WRITERS ON WRITING; After Two Decades, Returning to the Character Who Started It AllSaturday, Nov 5, 2011
Originally published in The New York Times, November 5, 2001.
A petite madeleine dipped in a lime-blossom tisane got Proust’s narrator started. Sensing that the analogous experience for the protagonist of my as-yet-unwritten first novel would be an encounter with a Hebrew National hot dog, I set aside the notion of an exquisitely observed seven volumes and wrote a whodunit.
Write about what you know: like me in the mid-70’s, Judith Singer, the hero of that book, was a suburban housewife with two young children, a husband who commuted into the grown-up world of Manhattan and a passion for murder mysteries. I merely devoured them, four or five a week, clearly an unwholesome number; Judith, on the other hand, wanted to solve them.
That first book, Compromising Positions, told the story of how she tracked down the killer of M. Bruce Fleckstein, the Don Juan of Long Island dentists. Not only did the book get published, it was also so successful that it equaled my most grandiose fantasies and sitting in the den of my split-level (I’d given Judith the Tudor we couldn’t quite afford), I could get fairly grandiose.
There were foreign translations, a dramatic paperback auction, even a movie deal. And because of the book’s success, the inevitable question ”When can we expect the next Judith Singer?” was asked more than a few times.
Being a mystery devotee, I understood that some series characters – Dorothy L. Sayers’s Harriet Vane, for instance – grew in complexity in direct proportion to the number of titles in which they appeared. Nevertheless, I concluded it was time for Judith and me to part company. That novel had been my first attempt at fiction. If my second were a sequel, I could wind up writing my 15th, ”Compromising Positions Goes Hawaiian,” a score of years hence, loathing the character I’d once loved, creating increasingly contrived plots and, ultimately, loathing myself.
And I might never get to try any other kind of fiction. Whodunits, essentially, are about equity. A murder sets the world out of whack. In tracking down the killer, the sleuth helps bring the scales of justice back into balance. Whether crude or literary, nearly all mysteries have a powerful narrative thrust. This sense of urgency can preclude spending much time on the hue and cry of an overhead crow, exploring the psyche of the guy who bags the body, inquiring into social or philosophical issues.
But having left Judith Singer behind, I was confused about how to develop my next protagonist, Marcia Green. I knew Marcia would be, as I’d once been, a political speechwriter working for a candidate in a New York Democratic gubernatorial primary (thus assuring the novel’s comic tone).
But I kept thinking about the success of my first novel and pondering how I could do it again. Women of a certain age (mine) were brought up to please. Add to that the heady feeling of being a best-selling author, of transmogrifying to Most Popular Girl and the concomitant dread of deCinderella-ization.
I liked Judith more than I did Marcia. I found myself fretting over whether Marcia would be reader-friendly enough; she was more vulnerable than Judith, not as warm. This apprehension made me anxious: to work myself up to a genuine froth, I brooded about whom to kill off in order to appease, if not please, the Judith/I-love-a-mystery fans.
After several weeks of ripping pages from my typewriter, crumpling and hurling them across the room, a histrionic gesture I’d picked up from one of those wearisome movies about sensitive artistes, I recalled what had worked for me the first time: writing the novel I was desperate to read. Shelving the homicide, sticking with Marcia’s barely midrange charm quotient, I came up with Close Relations, a book about politics: democratic, sexual, ethnic and family. (The only death that occurs is accidental, when the patrician governor, appearing in Queens, chokes on an overly enthusiastic bite of knish.)
So I was free of Judith. In the years following, I wrote a saga about private versus public lives, a story about heroism set in World War II, a chronicle about the combination of qualities that makes an American and a novel in which an omniscient narrator keeps cutting off the protagonist to offer facts the latter can’t know or won’t tell.
I also wrote a few more of my beloved whodunits, one with a first-person narrator who was everything a half-Catholic, half-Protestant, recovering alcoholic, recovering heroin addict male homicide cop I was not. In each work, I was able to experiment with a new method of fictional biography, with plot, voice, social context and structure revealing that stretch of the main character’s life that best showed the stuff she or he was made of.
I probably missed Judith more than I realized, because in the mid-80’s I jumped at the chance to adapt Compromising Positions for a film, although it is possible I merely longed to spring myself from the isolation of my office and have company at lunch. However, I discovered what all adapters of fiction learn: The protagonist of a novel cannot be copied and pasted into another medium. The Judith of the movie Compromising Positions was a collaboration not only between me and the director, Frank Perry, and the star, Susan Sarandon, but ultimately with the cinematographer, costume designer, makeup and hair people, and so forth.
Mr. Perry wanted his Judith to be more of an activist in the detecting department, so I transformed her from a former doctoral candidate in American history to a Newsday reporter who had retired to raise her children. He kept saying ”Visual!” until the novel’s numerous kaffeeklatsches became scenes of characters talking while toting laundry, schlepping firewood, preparing dinner, ambling around a duck pond, grabbing french fries at Burger King.
Ms. Sarandon’s Judith, meanwhile, seemed to have more of an independent streak than mine, so the love affair between Judith and Nelson Sharpe, the homicide cop in charge of the case, was de-emphasized. Though filmed, it never made it into the final cut. (Additionally, middle-class suburban Methodist Nelson of the novel became the more urbane or suburbane Lt. David Suarez when Raul Julia was hired during that Autumn of All WASP Actors Filming in Toronto.)
If a novelist is a god creating a universe, then a screenwriter is an architect working with finicky clients and obdurate contractors. While I thought the movie Judith was swell, she was not my Judith. Ergo, saying goodbye to her was so easy that a couple of months later, when I was offered the chance to write a Compromising Positions television series, what a certain producer might have believed to be a frisson of anticipation was, in fact, a shudder.
So there I was, a living American novelist reasonably content with her lot. About three years ago, I sensed it was again time to write about my home, the suburbs. I certainly was aware how my contemporaries, women inspired, unnerved or untouched by the feminist movement were faring now that they were in their 50’s. But I also wanted to take a close look at my younger friends and neighbors, the new generation of thirty-somethings in all those center-hall colonials, the young women staying in promising careers and those leaving them to be full-time mothers. And the only way I could imagine viewing this world was through Judith’s eyes.
After a more than 20-year separation, however, I had to determine how to deal with the facts of her life. Should I leave her as she was in my first book, age 34? Or make her 54, a woman who had experienced the joys of menopause? Could I stick to the material of the novel, Judith a scholar on extended maternal leave, her pal Nancy a freelance journalist? Or would I be better off using the details of the film Judith with a Latino admirer/compadre and press credentials, her friend Nancy a (”Visual!”) sculptor?
Naturally I chose the facts of my Judith’s novel life. Then I waited to be captivated by her voice telling me about Long Island and the world. Well, it sounded familiar and dear to me. But as I began writing, my fingers didn’t exactly fly across the keyboard. Her voice had changed. Estrogen depletion, no doubt. But also, life had altered Judith. Her husband had died, her children were grown and out of the house. She’d completed her dissertation and was now teaching history at a college over the border in Queens.
What surprised me was that to find her voice this time, I had to go through the same process I underwent with each new novel. Write, retch, rewrite, grimace, rewrite again and again. Only after two years, when I’d completed a second draft and found myself back at chapter one, did I get to that blissful state in which writing ceases being work and becomes stenography.
My old friend and I were truly together again. Judith’s voice dictated while I typed as fast as I could. I didn’t want to miss one word she said, or one second of her companionship. After all, who knows if she and I will ever meet again?