Who ARE These People?

August 8th, 2007

The last thing I do before I send a book off to my editor is read the whole thing aloud to my wife, Munyin. It can take four or five days to get through the manuscript, depending on how long the sessions are, which depends in turn on how interested my wife is. Dull books take a long time. The best the process has ever gone was when I read her The Million Dollar Minute, which is the next Bangkok book — she didn’t want me to stop, and I literally read until I was in danger of losing my voice. I think we did the whole thing (about 350 pages) in four sessions.

This is an invaluable exercise. She’s quick to tell me when she doesn’t understand something, when the writing gets a little operatic, when something doesn’t ring true, when she thinks something is out of character, when I’ve got one (or three) jokes too many, or when things just . . . seem . . . to . . . sag. Frequently during these readings I’ll realize I left out a chunk of plot (or put it in twice), or failed to go back to the first chapters and plant something that’s necessary for the big payoff that didn’t occur to me until page 246. Or that a character’s motives haven’t been explained. These are not trivial improvements.

But when we’re finished, as grateful as I am, I know what’s coming: days of sidelong glances, quizzical silences, furrowed brows, and then, finally, the question: “How do you think of people like that?”

By people like that, she doesn’t mean the long-suffering sympathetic characters, or the courageous and generous ones, or the ones who just hang around until it’s time to deliver their one indispensible nugget of exposition. She means the bad ones: the sadists, murderers, con artists, torturers, more-or-less-organized criminals, and general mugs who are so essential to a thriller.

I personally believe that one reason people keep reading thrillers is to see the villain or villains get it, and the worse the villains are, the more deeply the reader will be invested in seeing them finally eat the big one. As a result, I put a lot of time and effort into my villains. I make them as bad as I can without making them inhuman, and then I try to make them a little worse. If you’ve read A Nail Through the Heart, you’ll know what I mean. They’re just awful.

The question behind my wife’s question, of course, is are these people you? I thought these monsters up, after all: they emerged, teeth and claws dripping, from my imagination. If I’m comfortable with people thinking that I share some of the traits of the better characters in the books — Poke’s sense of commitment, for example, or Rose’s intuitiveness, or Miaow’s honesty — then I can’t very well pretend that the villains don’t somehow represent me, too. After all, I didn’t borrow them from another writer’s fantasies.

In fact, I think all the characters in every novel represent the writer in some way. The bores and the dazzlers, the saints and the stinkers are all projections of some little tile in the mosaic of who the writer is. One of the uncomfortable things about writing books, in fact, is the necessity to externalize the worst things one knows (or fears) about oneself.

This does not mean, for those of you who have read my books, that I would ever do (or even contemplate doing) the things some of my characters have done. But they all echo me somehow. In his terrific new biography of Kingsley Amis, Zachary Leader quotes someone who once heard Amis say that “a good source of material . . . was to take an aspect of his own character he wasn’t particularly proud of, push it to the limit (fictionally speaking, of course), and see what happened.”

That’s a pretty good description of the process, except that it leaves out what it is that happens, which is that the creative imagination takes over and nurtures that little seed of character, whether it’s good or evil — it tends it and waters it and prunes it back when necessary, until it grows into a functional human being that seems to have a life of its own. One of the most thrilling moments in writing, for me, is the moment when I realize that my characters are actually talking — that I’m not writing what they’re saying, I’m just trying to get it on the page. And the biggest thrill, for some reason, is when a real monster comes to life, horrific and banal at the same time. (Even monsters sometimes wear mismatched socks.) When that happens, I know I can release that character from my control, let him or her wander through the story and do what terrible things he or she will, and I can devote my imagination to thwarting those plans.

So I’m actually all of those characters, if only on the imaginary level. If I ever get around to writing Godzilla Versus Sister Teresa, I’ll be both the lizard and the saint — but in my heart, I’ll be pulling for the saint.

Most of the time, anyway.

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