Saturday, June 17, 2006

Stalking Alfie

All novelists worth their salt must work their way under the skin and into the minds of their characters; it’s a necessary step on the way to thoroughly inhabiting the novel’s world. Some try to create a character by listing his likes and dislikes, by asking how he behaves while eating with a group of people, how he reacts to rain or sun, how he reacts to someone much poorer than him, or to someone much richer? And so on, and so forth. One is reminded of the attempts of phenomenologists to describe and catalogue their sensory experiences - the relationships between ideas in their minds and the things in the world that they represent. Others, especially comic novelists, borrow extensively from people around them, exaggerating and mixing traits from a variety of acquaintances. My approach is probably the most common, and is much less systematic. It’s rather like stalking a bird through a dense forest. I know that it’s small and brown, and sometimes I can hear its song, but I need to see it entire, just for a moment, before I can know what it is.

In Mind’s Eye, I had the name of the main character from the first. (Names have a talismanic importance - they must strike the right chord in the memory.) Alfie Flowers: a sturdy London name. I knew that Alfie lived in London, and I knew a good deal of his family’s history, and knew that he suffered from an atypical form of epilepsy - it’s a necessary part of the story - and that this made him cautious, made him look at the world at a slant in case it surprised him in the wrong way. After a false start involving trading old Airfix kits on eBay, I knew what he did for a living too: he was a street photographer, following in the footsteps of his missing father, a 1960s hip fashion photographer turned war documentarist.

It took a little while longer to find out where he lived. I find that walking helps to loosen knotted thoughts and joggle ideas together; I walk a lot, when I’m writing the first draft of a novel. On my way back from a long ramble one day, about a hundred yards from my home, I realized that I standing across the street from where Alfie Flowers lived: a narrow plot of land beside the North London railway, with a small, old bus garage and a couple of caravans. He lived in one of those caravans, and had his darkroom in the other. In summer, he ate his meals outside, at a picnic table. And so on.

But I didn’t see him clearly until he was returning home on a crowded train:

Alfie slumped in his corner, a large, somewhat shapeless man, like a bear that hadn’t been properly licked into shape by its mother, his blond hair a disarrayed halo, wearing a red check shirt and baggy black elephant cords, his bag clutched to his belly, his big feet in strap sandals. He had prehensile toes, long and double-jointed, thatched at their second joints with pads of dark hair.

At last, I was on the inside.


Anonymous Sergey said...

The writers rarely open doors to the readers into their "laboratories". So I think your expierence is very interesting for the smart readers.
From your statement about choosing of names for the characters - I saw that the name Pasquale and the title of "Pasquale`s Angel" were carefully choosen by you - it really stroke the right chord in my memory - it brought associations with Italy etc.
Though I think that the mystery of creation of the good literature still is unrevealed: how walks through the streets near somebody`s house could be resulted in a such stylistically beautiful

June 20, 2006 11:38 am  

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