Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Authors on characters, extra-textual sexuality, and a cavalcade of questions

I can’t remember where I first read about Otto Penzler’s project of commissioning crime authors to write profiles of their series characters, but you'll find the details at Publishing News Online.

Penzler conceived the project to raise money for his Mysterious Bookshop in New York, asking authors to write 5,000-word profiles of their characters, then publishing them as pamphlets that he gave away to customers who bought books at the store. He then published hardcover copies in editions of 100, had the authors sign them, and sold them for sixty dollars each. The latest is that Little, Brown in the U.S., Quercus in the U.K. and Hayakawa in Japan will publish collections of twenty profiles. These are to include Michael Connelly on Hieronymus Bosch, Laura Lippman on Tess Monaghan and Robert B. Parker on Spenser, according to Publishing News.

Without having read any of the profiles, I have mixed feelings about such a project. On the one hand, shouldn’t an author’s novels and stories say all that needs to be said about a character? (For a forceful enunciation of this viewpoint, see Dave’s Fiction Warehouse on J.K. Rowling’s revelation that Dumbledore is gay. Dumbledore is apparently a character in the Harry Potter books.) On the other, perhaps the profiles will themselves read as new works. Maybe authors will talk about how they came to create their protagonists, for instance, which could be interesting. Donald Westlake likes to tell how his comic caper series about John Dortmunder grew out of a story Westlake was trying to write about the ultra-grim Parker. Something like that would be worth reading.

So, readers, here are your questions: Are you eager to know about your characters’ biographies beyond what you read in novels and stories? Would you buy a book of such biographies? And, most important, whom would you like to read about? My candidate would be David Owen’s acerbic, eccentric Tasmanian police inspector, Franz “Pufferfish” Heineken, about whom you can learn more here (scroll down after clicking).

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19 Comments:

Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I have the one on Rebus, courtesy of a friend, but I can't imagine paying for a collection. Then again, you never know, depending on who's in it.

October 23, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"Dumbledore is apparently a character in the Harry Potter books."

Right. And Yoda is apparently a character in Star Wars. ;)

I dunno. There are times I'd like to read the backstory beyond what's told in the books (how did Wolfe meet Archie Goodwin, anyhow?), but it's not usually necessary. Seems to me most writers realize the reader needs some glimmering of how the protagonist acquired his or her viewpoint and provide it.

October 23, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I'd like to get hold of one or two or maybe more just to see how the authors handled the job. One possibility I did not bring up is that in the case of a long-running series, the author may long since have supplied the biographical details in interviews. That might be the case with Westlake, who has offered many amusing remarks about Dortmunder down through the years.

By coincidence, I recently read a short story by Reginald Hill that recounts the initial meeting of Dalziel and Pascoe. It was a newer story, and it had no element of back story to it, no list of biographical details about the characters' upbringing and the like. It was simply a Dalziel and Pascoe story set at an earlier time than were the novels and stories that followed.

Sandra, how does Rankin handle the Rebus profile? Is it more like a dossier, or is it a Rebus story?

October 23, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Linkmeister, Nero Wolfe is an interesting case. You'll no doubt know that Rex Stout would occasionally insert bare hints of a past for him, that he was born in Bosnia, for instance. For me, that always added a touch of intrigue or mystery. I wonder if the full story behind the story would have dissipated some of the mystery.

October 23, 2007  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

It's all about how Rankin created Rebus, so more dossier. Because it covers the origins of the idea and how Rebus was formed it touches on a fair bit about Rankin's background. I haven't read the whole thing - it was sent to me quite recently, actually - but I know a fair bit of the content included.

But then, this is me we're talking about. When it comes to Rankin & Rebus I wouldn't consider myself a reasonable test subject.

October 23, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

You might well be a more than reasonable test subject in this case, just the type of fan for whom such a piece might be perfect.

You wrote earlier that you could not imagine paying for a collection. The more I think about it, the collection might be worth reading if the authors adopt a variety of approaches. The Rankin piece might make an interesting essay, for instance.

October 24, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Wolfe says he was born in Montenegro in The Black Mountain. There are a few biographical bits admitted to in that one (previously unknown to Archie).

But it's the initial meeting between the two that I'd love to have known about. I seem to remember it was hinted at a couple of times, but nothing concrete was laid out.

Stout could occasionally have continuity lapses, too, particularly in the furnishings of the brownstone. One time the hole in the wall through which office occupants could be observed was covered with a painting of a waterfall, another time it was something else. 'Course, if you called Stout on it he'd probably have said that Wolfe decided he didn't like that painting!

October 24, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Damn me, that lapse! Of course Wolfe was born in Montenegro and not Bosnia. I had my bits of ex-Yugoslavia mixed up. I think Stout may have mentioned the birth place more than once, and I suspect one could confirm that from the Wolfe Pack Web site or a similar site.

I remember the painting of the waterfall. That's what I'd answer if the question were put to me in a trivia contest.

And maybe Stout would have answered as you suggest if asked about the inconsistency of the decor. Or else he might have guffawed and said, "Who cares?"

October 24, 2007  
Anonymous Hamish said...

Penzler's idea is a silly one and I can't for the life of me see why any writer would agree to take part. One of the charms of reading a series is finding out more and more about the protagonist's life as you go along. Writers with an eye to future books don't give away the whole story in the first one (and if they do, I suspect they come to regret it).

October 24, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Hamish, Penzler's idea apparently worked as a fund-raising tool for his store, so it's not silly from that point of view.

You'll see from what I've written, though, that I share many of your doubts. But I'd reserve final judgment until I saw the result. Who knows? Perhaps some of the authors might turn out interesting essays about the process of creating a series or the evolution of a character. But in general, yes, a character does not exist outside the page. If the author must tell me something about the character, put it in the damn book!

I mentioned that I've enjoyed Westlake's remarks about the genesis of John Dortmunder. Whether I'd want to read 5,000 words on the subject when I could be reading a Dortmunder novel instead is an open question, though.

October 24, 2007  
Anonymous krimileser said...

Peter,

Rawlings remark is obviously non-sense. If a book gives you no clue its author could claim anything (i.e. Dumbledore is the man in the moon etc.). My first idea was that she is (intentionally) mocking people who take fictional characters to seriously.

October 24, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I give her just a little more credit than that. Fiction-writing courses often advise beginning authors to compile dossiers about their characters, little biographies full of details. The purpose is to give the writer a strong idea of who the character is so everything about that character in the novel that follows is consistent. You know what I mean: You don't want to say on Page 3 that a character is 36 years old and has blue eyes, then on Page 213, mention that he is about to turn 35 and shuts his brown eyes in disbelief about his vanished youth.

I read on another blog that Rowling did something like this for the Harry Potter books. If that's the case, perhaps one of the little details she had hidden away in her notebooks is that Dumbledore is gay. That's well and good. My question is what she hopes to gain by releasing the information now. Publicity, perhaps?

October 24, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

If you're an author attempting to create an entire world as Rowling did, I'd think you'd better have a dossier on each character, if only for the reason Peter cites about continuity. Imagine the one that Tolkien had for Aragorn (which was delineated thoroughly in the Appendices following "Return of the King").

October 24, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I don't know what the circumstances were of Rowling's having outed this Dumbledore dude. Perhaps it was the necessary answer to some fan's or critic's question about the character. My quibble with her would be if the revelation was a calculated slip.

October 24, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Hamish, you might be interested in David Owen's handling of the protagonist's development between books in his Pufferfish crime novels. Here's part of what I wrote on that subject a few months back:

Heineken, the first-person narrator of the novels as well as their protagonist, tells us in Pig's Head, the first in the series, that he got his start as a constable in the Netherlands. Why, asks Heineken in that book, would a then-young police officer pull up stakes and make his way to distant Australia? "Not now, not now," he says in answer to his own rhetorical question.

In A Second Hand, he tells us why, and it's a dramatic story, to say the least. Did Owen have this harsh biographical detail in mind when he wrote the first novel? Or was the "Not now, not now" a challenge for the author, a way of forcing himself to come up in the second book with an explanation interesting enough to meet the tease in the first?

October 24, 2007  
Anonymous Ann said...

Peter, If you have really not read any Harry Potter books, maybe you should try at least one? As an intelligent reader and blogger it would be worth acquainting yourself with this very popular series. If you don't like the first book, read no more.

I think JK said Dumbledore was gay as an answer to a question, which seems fair. I never gave it any thought, but my husband is surprised about the current discussion as he always felt it was obvious the man was gay. So there you are.

October 29, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Perhaps you're right, Ann. I have not boycotted the series, I just never felt a compulsion to read the books. Fantasy and school stories were never my line, though naturally I have heard good things about the Harry Potter books from people who read them.

I am suspicious of this Dumbledore episode in part because of my suspicion of anything that is so fantastically popular. The ludicrous and dictatorial paranoia that Rowling's publishers practiced suggested that they were aware of the vaue of publicity -- and wanted to make sure they were the ones who controlled it.

October 29, 2007  
Anonymous Ann said...

Yes, I don't hold the publishers in high regard. But I think Rowling herself is OK.

The books may be about a school, but what they are first and foremost is fun adventure.

As someone who won't read The Da Vinci Code out of principle, I shouldn't say this, but I think it can be worth reading at least one just to find out what the rest of us are going on about.

October 29, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I mentioned the school because schools were frequent settings for popular British fiction in the earlier part of the twentieth century, from what I read. Rowling may have been partaking of that tradition.

I would not rule ever reading any of the Harry Potter books, but, on principle, perhaps I'll wait until the rest of the world has stopped talking about them.

October 29, 2007  

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