A Character Takes Over
By Sheila S. Klass
Sometimes a character or an idea possesses a writer and the writer’s captive imagination has no choice. So, late one night in the early 1960’s, for no particular reason I could figure, I woke up knowing that I had to write a novel about my mother.
The power of this unwelcome mandate was insistent, very different from the random reflections and dreams that come and go daily and lead to the occasional short stories or essays:You will write about your kid brother and your mother and the Gypsy fortune-teller who swindled her.
Like another writer, Bartleby, I preferred not to. I’d never got on well with my mother and tried to keep a safe distance. In fact, that was the last subject in the world I wanted to write about. The 1950’s had been a terrible decade for us; my sixteen-year-old brother had run away from our unhappy home (as I had). He’d enlisted in the army and was sent to Japan. At the outbreak of the Korean War, he was shipped to Korea and listed missing the third week of the war. Much later, his remains were found and there was a funeral at which my Orthodox Jewish mother refused to mourn.
She had somehow found secret comfort. Nor would she sit shiva. I’d had to find out why, and then the police had to catch the crooked fortune-teller, who took my mother’s life-savings assuring her that she could keep her son alive. And then my mother had to face the truth; her son was dead.When the idea of writing this book came to me, I immediately pulled the quilt over my head and tried to go back to sleep. In vain.
Months of struggle followed during which I tried to turn my thoughts to other more likely subjects. I had good reason for my reluctance. Why would I want to climb back into the dark tunnel of memory? More than ten years later, we were still not allowed to mention my brother in my mother’s presence and his room remained a sanctuary.
My parents were aging. My mother was mentally fragile and very sensitive. Such a book might kill her. I had no right. But I am a writer, and I couldn’t exorcise the idea from my mind. While I was telling myself “no,” the story was already taking shape.
The perfect title came to me! In A Cold Open Field from the eighteenth century, sentimental ballad, “The Wraggle-Taggle Gypsy-o.” I had to write the story! I told myself it would be a “family document”; no publisher would ever buy such an uncommercial idea, such a bleak book.
I began. The first draft was an autobiographical novel in which a brave, smart young woman tells the story: me, but better looking. In the final version – published in 1997, thirty-five years later – that narrator had disappeared. She was an interloper; it was not her story. She had no business demanding attention and making a bid for heroism. Instead, many rewrites later, the central character – indeed, the heroine – is Mama. And rightly so.
The dictates of a novel strongly determine its shape and direction. While what happens in real life is certainly the starting point, it becomes ultimately irrelevant to what happens on the page, and that is the wonder of fiction. The characters take over and follow their own paths. So, my novel ends with Mama sorrowfully accepting her son’s death and mourning.
In real life, Mama – impoverished, unworldly, intimidated by officials and uniforms, even the postman’s – willingly was the lure who assisted the police, guns in hand, in the arrest of the fortune-teller. Mama -- who had never been in a courtroom before – attended every court session through the long trial. She did not want this predatory fortune-teller – 27 previous arrests -- preying on other mothers. Indeed, Mama was a worthy heroine. If I had not written my novel about her, I would not have recognized that. __________________________________________________________