Real People as Fictional Characters: Some Comic, Sad, and Dangerous Encounters
The following is a talk given the University of Texas at El Paso, where John Rechy received the 2007 Distinguished Alumni Award by UTEP and and the UTEP Alumni Association; it was later revised for a talk at the Los Angeles Institute of the Humanities on September 21, 2007.
From where do a writer's characters come? Who are they, finally?—these wily, shifty creatures, darting in and out of trouble, creatures who cajole, flirt with their author, seduce him, at times challenge him to the point that they run away beyond their creator's intent. Don Quixote fought his most formidable battle not with windmills but with Cervantes, who detested him, ridiculed him, tortured him. And who won in that epic battle between the author and his character? Don Quixote—by evolving into myth, becoming a figure of pathos, a noble hero in search of the impossible dream; and he is that even for those who do not know who Cervantes is. Still, it was Cervantes who imbued him with the characteristics that allowed his character to triumph.
Many characters, of course, come from real life, even though at times they sidle into one's stories unrecognized until they threaten to sue one.
Christopher Isherwood gave me what I thought was sage advice on using real people in one's writing. He told me, "You can question their morals, call them liars, expose them as thieves--as long as you describe them as attractive."
Several instances in my life have tested that admonition. In my first novel, City of Night, I described a male nurse I knew as a deceiver, entirely unethical, prone to collect credit cards from his dead patients. I received an angry letter from him in which he asked: "Do I really strike you as being coldly blond?"
In a short story that would become a part of that same novel, I wrote about a downtown Los Angeles queen who called herself Miss Destiny and dreamt of one day having a white wedding. Titled "The Fabulous Wedding of Miss Destiny," that story appeared in a small literary journal called Big Table. I thought no one would read it. As I strolled one afternoon along Hollywood Boulevard, I heard a voice calling: "John Rechy! John Rechy!"
For the longest time, I preferred to be anonymous, like others in the world of the streets I was living within, a world hidden to all but those who existed in it. So I was startled to hear my name called. There, jaywalking toward me, impervious to protesting honks, came Miss Destiny. "My dear!" she trilled, "I want to thank you for making me even more famous!"
In truth I had made her grander than she was. At times one has to veer away from reality in order to bring fiction to life. I had augmented the real Miss Destiny's effervescent stories to give them resonance, and, I hoped, more wistful poetry. Subsequently, she absorbed the characteristics of my character; she told her stories with my embellishments, claimed they were her exact words. She landed on the cover of "One" Magazine, in full wedding drag, demurely, as "The Fabulous Miss Destiny," and she gave a nasty untrue interview about me, but I forgave her because she described me as "cute."
(For years afterwards, she would call me, always very late at night and in a boozy voice, and she would ask me to please inform whomever she was with that she was indeed "the fabulous Miss Destiny" of my novel. Of course I obliged. A few years ago the calls stopped.)
I once--and quite literally--became a character from one of my own books. My second novel, Numbers, was set mainly in Griffith Park, its protagonist a young man named Johnny Rio, who spends his idle time seeking adventures in the park. I was idling in the same park one afternoon--still anonymous--when a stranger braked his car to tell me that someone had written a book about me. "Who?" I asked, befuddled. "His name is John Rechy," he said, "but I don't think that's his real name because nobody would write a book like that under his own name." As he left, he called back, "Goodbye, Johnny Rio."
The sternest test of Isherwood's admonition about permission to describe real persons even as morally decadent as long as they're described as attractive occurred when I modeled a character after him. Without using his actual name, I described him in my novel Numbers as somewhat randy in his cups--pardon the appropriately dated euphemism; but I had also described him as an attractive middle-aged man, to the point that the painter Cadmus, recognizing him, said I had been too kind. The purveyor of the advice I had followed was outraged. An invitation made earlier to dinner at his home was withdrawn with an angry telegram from his long-time companion on behalf of them both; the enraged companion proposed a near-duel--I mean it--a strict confrontation--although I had described him as being "pretty."
Apparently Isherwood didn't attend to his own advice. His posthumous Diaries incensed those who considered themselves his closest friends. Without the veil of fiction, not only did he describe several as untalented, but one of the closest was dismissed as "not talented enough and too ugly to be chic." The first volume of his Diaries alerted other possible victims and the second volume remains unpublished because of a threatened suit.
One might be tempted to claim that some characters are divinely inspired. I was sunbathing one summer day when, looking up, I saw two long clouds sailing toward each other to form a cross. What, I wondered, would some of the Mexican Catholic women I had known in El Paso when we lived in the government projects make of that? I rushed home to write a short story about such a woman, who interprets the configuration as the first portent of a possible miracle, all that can save her at a time of crisis. Inspired, I finished a rough draft in a few hours. When my partner, Michael, came home, I read him the story. "You've got to write a whole novel about her," he exhorted me.
I started The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez. Soon I encountered a problem. The woman's antecedents were many, and I was creating a unique one. I did not want to risk her becoming a figure in an allegory.
I marvel at the fact that destiny exists only in retrospect, when a series of coincidences string together into inevitability. On such a fateful day, I had gone to a Thrifty Drug Store to buy a beach chair--and I hope you don't think I spend all my time lounging under the sun. The store was out of those chairs. A clerk recommended another store. I drove out of my way to that other store. I should have heard destiny spinning. I walked in, and halted in awe of one of the most gorgeous creations I have ever seen.
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