Imaginary friends.

September 22, 2011 § 9 Comments

Cover design, first draft.

It’s been a year and a half, easy, since I first met Socko Starr, and boy has he changed!

We both have–it’s hard to say who exerts the greater influence over the other; the writer or the character.

Because of the way I work, words spill onto the page before I’m sure where I’m going or who I’m traveling with.

Take Socko. When I began putting him on the page I assumed he was small. Lack of size only added to his fear of the local gang terrorizing his apartment building.

But it wasn’t long before he informed me with some embarrassment, that he was BIG. When it came to standing up to the gang leader, Leon, size wasn’t his problem. Maybe he really was a “leaf eater” like his friend Damien claimed.

About that gang leader, Leon?

Although the guy with the low flash-point and a knife in his pocket answered to “Leon” throughout the entire first draft you won’t find anyone by that name in the finished book. While doing a school visit I met a kid with a far cooler gang-leader name: Rapp Robinson.

Like a magpie I collect shiny objects: names, stories, bits of conversation—and I offer them to my characters. Sometimes they turn me down; I know a character is shaping up when they begin to have a mind of their own.

During the early stages my story wanders. Searching for its elusive trail I wonder if this story I hope I’m tracking is, in fact, a story at all.

Then suddenly I’ll walk right into the brick wall of a plot conflict, surprising me just as much as it surprises my characters. It would be logical to cut out the meandering and get right down to business but I can’t. It is during the period of aimless rambling that I come to know the characters.

“Knowing” a character almost always resides in the details. Here are a few from this book.

Socko gets his clothes out of the Help Yourself closet at St.Ignatius Catholic Church—you don’t even have to be Catholic to help yourself. He was left back in the second grade–not his fault. He and his mom were sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment that year. Luckily, the apartment was near the Y so he learned to swim; a detail added randomly which turned out to be critically important in the book’s climax (which involves putting a classic Trans Am in a swimming pool).

Socko’s mother, Delia, became a single parent at fifteen. Although she has no formal education Delia reads–everything from the newspapers abandoned on the tables at Phat Burger, the fast food joint where she works, to the backs of cereal boxes. Her answer when Socko names anything he wants is, “Get an education,” to which he shoots back, “What’s wrong with ‘win the lottery’?”

The plot, when I finally ran into it, was as sudden and life-altering as a lottery win.

Delia’s grandfather, who she hasn’t seen since her parents divorced when she was seven, offers to buy a house for her and Socko in trade for keeping him out of a nursing home, an arrangement the old man describes as “One house plus one old fart–a package deal.”

“The General” (who was actually an army cook) is a World War II vet with emphysema. My father’s generation provided the soldiers of World War II so I’ve heard some stories.

The house Delia chooses is in a partially built subdivision named “Moon Ridge Estates.” Having been raised in “Colonial Park,” a treeless development plunked down in what had been a potato field I wanted the most preposterous and bloated name I could think of.

But this story does not take place in the family friendly postwar years. It happens right now, and Moon Ridge Estates is a project about to go bankrupt. The only family who has bought a house so far is Socko’s.

From the opening page on which the recently unemployed Mr. Marvin shows Socko the newspaper headline, “Unemployment tops 9%,” to the struggle to keep the subdivision out of bankruptcy, to the pressing needs of a family found squatting in one of the unoccupied houses an economy in free fall shapes the story and its characters.

The General shares memories of The Great Depression. As a boy he was sent to buy the family bread with just four cents when a loaf of bread cost five (he tore a hole in his pocket and pretended to have lost a penny).

The boy who really tore a hole in his pocket was my uncle Giul. It was too good a story to waste.

The problems Socko and Delia and the General face belong to all of us. America is a hall of mirrors with this story reflecting over and over down its long corridor.

But it is also the story of specific people. It matters little that so much about them has been patchworked using pieces from the scrap bag of memory I’ve been filling all my life.

These stolen bits and pieces now belong so completely to my characters that the hard outlines of the original materials have vanished. Even I am sometimes no longer sure what really happened and what I “improved” in the service of my story.

Finishing a book is both happy and sad. After a year and a half, Socko and Delia, Rapp and Damien and the irascible General do not feel imaginary. And I suspect that, although I consider the book done, they will carry on with their lives, stepping right over that inconvenient phrase “the end.”

But I won’t be going with them. My part in their journey over. I’ve done what I can for these characters.

In a matter of days they’ll be on their own.

So will l.

I sure am going to miss them.

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