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Ann Beattie

Where Characters Come From

I'm often asked whether I'm annoyed by being asked the same questions over and over. Quite often the question is asked by someone who has invited me to read and to answer questions afterwards, or by an interviewer hoping to provoke me. The short form of my answer is always, "No," but usually some qualifications are thrown in. There are questions, for example, I am asked by the press or by teachers of creative writing that I've never been asked by anyone in an audience or in a classroom. There are times when questions are so particular to the questioner that I'm at a disadvantage if I can't find out quickly (by subtle questioning) why they asked. There are a few-but only a few-truly boring questions. Even then, my reaction usually has to do with when in the interviewing process they are asked. If the first question is, "Where were you born?", I sometimes lie.

But there are other often asked questions that I not only don't mind, but that interest me. For example: "Where do your characters come from?" My usual response to that is that they aren't taken from real life and plopped into a story-and that the stories themselves are never adayin-thelife versions of things I've actually experienced-or actually experienced that way. Then, depending on how strange the whole process of writing seems to me on that particular day, I add that I don't mistake my life for art, or I say that certain characters can indeed be versions of real people, but that I haven't necessarily met these real people (say, Princess Diana, or Queen Latifah); their secret desires, eccentricities and speech patterns have registered with me from photographs or from items in the tabloids.

In retrospect, I've realized that I've never begun a story because I wanted to reveal something about a character. It's absolutely necessary that I do this, of course, but when I'm working on the first draft, I file that in the back of my mind and proceed to name some hypothetical being who, in my mind, is immediately seen clearly in one respect, standing in a room, or on the beach, or on a lawn. Because I see instantly the character's context-because I understand the visual world surrounding the character, I'm able to know instinctively whether the story is in past or present tense. I pick up ambient sound before I begin to register dialogue (or awkward silence), I squint to see the character's first tiny movements (Oh hell: he smokes), and by then, if I'm lucky, the room in which I write has in effect disappeared, and I'm in the room in which my cigarette smoking man stands. I become a fly on the wall because I don't want to be noticed. My sensibility will inevitably be noticed, but any direct confrontation between myself-because I know myself too well-and the character (or, by this time, characters) could only be counterproductive. Without me there to enact the usual social shuffle (entering with a smile; commenting on the obvious), the character, who may intuit he is being spied on, may be provoked into saying or doing something uncharacteristic, and in those offmoments, of course, people tend to reveal more with their impulsive gestures or their outbursts than they reveal when they are being assiduously observed. My characters, hopefully, are the animated equivalents of outtakes during a portrait shoot. I think of Richard Avedon's portrait of Marilyn Monroe: her eyes closed; an unmistakable aura of sadness surrounding her as she sits picture pretty in her lowcut evening gown. It isn't a definitive photograph, but it's a picture that makes you realize other images must be factored in if you have any interest in getting to the complex truth of the woman. Hereafter, you'll have to superimpose this Marilyn with the better known Marilyn who's reached down to stop her big swirl of skirt from blowing up entirely. And if you retain those polarities, you'll probably be prepared to believe anything you continue to see: Marilyn in a head scarf, golfing; Marilyn with the Kennedy brothers; the fuzzy photograph that recently appeared in a European tabloid that was said to depict Marilyn, naked, facedown in bed, dead.

Where do my characters come from? As quickly as possible, they come into focus as people I both recognize and do not recognize, by which I do not mean that a personal friend appears in the story, suddenly dressed in an odd way. But I have to have the same empathetic reaction to the character I would have toward a friend-or toward someone who was going to be a friend; I know, I have noticed, only so much-so the character is likely to be someone who makes me comfortable enough to animate him or her but one who retains enough mystery to make me excitedly uncomfortable about the outcome of his or her life.

Where my characters come from varies from story to story. I think part of the answer is that they come from the same places the people in my life come from: as a small child, I outright invented them; there was a Mr. Mandell, who was going to capture me and put me on a boat to China, whose presence I protested every time the lights went out (My mother said, "Let's get another thought." Where my dialogue comes from-or at least where the really good dialogue comes from-is another story). They come from stories friends tell me about their friends whom I don't know. Sometimes I eventually meet these friends of friends, who inevitably think I'm psychic. They say, "You won't believe this, but the same thing happened to me." They come from what I understand of life by going to the movies and by walking down the street and by befriending new dogs. But this gets too diffuse, I realize. These are the things people say (gesturing in all directions) when they want to suggest they have mastered a great complexity. I could probably make "Where I get my characters from" sound like a mixture of my great common sense, which paradoxically accompanies my (some would say) unsophisticated, or at least selfdeprecating, sense of wonder at the world, and the ways of the people therein. I could lie, as I sometimes do about where I was born, and explain their evolution so that it would sound reasonable-meaning, reproducible-because I'm sure peoples' desire to proceed the same way a published writer proceeds is often the subtext of the "Where do they come from?" question. I could remember to add that I'm somewhat mystical, and that I think some characters have been a sort of cosmic gift. I should also be forthcoming and say that it's often been disquieting, feeling so vulnerable to a character's vicissitudes; they can cause you the same trouble as real life people. Which leads me to the final thing I have to say on the subject of characters.

They've come into my life in the same strange way so many things have. Years ago, when I lived with a bunch of people in Connecticut, we didn't have a key to lock the door in our rented house, so through the years I went back to that house to find, for example, a dead raccoon in the sink with ice cubes dumped over its head (courtesy of the garbage man, who knew one of the people who lived there loved to make road kill stew). One day I encountered the dog catcher eating a sandwich in the kitchen. I don't believe the dog had run away. Another time, after an entire day home alone, I went for the first time into the kitchen and found a young man meditating silently on top of the washing machine. He had hitched from Vermont to Connecticut and gone to the wrong house. I'm married to a man who moved to Charlottesville, VA for a semester to teach. One month before he left, he caved in to pressure from an acquaintance in New York and called me, having found the one expired phone book that printed my unlisted number. My friends are-to make quick sense of them-"diverse." Some appear months later than expected, hauling caravans of trucks pulling trailers that contain two dogs, four cats, two birds, and a much noseandearpierced daughter, and getting to Maine just in time to have the whole road show sink in the field across from our house during a summer hurricane. For the eccentrics, I don't have to look far. But if I'm amused in real life, why bother to recast people in fiction? It's the less excessive friends who more often appear, standing in the room holding the cigarette they don't smoke, though as they come into focus I see not a snapshot from life, but an instant collage of what's there and what isn't: my sofa; certainly not a painting I'd want to own; and please, a joke's a joke, but couldn't that Inca flute music be turned down? As he walks across the floor to adjust the volume, the character metamorphoses into a total stranger. In a horror film, I'd hold my breath, but this has happened so many times in stories that I only perk up slightly. Finally: something I'm not even slightly in control of. By the time he gets to the stereo, Mozart is playing, and he has the good sense not to turn it off, but simply to put his head on top of the machine and close his eyes. The character who next walks into the room is bound to understand it all, instantly. I'll just be transcribing her actions. From there, the story unfolds-one hopes on some real trajectory-until the moment when characters who have defined themselves suddenly change. One speaks, saying something outofcharacter. The other reacts. The answer is even more unexpected. My stories don't always follow this pattern, of course, but once it's all there-text and subtext and characters who have a life of their own, I get to step in, become a part of the final shaping, because by then I can intuit what's needed to make it work as a story.

In 1979 I wrote a story called "The Burning House." At the end of the story-which I knew was coming because everything else was in place-something happened that astonished me, and that also allowed the story to be completed. The husband and wife, after a strange day of feeding house guests and dealing with their child's anxiety, and the woman's whispered conversations with her lover on the telephone, and all the overwrought house guests generally blowing around like dust stirred by a fan, retire to their bedroom.

"Did you decide what you're going to do after Mark's birthday?" I say.

He doesn't answer me. I touch him on the side, finally.

"It's two o'clock in the morning. Let's talk about it another time."

Yes, please, this story was about to conclude.

"You picked the house, Frank. They're your friends downstairs. I used to be what you wanted me to be."

"They're your friends, too," he says. "Don't be paranoid."

"I want to know if you're staying or going."

This woman is going to persist? The story's almost over.

He takes a deep breath, lets it out, and continues to lie very still. "Everything you've done is commendable," he says. "You did the right thing to go back to school. You tried to do the right thing by finding yourself a normal friend like Marilyn. But your whole life you've made one mistake-you've surrounded yourself with men. Let me tell you something. All men-if they're crazy, like Tucker, if they're gay as the Queen of the May, like Redd Fox, even if they're just six years old-I'm going to tell you something about them. Men think they're SpiderMan and Buck Rogers and Superman. You know what we all feel inside that you don't feel? That we're going to the stars."

He takes my hand. "I'm looking down on all of this from space," he whispers. "I'm already gone."

My characters, who surprise, and enlighten, and dismay me so often, come from familiar worlds with unfamiliar subtexts. Similarly, they are "real"-not madeup-until the very early point in any story when they will not be contained, and then they are transformed so they are beyond my comprehension until the moment something clicks, and then I know what I did not know before, or did not articulate to myself. Inventing characters is for me no different from inventing any day. The best days, though, are the ones that contain real inventions. The days when I write stories.

Ann Beattie has written many wonderful novels and story collections, including Secrets and Surprises, The Burning House, Picturing Will, and Love Always.

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