Characters now and then – Holly Chamberlin

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By Holly Chamberlin

About twelve years ago my mother and I attended an auction at The Barn Gallery in Ogunquit, Maine. As the crowd gathered in the gallery’s main space, my mother discreetly pointed to a nicely dressed young woman taking a seat a few rows ahead. “She looks just like Danielle,” Mom whispered. “Who?” I whispered back. To which my mother replied, “Danielle. Right down to the hair and make-up.” To which I replied, “Mom, who the heck is Danielle? I don’t know anyone by that name.”♥

Well, it turns out I did and still do. Danielle is the name of a central character in a novel – The Summer of Us – I had published only weeks before the auction. In that time I had forgotten all about her, and not only Danielle, but also her fellow central characters, Gincy and Clare. Why do I know these names now, twelve years later? Because I resurrected the characters in a book I finished writing a few months ago. In order to effect the resurrection I had to re-read the original novel, a bizarre experience because the story and all its particulars – not only its characters – was almost a complete surprise. Along with thinking that the book was pretty good and the characters pretty likeable, I was also thinking, I wrote this? Really? Yes, really. This time around Danielle, Gincy, and Clare will stay with me until the publication of The Season of Us later this year and then they’re likely to drop from my consciousness once again.

Here’s another embarrassing example of this sort of forgetfulness. Recently I had lunch with an agent visiting Maine from New York. He had read my most recent novel, published about eight months ago. I thoroughly enjoyed writing Summer With My Sisters and came to feel quite protective of the three central characters, especially of the youngest, Violet. So imagine my consternation when this agent said: “I was sure that when Evie cut her hand Violet was going to give her some herbal concoction that would backfire and cause something awful to happen.” I sat there at the table, fork poised above my salad, and thought: What? What is he talking about? The agent continued to tell me how much he had enjoyed the book and while I nodded and smiled, grateful for his enthusiasm, it suddenly came to me. Oh. Right. Violet is a spiritual sort, into herbal remedies and crystals and astrology. What’s wrong with me? How could I have forgotten that? Am I losing my mind?

Seriously, how, after spending months in very close quarters with a character, coming to thoroughly know and most often to deeply care about her, how is it possible to forget her so quickly and so completely? One obvious answer might be that there are no real world consequences to walking away from a fictional character – no hurt feelings, no broken promises, no hopes dashed. I can move on without (too much) guilt. Another obvious answer might be laid at the door of selective memory. The brain remembers only what it needs to and strictly speaking there’s no need for me to remember in any detail a character that no longer requires my help in coming to life. She’s on her own now and I’m on to another story – sometimes more than one at a time and don’t get me started on the confusion that causes my poor brain! – with new developing characters who are rightly demanding my attention.

Still, I find this forgetfulness disturbing because I so vividly remember characters other writers have created, even characters I met ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. Better minds than mine by far have explored the fascinating differences between the art of reading and the art of writing and I would guess that theoretical exploration includes a consideration of how the experience of bonding with a character as a reader and the experience of bonding with a character as a writer result in unique relationships. One might assume a writer would cherish the memory of her own characters over the memory of the characters brought to life by another writer but . . . As I said, better minds.

I’m sincerely thankful that readers of my books feel so connected with characters I’ve now virtually forgotten. “Thank you for telling Rosie’s story,” a reader recently said to me, referring to a book I wrote three or four years ago. “It was heartbreaking and I was so happy that things turned out okay for her.” If pressed I can remember orchestrating Rosie’s descent and then salvation and I, too, was genuinely happy for her when she recovered from her depression. And now? Now I don’t remember her last name or the name of the best friend who betrayed her or even the title of the book in which she appears. It’s on a shelf in my office, along with copies of all the other books I’ve written; if I needed to be reminded of these details I could get up from my desk and hunt out a copy. But I don’t need to be reminded, not really, because I owe my current allegiance to several nascent characters. Ruby and Frieda and Bella need my attention, all of it, if they are to make it to print in a few months. I doubt my experience is uncommon, especially among writers who are lucky enough to have a steady and continual schedule of publication, but that doesn’t mean it’s not odd and even intriguing.

By the way, Rosie’s last name is Patterson, her best friend is Meg, and the title of her story is Last Summer. Feeling guilty about forgetting little Rosie and somewhat disrespectful of my own efforts of production, I went to the bookcase and checked. I’m glad I did.

Holly Chamberlin was born and raised in New York City. She earned a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in literature from New York University, after which she worked as an editor at several publishing houses for nine years. In 1996 she moved to Boston, married, and established first a career as a ghostwriter, and then a career as a writer of her own fiction. In 2003 she and her husband moved to Maine where she is currently working on two new novels with the help of her cat, Betty.

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