It’s been a good month for words and falling in love with the people they build—again. I forget how charming and willful, stubborn and ugly they sometimes tend to be, then they come knocking, rising up from the page one by one, dusting the dirt from their knees, and I think, Hey! I know you. You’re the gal I gave the same hairstyle as my friend Sooz.
I’m talking about Irene’s crew of family and friends. Irene is the title character of a first novel (by me) due out in July 2015. Irene’s grand-niece is the one I gave the hairstyle of my dear friend, Sooz; her nephew (Buddy) is the one I gave characteristics of another friend’s cousin; the elderly detective who failed, in 1930, to solve the mystery of Irene’s early demise owns all the curmudgeonly charm of my favorite uncle. This month I found them again, these characters wrought from the real world I occupy into the fictional story-scape of vaudeville, circus, farm and city. Like best buddies from grade school or cousins from out of state, folks I haven’t seen or talked to in years, possibly decades, they warm this old heart when I hear their voice on the line.
A laugh escapes across the miles of telephone line and, just like that, their face is before me, a smile remembered, a cheesecake shared on a bench under a tree outside Riverside’s Mission Inn, a hike from the end of the road to the river bottom and, crossing the Santa Ana, the abandoned Power House on the river’s far side, flats of cardboard used as sleds to slide the steep and long-dry concrete slipway, wild rides perched in the back of a rusting blue pick-up truck through corn fields … oh, and all the crawdads caught in the irrigation canals running the perimeter of pastures and alfalfa fields … It’s like that, this reconnect to ginger-haired Irene who bruised and healed and bruised again, yet stood her ground with undaunted willfulness.
Words built my Irene, gave her freckles and a family which, for the most part, didn’t know how to handle the girl, much less the woman. Words constructed her worlds. From the Williamsport, Pennsylvania farm and the platform she dove from to slice into Loyalsock Creek as a girl to the Poseidon Park, Coney Island stage where she climbed into a cannon to be shot over the heads of paying spectators below—words gave these venues walls and windows, fields, ponds, farm houses and brownstones, kitchens, wall-papered bedrooms, railroad tracks and circus trains.
Reading and revising The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights for (what promises to be) the final draft, I came to the end and found myself already missing these fictional folks I’d brought into the world the way I miss my children and grandchildren when they visit—here for five days or a week—and gone, as if they’d only just arrived and their stay was too short. As if there were more conversations to explore, more Valentines to build with white glue, paper and glitter, more places to investigate, secrets to share, friends to introduce them to and shells to collect from the ocean’s shore.
So it is with Irene and her crew. They’ve been such a long time coming, growing into their environment … give me a sec while I figure out how to explain changes that have occurred, characters gone missing, scenes/settings which, at one time, filled pages …
You know how it is when you live in a neighborhood and gradually make the acquaintance of those who live around you, perhaps sharing cuttings and starts from your garden or recipes or cocktails at the 4 o’clock hour or coffee in the morning? Maybe you get to know more than you want (or need) to know about the nephew of this neighbor or the ex-husband/wife of that one, or the comings and goings of the mailman or too much about the personal life of the pastor at your local church or the manager of the Little League team your son or granddaughter or whoever plays on.
It’s like that—Irene introduced me to too many neighboring characters. I couldn’t leave them alone.
Regardless of how far afield they might lead me or how little they had to offer “Irene”—I wanted more and more of their personal stories. I let the novel’s neighborhood chatter take over, left Irene in a wobbly lawn chair on the periphery of the patio! (For those of you who find it difficult to follow my writing style, the gist of this is: I had to shush! the crowd. When this didn’t work, I had to ask some to leave.)
Yesterday, reaching the end of Irene’s rewrites, I wondered, “Where’s Ricky? What happened to Ricky Towne?” I found him today—day-dreaming about the bicycle shop he’d have if the world would just give him an effin’ break. A character of pimply-faced wonder, Ricky Towne was found in an early chapter on a file buried within a flashdrive at the back of a seldom used desk drawer. What a mouth that young man had, “F” words all over the place, and a bad attitude for a chair pusher on Atlantic City’s boardwalk. No surprise Ricky never earned much by way of tips on the boardwalk, or found his way into The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights final draft.
[He may, however, find his way into a short story. I do hate to think Ricky’s dream of a bicycle shop ended on my account … but—he’ll have to clean up his language before he finds space on my page.]