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Getting the Better of a Protagonist and Vice Versa

It saddened me greatly when my principal muse David Cornwell—aka John le Carré—passed away last December twelfth at 89. By my lights, the Brits should make that date a national day of mourning. Were it not for the spell of the holidaze, I would have said something about it at the time, so please allow me to pay my respects now.

David Cornwell / John le Carré, recent photograph

He was a gifted storyteller. It wasn’t just how scrupulously he constructed his characters and how mercilessly he deconstructed them that I admired; he also kept me guessing about outcomes, so many of them equivocal. As in real life, few of his protagonists triumph, and some don’t make it. Along the way, he tends to adjust the attitude of some and lets others slide into more august or shrunken versions of themselves—until, like George Smiley and Peter Guillam in his 2011 A Legacy of Spies, they leap out of retirement. (Le Carré scholars reckon that Smiley would be a centenarian at the time, having cut his espionage teeth in 1930s Berlin.) Being billeted throughout Central Europe by the Foreign Services through the 1960s and having traveled widely since, Cornwell’s settings bubble with both old- and new-world authenticity.

At first, UK literary mavens didn’t know what to make of Cornwell’s work. Spy thrillers were not supposed to be serious literature, Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene notwithstanding. That was fine with the retired civil servant, who went on to respectfully turn down his nomination for the 2011 Mann Booker Prize, a gesture that recalls Groucho Marx’s quip, “I would never join a club that would have me as a member.”

He wrote 26 books, all in longhand I am told. Knowing that makes this statement (from his introduction to the 1978 edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) all the more astonishing:

“I never made a ‘skeleton’ and seldom planned beyond the chapter. I knew that, because I still don’t. I reach a point, sleep on it, go on to the next, or tear up and go back a step till the continuity feels organically right.”

Find it and more about Cornwell in Eric Homberger’s obituary in The Guardian.

Wonderful! This is how I write, too, but desk-bound, reading books and searching online instead of ringing up sources and hotfooting it around, and of course just not as well. Like Cornwell, I’m constitutionally incapable of divining where my plot will go; I simply start at the beginning assuming it will take care of itself. When ideas for plot points do occur, I sometimes jot them down and file them away in a folder in Scrivener (my writing app) that I generally forget to consult. My blind man’s bluff style of writing leads me to pursue unnecessary tangents, omit necessary antecedents, and can tie knots in my timeline, but that’s okay. Being pleasantly surprised by what my characters do next is worth having to undo blunders here and there.

One such surprise came a couple of months ago when my protagonist decided to write a Foreword for my WIP, Her Own Devices. It was as if she had said, “So readers find my backstory confusing? Well, let me give it to them straight, and tell them what it’s like having you hanging around.” Go right ahead, I said, and here’s how she began:

There was a time that’s hard for me to talk about when I could have prevented a foolish act that led to a tragedy. More than one of them, actually. Consequential calamities seem to be a specialty of mine. In fact, just now I was told to watch out for another mishap that might be headed my way. What’s that supposed to mean and what am I supposed to do about it? I feel like I’m flying blind through enemy radar. …

Read the rest here and let me know how it sits with you. She’s still smarting from what befell her in Turkey Shoot, is wary of me, and says why. It’s a curious self-referential device, one I may decide not to keep in the end. Speaking of which, she also yelled at me in the Afterword, putting me in double jeopardy. Sorry, I can’t let you see that diatribe or you’d know too much.

Having sailed from Cornwell’s shore beyond hailing distance, I cannot rely on him to plot my course; nor can my ill-informed brain recall any third-person novel having a Foreword in a protagonist’s voice. If you know of any, please scoot me references so I can surmount my ignorance.

And as unusual as letting a character address her author may be, it gets stranger. Take a look at this recent excerpt from Part Two at The Write Launch, where you’ll find soliloquies by the footloose spirit of my heroine’s comrade-in-arms and father of her son who was taken from her in the prequel. If Cornwell can kill off protagonists and reanimate a superannuated George Smiley, why can’t that guy have an encore?

Tell me later. I gotta go.

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