Being the constant teacher that I am, I enjoy the process of being interviewed because I like answering questions almost as much as I like asking them. One recurrent question that never fails to amuse me is, “How much of your characters are based on you?” In particular, people wonder how much of Vera Lundy from What Has Become of You is drawn from real life.
Doubtless I’ve invited these questions because of a few superficial similarities between myself and the protagonist: these echoes and reverberations are ultimately scant, however. I refer you to a Q and A from a recent interview, where I explore these differences and similarities in more depth:
Q: In your latest Novel, What Has Become of You, Vera Lundy is your main protagonist. She is described as a petite community college instructor who has lived in NYC and now resides in Maine. When imagining Vera Lundy, did you see elements of yourself in her?
JW: When I was first formulating Vera as a character in my mind, I did base some surface elements on myself, as many fiction writers do. In fact, the opening scene finds Vera in a library, being scolded for attempting to re-shelve a book. I wrote this opening scene after this exact same thing happened to me at the Portland Public Library; I remember being so taken aback to be chided as such because I had worked at the Columbia University Library when I was younger and definitely knew how to re-shelve books, but it seemed like one of those moments where it would have been impudent to say anything. Somehow, this became my opening scene in What Has Become of You. Vera is also a teacher—one who is rather inept in the classroom—and I drew a bit from my earliest teaching experiences and anecdotes I’d heard from past colleagues when creating some of the classroom scenes.
Another obvious similarity between Vera and myself is that she is a born-and-raised Mainer who lived in New York City for a while and has found herself back in her home state—but, unlike me, Vera rails against being back in Maine, whereas I have developed a newfound appreciation for my home state and my hardy, funny, resourceful fellow Mainers. She is a more discontented person than I am, less comfortable in her own skin, and while this may make her an odd protagonist to root for, I found myself really caring for Vera and wanting her to make better choices and to take hold of her life as I got deeper into the story.
In short, Vera’s choices are a critical factor in her overall characterization. At nearly forty years old, Vera is what many people might justifiably call a ‘difficult’ character. The vast majority of critical reviews of the novel have been extremely favorable thus far, and customer reviews on sites like Goodreads tend to be consistently kind as well… but where the criticism sometimes creeps in is in regards to the ‘likability’ of Vera. A few readers have voiced that they are put off by her poor judgment and lack of maturity. From a writing perspective, though, creating an adult character who still has so much to learn was wickedly fun. I certainly know many people forty and over who still don’t have much to show for their years on the planet and are still very much works in progress, but I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing, provided that there is at least some effort toward growth. We’ve all made our mistakes– myself included– and the only unforgivable mistake is the mistake one doesn’t learn from.
Vera is more or less seduced, in an utterly innocent way, by her fifteen-year-old student Jensen Willard. One might view this as an exercise in narcissism, for Jensen reminds Vera a great deal of her younger self, who was ostracized and misunderstood in high school. This over-identification proves to be a fatal flaw, in the literal sense of the term. I loved the idea of writing a teacher character who was so uncomfortable in her own skin, so ill at ease in front of the classroom, that she could be led by the nose by a much younger girl. Does this make Vera ‘pathetic’ or ‘insane,’ as has occasionally been suggested? Pitiable, perhaps, and surely unstable. But ‘pitiable and unstable’ has a wildly different connotation from ‘pathetic and insane,” when you really get down to the brass tacks.
My own teaching experience has been quite different from Vera’s, I’m thankful to say. Though I’ve occasionally had those moments of feeling ill at ease, I take pride in fostering healthy, nurturing, respectful student-teacher relationships that truly make students feel empowered and capable in all that they do. I recently received a Faculty of the Year award from my teaching institution, in fact– something that I am pretty sure Vera would not be eligible for.
The truth of the matter is, I like broken people, at least in the abstract. I like exploring their minds and allowing them to lead me by the nose for a while, at least for the duration of a narrative. When thinking about the issue of whether or not a character is likable (and how much likability matters to readers), I found that there have been a number of online articles written in defense of unlikable characters, and I found myself nodding in agreement with some of them; as someone whose favorite characters include Humbert Humbert, the Underground Man, Miss Havisham, and any of Beckett’s disaffected protagonists, I guess you could say that I lean toward characters who have something patently wrong with them. These are not people whom I would want to call up and ask out on a coffee date in real life, but I do not consider ‘coffee date-ability’ a determining factor in how I respond to any character, be it in fiction, film, or elsewhere. (Hell, I love the high camp of Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet, bur that doesn’t mean I want to go on a joy ride with Frank Booth.)
When I wrote my first novel Asta in the Wings, I was dismayed to see that there were some readers who thought the story of abused, neglected Asta Hewitt must have been based on real life. In reality, I had (and have) a doting mother who raised me attentively and responsibly. Perhaps it’s a compliment of sorts that people thought the book seemed realistic enough to be veiled autobiography, and it is true that Asta’s psychological makeup bears some resemblance to mine at her age– but the story itself is entirely made up, just as What Has Become of You is. I think many fiction readers take small kernels of truth and then sow an entire garden of realistic falsehoods from that, which is part of what makes the writing process complex, enjoyable, and ultimately very freeing– for isn’t it the license to make things up, to give ourselves permission to go beyond, is what makes a storyteller a storyteller?