Thursday, July 15, 2010

Guest Author Bonnie Glover: Paper Men

Bonnie Glover is the author of Going Down South, an Essence Magazine bestseller which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for an outstanding literary work of fiction in 2009, and The Middle Sister. Bonnie graduated from Stetson University College of Law with a Juris Doctorate degree. She currently has a mediation practice and writes in between soccer matches, baseball games and whatever other sports her children are involved with at the moment.

At long last, I have fallen in love. It was a gradual thing, quite unexpected for me because I have found myself more than a little protective of my heart. Probably growing up in Brooklyn has something to do with it. Brooklyn girls (women) are not known for our softness. We are pretty tough. My formative years were spent in East New York during the 60’s and 70’s. Each day I had to pass by boarded up buildings to get to middle school. I learned to growl before I smiled. Crazy people lived on our block. One lady walked all day long and would stop to pull my dress down and tell me I wouldn’t be so developed if I quit touching myself. And she would walk to the next person, wig askew, paper sack at her side and give some other encouraging or dampening words.

The only way I survived was to dream. There had to be some place different, better, sweeter. I lived in my head. Later, I started to put down on paper what I thought about, who I thought about and why. There was a lot of anger in what I wrote. And sometimes, even now, there still is anger. I can’t imagine my heart, my being remaining untouched, given where I came from and how difficult it was being there. But, these days I am past asking “why.” I mean, I guess the true question is “why not?”

So, when I created the perfect man in my head, the first perfect man I’d ever created, I wept with relief. Brooklyn women don’t normally believe in perfection in men. We just don’t. Something about the water, about life, about being let down by so many people that perfection does not ring true. But I had set this one down on paper myself and since art imitates life, I knew that this man existed, somewhere. I just had to turn around and create his world, his life, his woman as a backdrop and see where this man’s perfection would lead me.

At my desk I labored and thought I have captured the essence of this man and he is one of my lead characters and I don’t want to let him go. He is the epitome of Dudley Do Right. But I’m worried – he is handsome in the way of all good, dark chocolate men, he is well spoken, well dressed, honest, caring, witty, urbane, likable, etc., etc., -- so tell me, what the hell am I going to do with him? I mean really, what do you do with a perfect character? Mate him with an imperfect girlfriend – who carries around all the angst of the 2000’s, (i.e. she diets while alternately binging, purging and doing a little coke). Or, perhaps, to make it more interesting, should I give him a woman to deal with who is his opposite, like Cruella DaVille, Erica Cane or the dreaded Ohmarosa? Surely he wouldn’t fall for a nice steady, earthy woman who knows how to cook and make him smile. Good paired with dull makes a short story without substance. If he’s good, she has to be very bad. Only I baulked at this acceptable mating of opposites. In real life does that ever happen? I mean, do good men really love, love trashy women? Maybe. But I, myself, am too in love with this guy to risk his inevitable heartache. I’ve got a stake in the outcome. I want Mr. Wonderful to be happy. I do.

I’ve gotten to the point where my characters talk back to me when I let them and sometimes even when I ask them to be quiet. I see them sit on a stumped tree in my head and proceed to lecture me about what needs to happen with them. My characters smoke, drink and do all the borderline things that I wish I could get away with. But, my perfect paper man has remained silent, letting me take the lead on his development. For some reason I find his silence at odds with what I intend him to be -- forceful. The women I’ve created have not been this shy. In fact, they are rather a talkative lot, asking me to pose them this way and that, asking why they needed to endure the hardships I’ve tossed their way with so few words and even fewer tears. I’ve explained to them my theory about Brooklyn and how my upbringing probably made me stronger, harder than I would have been if I had been born somewhere else at some other time. And how this, of course, affects how I portray them. When I told this to Birdie, one of my characters from Going Down South, she cursed me and got up from her lecture stump and left me bone dry for two days.

At one point, I thought I wanted Paper Perfect Man to have an adventurous woman who might wake him up to all that life has to offer, including good sex and better food. I guess. But I wasn’t sure. So, I decided to deconstruct him. Change Mr. PM into someone livable, someone more lovable because perfection is not such a lovable trait. I mean, I love him just the way he is but most women won’t. They’ll ask questions – how did he get to be educated? How is he so Johnny Walker Black when most men are not premium blend, and definitely not top shelf. I’ll have to make excuses for his perfection but, on the other hand, if he is imperfect, everyone will understand.

There are subtle things that I can do that will still keep me loving my paper man and yet make him more amenable to readers. But subtle changes might not be what I want either. He needs a few glaring hang-ups that will piss people off but I can’t find it within myself to give him vile habits. I don’t want him leaving dribbles of pee on the toilet seat or the bathroom floor. Gross. He simply cannot belch loudly after dinner or heaven forbid, fart, in a scene. I’ve done that to other characters, I can’t do it to PPM. Nothing vulgar or crass. But maybe he can be a tad bit cruel, perhaps he has never learned to share with others or has a temper that leads him to say things that are mean to the good woman and act nice to the bad one. Maybe, he doesn’t particularly like kids. Geez. That would be a deal breaker for me. But I’m not the girlfriend, right? I’m just a creator. And really, PPM has whatever I give him coming his way because he just sits on his damn stump giving me no direction.

Here is my failsafe: if worse comes to worse, I can (and will) kill him. I’m strong enough for that and it might be a good solution for my guy. Kill him and let the bad guys win for a change, the perfect anti-hero story. But I don’t like my villains enough for them to win, they’ve got impressive baggage whereas PPM has none. Or I could write one of those love story like plots and instead of a bad guy, I can use some bad disease. Good guy with wonderful traits, who sometimes loses his temper, marries a dull woman who cooks, has his children, and then he dies under tragic circumstances. Something to consider.

In the end I’ll think of something. Writers always do. It’s our job to weave the magic. And we take into account so many things. Our own backgrounds, the cards we were dealt at birth, luck, love, lust, human nature, all of it. I’ll probably never write a book about a weak woman. The women from Brooklyn that I know are not weak. And the men are never 100% feckless nor are they ever 100% perfect. I may write about a man losing his way but perhaps he’ll find it again. With the help of a good woman. Doesn’t that happen in real life? And doesn’t art imitate real life?

So tell me – what are your characters saying to you as they sit on their stump waiting to get some page time like my paper perfect man?

—Bonnie Glover


Liane Spicer said...

Bonnie, welcome back to Novel Spaces, and thank you for kicking off our year once again!

Lovely post. I had a PPM who haunted me for so long I had to commit him to paper. When I began I realized the story would be utterly boring if Mr. Can-do-no-wrong didn't develop a few flaws pronto. So, I gave him issues, hangups, fears - but none of the deal breakers like infidelity and dishonesty (the story was a romance, after all). That book has been out in the world for two years and I still love Michael!

I've got another stubborn PPM who put me through it. He refused to be anything but perfect. All I could get him to compromise on was his fear of commitment, drat the man.

Charles Gramlich said...

All my personal heroes tend to be fictional. You just can't trust or depend on real people

Anonymous said...

I think I agree with Charles. Real people are not to be trusted -- they only break your hearts when they go out for ice cream and never come back.


KeVin K. said...

Good to see you again, Bonnie. Your guest columns are becoming (our first) annual event. As I recall, last year's essay was bout men who are considerably less than perfect -- so this provides a nice balance.

None of my characters ever speak directly to me -- stump or no stump.
However on more than one occasion my subconscious has sent my people off on tangents, doing things and saying things that have nothing to do with what I thought I had in mind.
Sometimes this works out fine.
Other times... Well, I delete a lot of files.
I also have a few files I don’t delete. Characters who have gone off in interesting directions. I can’t use them the way they are now, but I know that when the right combination of setting and action comes along, I’ll be glad I have them on tap.

Anonymous said...

Kevin - First, CONGRATULATIONS on your new novel. May you sell millions and do a blurb for me next year if I ever get my book finished.

And I hear you about wayward characters. They plague me also. Doing things I didn't ask them to do, sang stuff when they needed to be quiet. Can't control then like I'd like to.