As long-time readers of my blog now, one of my favorite tricks for getting to know my characters is to interview them. I plan to interview each and every character in my novel-in-progress before I even look at the Word document again.
To kick off this series of interviews, here's a talk with the main character's love interest.
[A very brief synopsis of my novel in progress:
Two years ago, Emily's sister, Carrie, killed herself around her 30th birthday. The two were very close, but Emily has no idea why Carrie would commit suicide. Emily hoped she might "magically" get some insight into what happened when she herself turned 30. When that didn’t happen, she realized she needs to be more active in solving this mystery.]
Me: Hello David, thanks for agreeing to talk with me.
David: Sure, no problem. What’s up?
Me: Well, I’m writing this novel you know, and you’re a main character, the love interest if you will.
David: Wow. Really?
Me: Yup. And so I need to get to know you better, in order for me to be able to write many many scenes with you in them. So, let’s start in the present and work our way back through your past. What kind of work are you doing now, and do you enjoy it?
David: I’m a scientist. I work at a lab at MIT. I study a really small [plant/organism], and how it is being affected by global warming. I love it because I get to spend a lot of time outside. Then, when I'm inside I get to look at these plain, almost ugly specimen under the microscope and see just how gorgeous they are close up--the way the cell walls are so orderly, the gradation in color of what looks to the naked eye just a plain brown. And of course there’s the larger picture of helping to figure out how plants evolve or don’t evolve in the face of global warming. That’s pretty fascinating and important stuff.
Me: Did you always know you wanted to study ecology?
David: No, I bounced around from major to major when I was in college. Marine biology, computer science. I guess I always knew I wanted to do something science-related. Actually the guy I’m working for now—Professor Paul Starnly—really turned me on to this. I took a class with him undergrad where we went out to the pond on campus and collected specimen of various plants and fish life and studied them back in the lab. I found myself checking in on my experiments on Friday nights, before going out with friends at the local pub. He caught me there one night and said, “Hooked, are you?” And it was then I realized I was. I left UMass to study at MIT for my grad work, and lo and behold, Paul ended up here too, so when I got my Ph.D., he hired me.
Me: And your social life, what’s that like here?
David: I play in a band with a few friends. We’ve done a gig here or there, but we really just like getting together, having a few drinks and playing classic rock tunes. One of the guys, Tony, writes his own stuff, so we play that, too. Other than that, I hang out at Hugh’s pub a lot. I like the atmosphere, and I’ve made friends with a lot of the staff and some of the other regulars.
Me: Like Emily.
Me: Full disclosure: She’s the main character in my book.
David: No kidding. Well, Emily’s awesome, so I can see why she would be. Plus, with all that’s going on with her trying to figure out what the fuck happened with her sister…
Me: Yea, exactly. I’m going to get pretty personal here. Hope you don’t mind… But you’ve fallen for her, haven’t you?
David: (Blushing) Well, of course I have. Why else would I lend her my car, offer to accompany her to her crazy mom’s house to talk dirty family laundry shit. I mean, maybe I’d lend my car to one of the guys in the band, but I doubt I’d volunteer to spend my Saturday refereeing between them and a batshit parent.
Me: So why haven’t you made a move yet?
David: (Thinking) Well, first of all, we’re friends. I really like her. I don’t want to go to kiss her, have her reject me, and never be able to hang out the same again. I really can’t tell how she feels. I think I’ve made it pretty obvious how I feel, but she hasn’t given me any hints. And she’s clearly under a lot of stress now. What's she's going through has allowed us to get closer--I didn't spend a lot of time alone with her before I found her alone on the balcony of her birthday party and she told me about her sister's death. But she's clearly got a lot on her mind, and I don't want to add to her stress. So I think I’ll just lay low, be a good friend to her until I get a good sense of what she wants from me.
David: Wait! You know something! What do you know! What does Emily feel towards me!?!
Me: (Still smiling. Shrugs) You know I can’t say. Where would all the suspense be if I told you now? You’ll just have to wait and see.
David: (Lighting a cigarette) Fine. What’s your next line of inquiry then?
Me: Let’s talk about your previous girlfriends.
David: Awesome. (Inhales and exhales) There’s really only one you would need to know about. Laura. We dated for a few years
during grad school. Two and a half, to be exact. I loved her. Wanted to marry her. Then she got pregnant. I was actually kind of excited about it, even though the timing was awful. We were both grad students—she studied English lit. We had no money, a tiny, drafty apartment just a few blocks from the ghetto in J.P. But I didn’t care about all that. I figured we’d make it work, even if I had to take a break from my program for a while and get a job to save some money. Looking back, I think I was excited about it because it would cement us as a family, it would make Laura have to stay with me—I didn’t consciously know it at the time, but she was already pulling away little by little. I must’ve sensed that, or I wouldn’t have been so fucking excited for this baby to glue us together. She wanted to have an abortion. She gave all the practical arguments, our careers, the timing, our bank account. I just kept saying we would make it work. I even gave ideas how it could work. But she wouldn’t listen to them. Finally she said, “It’s my body and I’ll do what I want. I made the appointment for next week.” I stood there with my jaw open. Of course it was her body. Of course she had the right to do what she wanted with it. But we were supposed to be a team. We were supposed to make these kinds of decisions together. We were a family, albeit an undocumented one. I think I said something like, “I thought we were in this together.” And she just cried and shook her head. The next day, she had a miscarriage. A few weeks later, she had moved out. All’s well that ends well, eh?
Me: Oh man. That’s a tough breakup.
David: (Lighting another cigarette) Yup. Before and after her, there were girlfriends who lasted a few weeks, a month or two. But nothing serious. I just didn’t find anyone I liked spending time with as much as I had Laura. Until…
David: Yea. I even like driving in the car with her—on long trips, she always falls asleep, but before she does, we have interesting talks about the news, or sing along to bands I didn’t think anyone else had heard of. And even when she’s asleep, she’s still good company. I don’t know how to explain it. It feels a bit like it does when I go home to my parents house and need to escape the chaos so I take their dog--a black lab-- out for a walk in the woods. She’s good company, even though she’s not saying a word. That’s how Emily is when she’s asleep. Silent, good company.
Me: I don’t know how well she’d take being compared to a Labrador.
David: Yea, don’t mention that to her…
Me: OK, one last line of questioning, which you provided the perfect segue to: your family.
David: (Taking a big breath in and out). Yea, they’re as crazy as the day is long. My parents got divorced when I was 15, and then they recently got remarried. I guess they forgot how miserable they made each other, and everyone around them. He hit her, for fuck’s sake. He hit me! Apparently he’s gotten control of himself. Got into some self help program. Forgive me if I don’t believe him. I’ve got cigarette burns on my thighs that prove just how in control of himself he is…. And even if he has changed, I don’t have to forgive him for making my childhood hell. Hell, for making most of my life hell. Anytime I’m near someone and they raise their arm—maybe to signal a bartender—I flinch, and my memory quickly spirals back to one of the many times my father’s large hand smacked me across the face, sending me falling onto my ass. Then my date or whoever I’m with sits there questioning me about why I got so quiet all of a sudden, and I curse the bastard for intruding on my night.
My mom? I guess she was just lonely. Not exactly easy for an overweight, chain smoking secretary to find a man out in the Berkeshires, I guess. Or who knows, maybe she really thinks he has changed. Maybe she has a real connection to the good times she swears they had together, though I don’t remember them. Maybe she has a much larger capacity for compassion than I do. Or maybe she’s just an idiot. I try to think it’s the compassion, but there are times when I can’t help but wonder if maybe she’s just stupid when it comes to men in general, my father in particular. But I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt, so let’s go with the fact that she’s a much nicer person than I am.
Me: OK, on a lighter note: What’s your favorite color?
David: David Foster Wallace
David: Shrugs. I’m a fair weather fan. I’ll watch them all if they’re on and other people around are into them. But I don’t go crazy watching every game of any one team, until they’re in the finals.
Me: Place in the world?
David: Hands down, Arenal volcano, Costa Rica. Went there for a specimen gathering expedition with Paul one summer in college. Fell in love. The fog, the heat, the people, the coffee. These flowers called Touch Me Nots, which actually contract if you touch them, like a shy little kid shrinking behind his mom’s legs. So amazing.
Me: Thanks for your time, David. Good luck with you know who. (Smiling broadly)
David: That's the thanks I get? Being teased about what you know and I don't? Well, you're welcome I guess.