Friday 5 December 2008

Writing Emily V: The Emergence of Sara

Part of my experience in writing The case of Emily V. was the emergence of a character whom I had not thought of to start with. The character is Sara: Emily's friend, the person in whom she confides. The confiding happens in Chapter 7, which you can read as part of this week's serialized episode (Chapters 7 and 8), by clicking here. (To the left is the cover of the French edition of the book, translated by Paul Gagné and Lori Saint-Martin. It has a picture of a woman who could be Emily, but then I wonder if it could be Sara.)

On 12 August I wrote a Research Bulletin on the work of Marjorie Taylor and her colleagues (2002-2003) on how writers often experience their characters as having minds of their own—autonomous agency. On 25 September, Valentine Cadieux wrote a follow-up post on the same subject entitled "Intractable Characters as Personality Extensions."

My experience of Sara in my novel was indeed of this kind: a character having a mind of her own; but it was more than that. Sara suddenly appeared. I had not suspected her existence. Looking back I can see the novel certainly needed her. She was someone for Emily to talk to, someone for her to love, someone who would love her, someone who would complete a rather satisfying set of three dyads: Freud and Emily: male and female, heterosexual but (as the psychoanalysts say) aim-inhibited, Holmes and Watson: males whose homosexual dependency on each other is repressed in a rather English way, Emily and Sara: females who discover each other. Although their homosexuality seemed to start by being repressed, it becomes no longer aim-inhibited, something for Freud to think about. So the emergence of Sara occurred, at least in part, to satisfy a set of constraints that only became clear as the story developed, but Valentine's post suggests something deeper. Valentine wrote:
What seems particularly interesting about this phenomenon is not just that the characters have agency, per se, but that their actions open up whole lines of narrative and perspectives on the world to which the author might very well not have access without the particular agency afforded by the character's traits, experiences, and activities.
Then, continues Valentine, as an author:
I may not be able to buck socially desirable response patterns in particular situations, etc., while my character may. This suggests that while we preserve our habitual identities, our characters make us new personalities, or personality extensions. And these may help us get to all those pesky thoughts that hover beyond the edges of what we might otherwise consciously be able to write about.
I know that writing fiction is thought to be rather revealing of the author, but does it have to be so revealing? Does it reveal that part of me is a Viennese-Jewish woman with Lesbian inclinations? Well, of course, I don't mind this revelation ... in many respects I find it rather appealing. But I hadn't suspected it. I don't think the matter stops there. My experience with fiction, not just in writing but in reading, is that as I read novels in which I can fully engage, I become characters in them, too. Does this mean that I am Anna Karenina—all that passion, all that selfishness, followed by all that ennui—or Jacques Austerlitz, seeking his identity among bizarre and deserted buildings, or David Lurie, lingering in South Africa after the country's post-colonial return to majority rule, a white man in disgrace?

J.M. Coetzee (1999). Disgrace. London: Secker and Warburg.

W.G. Sebald (2001). Austerlitz (translated by Anthea Bell). Toronto: Knopf Canada.

Marjorie Taylor, Sara Hodges, & Adèle Kohányi (2002-2003). The illusion of independent agency: Do adult fiction writers experience their characters as having minds of their own? Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 22, 361-380.

Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna Karenina (translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokonsky published in 2000). London: Penguin.

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