powhatan language, researched the Virginia Company, checked into known associates. Then I completely made up a private life for him, to try to explain the historical record. The second figure is a man who came to be known as The Grindstone King of Nova Scotia (people take their glory where they can find it, I guess). Onto his life I have grafted an increasingly-disguised King Lear plot. I’ve stood on the ruins of the man’s house, read his private diaries, boned up on his religious beliefs, and invented huge lies inspired by the known facts of his life. I am pretty sure that William Strachey is not going to corner me in the local Saveasy to tell me something about himself that I should put into the play. And I am working hard to make the Grindstone King so far removed from his actual biography as to be unrecognizable by his descendents. Silver Salts was composed in much the same spirit. Setting the book in the early twentieth century put current dinner parties and staff meetings out of the running, even if I were ever inclined to include them. But I did want “real” people. In an early draft of the book, I had changed all of the names — just a little. There was Norma Shearwater and Leo B. Marks, and so forth. Marc Coté (my editor) urged me to restore their identities, assuring me that “you can’t libel the dead.” So I went ahead, and we published a novel in which the characters with names connected to actual birth certificates may nearly outnumber those I invented. A couple of drafts later, this stopped seeming anything but completely natural. After all, it was clear (to me) they were all being used fictitiously.
Early in September, I was signing copies of Silver Salts in a Chapters store. It was the usual mix of total strangers, former students, old acquaintances, and cousins of cousins that I have come to really enjoy about these events. Then a stranger introduced himself. He was the great-nephew (let’s say) of Walter Golding, a locally-well-known Saint John figure who makes several appearances in the book. Oh God, I madly riffled through the pages in my mind, trying to recall anything offensive I might have intimated about Golding. He was, in fact, a truly upright and nice guy, I remembered. I had made a couple of jokes about his being a Baptist, but nothing intended nastily. The man proceeded to rhyme off the names of half a dozen other living Golding relatives. I looked around for a posse. “You know how you say he always found the right light to stand in?” I did. “Well, I would never have…,” the man started . I could barely hear him over the mantra in my head: “You can’t libel the dead, you can’t libel the dead….” “I would never have thought of that — but it’s exactly what he did, I guess. You got Pop Golding to a ‘T’.” Of course, I had invented that detail out of whole cloth. I think.
We carried on a very pleasant conversation and have since corresponded (after he finished the book). Not once did he say “don’t write about this.” So I did.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for the next installment, a reflection on alternative biographies.