22 October, 2013

#SpecialFeature :: “Character-ize This: Putting Characters into Stories” by Timothy Jay Smith

Now Presenting:
*** SPECIAL FEATURE - October'13 ***

About the Author
Timothy Jay Smith lived in Jerusalem for two and a half years during the rollout of the post Oslo peace process, assisting Palestinian businesses regain market access. Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust leading to an international career that has seen him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through war zones, and stow away aboard a “devil’s barge” for a three day ocean crossing that landed him in an African jail. Smith's awards include the Paris Prize for Fiction, and the Stanley Drama Award. 

What comes first for you: plot or character?
They often arrive simultaneously because typically I want to tell a story about something. The Middle East conflict in A Vision of Angels, blood diamonds and human trafficking in Cooper’s Promise, the changeover from communism to capitalism in Poland, and the Greek economic crisis in my novel-in-progress. It’s my intention to humanize these events, so I always have to think: whose story do I want to tell? And what is that story?
In A Vision of Angels, I set off to portray how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict plays out on all sides, so I needed multiple perspectives and ended up with four families. Often, to weave conflicting sides together, I need an outsider who has easier access than locals across boundaries of every kind. In Angels, it’s my journalist who can cross borders when Israelis and Palestinians cannot; and in my new novel it’s an FBI agent working undercover as a novelist who gets villagers to talk to him.
Cooper came about in a very different way. I wanted to write about blood diamonds and human trafficking, and decided to touch on both in the same book. In a previous work, I had created two characters who had teamed up to solve a case—a straight white FBI agent and a gay black CIA agent—and as much as I tried to team them up again, every storyline that I came up with felt contrived. After weeks of struggling with the plot, I decided simply to write the opening scene that I had visualized.

My CIA guy would walk into a bar in Africa. That’s was as far as I had gotten. So I wrote it, and in that bar he picked up Cooper Chance—an Army sharpshooter, a deserter from the war in Iraq, a man with a good heart. I knew I had met my protagonist, and that particular CIA character disappeared entirely.

Please explain a little more how you create your characters. Are they based on real people you’ve met on your travels, or do you make them up?
Sometimes I have a ‘model’ in mind, someone I’ve met, who serves as my starting point for a character. Often I will use his/her real name to give me a point of reference, then change it as soon as my character starts to evolve. There’s a point where characters start to create themselves, and that’s one of the exciting moments for me. It takes time, though, to get to that point.
My principal characters always evolve to the point that they no longer resemble their original model. What I love is that some of the other minor characters stay very close to their originals. In Angels, the old painter with two-clubbed feet was my neighbor in Jerusalem, though I fabricated his story of the white bird cages. In fact, in Angels, there is a whole cast of people I met while living there, and hopefully they won’t all recognize themselves! In Cooper’s Promise, it’s the police chief and his sidekick who were the guys who arrested me in Africa, and I met Lulay in a bar in Africa when I was Cooper’s innocent age.

Is there a character created by another author that you wish you had created?
I have a love affair with Greece, so who springs instantly to mind is Zorba, a now-iconic character created by Nikos Kazantzakis. I actually have a very minor Zorba-like character in my new novel, and he’s a lot of fun to write.
In a bigger perspective, there are pieces of literature I wish I had written. To me, because its structure is so compelling, in addition to its incredible writing, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is close to one of the most brilliant books I’ve read. Someday, I want to write my own dystopian novel, but think that the two best I have ever read and wish I had written are Waiting for the Barbarians (Coetze) and A Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood). There are some famous scenes I’ve also wanted to rewrite. One is ‘Gladiatorial’, the wrestling scene/chapter in DH Lawrence’s Women in Love; and I have, in fact, done that. Another, in cinema, is the last scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which inspired the final scene in one of my screenplays. 

Are there any personal quirks shared by your characters?
Coffee. My male protagonists are all addicted to coffee. 

Which do you find easier, writing male or female characters?
I’m a guy, so it’s always more a stretch to write women characters.

Have any of your characters been modeled after yourself?
To say a character has been modeled on me would be taking it too far. Are there pieces of me in my characters? Yes, in many of them, and sometimes I don’t realize it until later. There will be a moment when I’ll sit back and say, ‘Oh, that’s me’ or ‘Is that what my subconscious has been thinking all along?”
Hermann Hesse called it ‘the instant of recognition’ in his novel, Steppenwolf. The main character enters the Magic Theatre and a mirror shatters into the many pieces of him—pieces that reflect different ages and traits. He sees himself as made up of all those disparate images, and I see myself in the same way. Sometimes consciously, but frequently not, pieces of me end up in a lot of characters.

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1 comment:

  1. I found your great blog through the WLC Blog Follows on the World Literary Cafe! Great to connect!