Monday, September 21, 2009

Interview with a Character

I would like to preface this by saying that I'm not insane even though it may seem like it from the following post. As a writer, I've always found it helpful to interview my characters. I find out a lot about their speech and thought patterns that way. This, however, is the first time that I've ever done it in a magazine article kind of way. I got the idea from NL's friend Lindsey.

Austin Lowell saunters through my front door into the living room. He stands on the tan linoleum of what is supposed to be my foyer, wearing his dress blue Navy Uniform. He's a good looking man with dark red hair and piercing green eyes. He holds his white cover in his hands and his legs are slightly splayed apart. He's the very image of the confident US sailor. I smile at him and welcome him to my home.

I've met him before. We spent a whole month together back in November 2007 -- the first time that I attempted to write his story. He doesn't know this though because this is Austin before he meets Carly McKissick, the woman that will change his life forever. This is my rebellious, flirtatious Austin who doesn't know that I'm about to torture him. That is probably a good thing. He may not be so forthcoming otherwise.

"Good evening, ma'am." His drawl is deep. I hear the echoes of generations of Southerners in that drawl. I think about the sound and tone of his voice. If he were in one of the gospel quartets that used to visit my little Baptist church, he would be a baritone.

"Won't you sit down?" I direct him to the brown suede chair in my living room. It is the newest piece of furniture in a house that is filled with hand-me-down furniture from my mother, aunts, and grandmothers. Still, most of the furniture in the house was younger than Austin. Significantly younger. The Austin visiting me today is only 24 years old, but he was actually born in 1918—much earlier than my furniture's manufacturing date. Having characters that were born before your furniture's manufacturing date is one of the risks of writing historical romance.

He settles in to the chair and I sit across from him in the floral monstrosity that was a gift from my grandmother. "Thank you for coming by Austin." I say. "I have a few questions and would really appreciate your answers."

"You're welcome, but I really don't know why you need to talk to me." He flashes his white teeth at me and leans in a bit, twirling his white cover in his hands.

I'm not sure how to answer his concerns. Is he even aware that he is just a figment of my imagination? I decide not to test the theory. "I just want to know a few things about you."

"Such as?" He reverses the direction that he was spinning his hat.

"Well, tell me a little bit about your past" It feels like cheating to begin the interview this way, but I don't care.

"I was born and raised on the Rocking L ranch in McKinney TX. My parents died when I was five and I was brought up by my Gramps and my Uncle Howie." Austin rattles the sentences off as if they had happened to someone else.

"You don't seem very connected to the story. Why?" I already know the answer, but I want to hear him tell it anyway. I want to see what he is willing to reveal.

He looks down at his hat and stops spinning it. He slowly places it on his knee. He keeps his gaze downward. "The past is the past. Nothing can change it now."

Apparently, he is willing to reveal nothing. Nothing about the fact that his uncle virtually kicked him off the ranch when he was 18. Nothing about the fact that his uncle's fiancé had been the daughter of the biggest landowner in the area and was only a few years older than Austin.

I don't push and switch gears with the next question."What about the future? Do you know what you want to do when you get out the Navy?" I tap my pen against the paper. As a writer, I've often wondered about soldiers and sailors in the middle of a war zone. Do they think about the future? The conclusion that I've come to is that it depends on the soldier or sailor. I wondered what Austin's answer will be.

"I don't know really." His lips compress into a tight line and he pulls on the hem of his jumper.

This interview is not going well. He doesn't seem to want to open up and talk. I need to find out something that he is passionate about and fast. I look down at my notes and I remember that I'm a romance writer. I should ask him about women.

"What do you think of women?"

This gets his attention and flashes me those clean white teeth again. "What do you think I think about women?" He laughs. "I love them. Any size, any shape, any age. I love being around women."

"Why?" I can't resist asking.

He leans in towards me as if he is going to tell me a secret, his expression serious. "Women." He pauses again. "Women are a God's gift to man. Created so that we wouldn't be alone. They come in all shapes and flavors. They can be strong. They can be delicate and gentle. They can be feisty and flamboyant. They're beautiful. They're soft. They're flirty. They're beautiful." He lips quirked upwards in a half smile. "Did I mention that they are beautiful?

I can't believe that any man could love all women so I ask the inevitable followup question. I "Have you ever met a woman that you don't like?"

He doesn't answer the question. I know that he won't. He's a gentleman. I try another track to get the information that I need. "What traits don't you like in a woman?"

"Dishonesty." He answers quickly. He looks shocked. I guess that he's told me more than he wanted me to know.

I jot down my observations. "So you don't like all women?"

"No. I suppose not." He leans back in his chair and looks at his knees.

I need to know more information. "Tell me about the Navy. Do you think you're going to make it a career?" I tweak the question that I'd asked earlier.

He looks up and smiles. "I don't know that I'll live that long. War is coming. I've been in since '37. The last year, there've been a lot of changes. Especially since Roosevelt started the draft." He pauses before continuing. "For all intents and purposes, we're already at war."

"Really." I don't say more than that.

Austin pounds a fist against his leg. "I know I know. There's been no formal declaration of war." He sucks in a breath and lets it out again, "For the last six months since I transferred from Pearl, I've been doing escort duty. My ship, the Tuney, has been guarding the armaments shipments that we're sending to Britain. Lend-Lease Act, my Aunt Petunia." He sounds like he wants to say something stronger. "We might as well have declared war on Germany. The Jerries have been doing everything they can to sink us. "

"How do you feel about that? Entering the war I mean?" I lean in a little, hanging on his every word. I don't want him to know about the war.

"It isn't like we've been given an option, ma'am. That's for the boys in Washington decide." He picked up the white cover in his hands again.

His answer surprises me. In my eyes, Austin is and has always been for the war. I think about my next question and decide to push a little. "Surely, you must have some feelings about it. What do you think of the isolationsists?"

"A lot of boys died in the Great War. Just like them, I'd hate to see that happen again, but…." He trails off and then looks at me with those emerald green eyes before starting to speak again. "I'm a petty officer in the Navy. What this means is that I take orders. I'm in charge of a whole lot of young men. It is my responsibility to see that they get home, safely. I suppose that it would be a whole heck of a lot easier to do that in peace than it is in war. But, I'll do what I'm told." He crushes his hat in his hands. "I'll tell you this though. Part of me worries that if we don't take them on now in Europe. In 20 or 30 years, we'll be taking them on in our own backyard."

I decide to conclude the interview and I stand. "I've got enough information for now. Thank you for your time."

He stands too. "I've been pleased to meet you ma'am." He holds out his hand.

I take it. "I've enjoyed talking with you as well. I hope that we can speak again soon."

He nods and shakes my hand before turning and walking out of my door, but not out of my life. I'm going to enjoy giving this young sailor his happy ending.


Demon Hunter said...

Hello fellow South Carolinian! :-D Wonderful interview.

I've never thought about interviewing my characters, but it was interesting how you did that. Rather cool, actually. :-D

haricot vert said...

He's younger and yet older than I expected. Maybe due to his being in the service.
You put me in mind of Barbara Walters, Tori, with your interviewing style. :)

NL Berger said...

Fabulous interview! I love this exercise. All writers tend to write aspects of themselves into their characters' lives in little ways, but I think it's more fun to just write yourself in instead.

(I feel compelled to note that my friend spells her name Lyndsy -- can you tell I'm in line edit mode right now? Oh, and that the interview idea actually came from my friend Allison.)