Thursday, October 9, 2014

Iconic literary characters

This is on my

Sept. 23 Iconic literary characters: In the National Post “In others’ words: When iconic literary characters outlive their creators” by Angela Hickman on Jun. 24, 2011.  This is a really good article: 

In art, tributes are pretty much de rigueur. As consumers we’re accustomed to cover songs, tribute bands and flawless copies of famous paintings. In literature, though, that expression of adulation is less common. Certainly, there is a wealth of fan fiction and series written under a common nom de plume, but perhaps for fear of accusations of plagiarism, writers tend to steer clear of writing too much like one another.

Nonetheless, some series and characters take on a will of their own — or rather, the fans do. This sometimes leads to the publication of unfinished novels, or, as the latest James Bond novel indicates, to continuations of an author’s work.

The latest Bond is Carte Blanche, which essentially describes the conditions under which American crime novelist Jeffrey Deaver worked when writing it. Deaver is the fifth author to write about Bond since Ian Fleming died in 1964, and the first to fully embrace a contemporary version of the famous spy.
Deaver was approached by Ian Fleming’s estate in 2009 and asked to write the latest continuation novel. After taking approximately five seconds to agree, Deaver cleared the project with his publishers, put off his two other projects and got down to it.

“We set the ground rules right up front, and I had said I wasn’t interested in doing this project if the book were going to be a period piece,” Deaver says. “And they were in agreement on that — that I would write my kind of a story, a very fast-paced thriller, but I would put into it the character of Bond, of course updating the character that Ian Fleming created.”

Deaver did have to submit a 40-page outline to the estate, though, just to make sure things were heading in the right direction. Although he said there weren’t any specific elements he had to include in the novel, he said the estate gave him some pointers on just what Bond would and would not do.

“I had Bond, he’s in a very tense situation, he survives, and he has two of his cocktails, and he’s with his associate Felix Leiter, a CIA Agent,” Deaver says. “They have something to eat and Bond thinks, ‘There’s a nice Chablis on the wine list here, I could go for that.’ And then I just casually wrote — he’s still pursuing this guy, he’s kind of conducting surveillance — he said, ‘No, I better stay sharp. I think I’ll pass on that.’ The estate said, ‘James Bond would never turn down a fine Chablis,’ so now he has the Chablis. Not too much of it, but he has a little bit of Chablis.”

Other than little twitches here and there, though, Deaver says he was free to write what he wanted. Of course, there are certain James Bond elements he felt compelled to include, such as details about Bond’s weapon, his love of fine food and drink, his gadgets and the rather preposterous names of some of the female characters. But, since this Bond was born in 1980 and therefore much, much younger than Fleming’s version of the spy (who first appeared in 1953) Deaver was freed from any concerns about continuity.

That was not the case when award-winning author Budge Wilson agreed to write a prequel for Anne of Green Gables, which came out in 2008 in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the book’s original publication.

Wilson says the Anne of Green Gables Licensing Authority were very particular about the details of Anne’s early life, and Wilson had to be very careful not to write something in Before Green Gables that would be incongruous with the original novels written by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Wilson says the specifics of Anne’s early life are laid out in Chapter Five of the original novel, and they became a kind of blueprint for her novel’s timeline.

“If I had put anything in the book that was inconsistent with what did happen in those four pages and then in all the things that came afterwards in the other books, they would have told me and stopped me and said, sort of, fix it,” she says. “And that’s an odd kind of experience for a writer, not to be totally free in what you can say.”

Wilson says that when Penguin first approached her, she didn’t want to do it. The idea of writing about someone else’s character worried her, she says, and she flat out refused to try and write the novel in Montgomery’s voice.

“I thought, would I like anyone taking one of my stories and writing a prequel to it? And I thought, no, I wouldn’t. That bothered me,” she says. “That bothered me really quite a lot.”

But then Wilson reread the Anne books and started to really think about the kind of story the prequel would be. She was very curious about how Anne — whose childhood sounded truly awful — could have ended up as well adjusted and optimistic as she did. That curiosity, and the realization that perhaps Montgomery was unable to write about Anne’s early life, were deciding factors.

“At one point [Montgomery] gave a talk about writing and she advised [the students] all to write about happy things; don’t write about sad things,” Wilson says. “Which means that she herself could not have written the prequel because it’s a pretty sad book and I think in many ways, an adult book.”

These kinds of continuation novels, though, seem to end up being more adult than the originals, whether that’s intentional or not. Deaver read and enjoyed Fleming’s novels as a child and Wilson says she read the Anne books when she was a girl, although at the time she preferred Montgomery’s Emily books. Revisiting these series as adults perhaps brings more insight to a character you have known for many years, but it also complicates your audience: Do you write for the original audience, now older, or do you target the same people the original author did?

Deaver says that although many teenagers read his work, his core audience is middle-aged, so he wrote with them in mind. Wilson, on the other hand, was told to write for anyone who had read the original novel, which she says was just too vast an age span to handle. So, she says, she just wrote the book as it came to her and didn’t worry about it.

In this way, both Deaver and Wilson were relatively free to write their novels as they saw fit, but that is not always how it works out. When Max Allan Collins took up Mickey Spillane’s character Mike Hammer after the prolific crime novelist died in 2006, he did so with several unfinished Spillane manuscripts in hand.

Collins had been an avid Spillane reader as a kid, and after he and Spillane met in 1981, the two became friends. After Spillane’s death, his unfinished manuscripts went to Collins.

Collins says he has become kind of a specialist when it comes to writing in the voice of another author — he took over the Dick Tracy comic strip when Chester Gould retired, for example — and said the challenge of writing as Spillane didn’t worry him.

But Collins is doing more than writing as Spillane; he has actually taken Spillane’s unfinished manuscripts and finished them, which he considers more of a collaboration than a tribute or continuation. The first such novel was published in 2007 and three more have been published since then, the most recent being this year’s Kiss Her Goodbye.

“A major tenet of my approach, which would horrify purists, is that I don’t just pick up where Mickey left off,” Collins writes in an email. “I take his manuscript of 100 or so pages and, usually guided by plot notes, expand it, weaving my own stuff in and around his. That allows me to have genuine Spillane content deep into the book, two thirds of the way usually, and when I do take over, the difference is barely noticeable if at all.”

It’s a vastly different approach than that of Deaver and Wilson, but the result is the same: more time with a character we love, in a format and tone we’re familiar with. Writing a collaboration or continuation novel is subtler than a tribute song perhaps, and certainly more creative than simply retelling a story we know, which is its own genre entirely.

Instead, the continuation novel, in whatever form it happens to take, is about breathing a hint of new life into a story arc the original author was unable to continue. Collins says he felt a responsibility to finish Spillane’s work, while Deaver was kind of entering into a tradition. Wilson, though, says she found that the character just wasn’t finished speaking.

“[I] found myself so bewitched by Anne that I sort of entered her head and felt as though I became her,” Wilson says. “Therefore, if you can believe my writing methods, Anne sort of did her own talking. I didn’t stop and figure out how she would say this or say that. It was she who spoke.”

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