Characters and Their Writers by Branka Čubrilo
In my latest interview with Marie, I reflected on the relationship between a writer and his/her characters.
I shall explore this rather intriguing relationship a little bit more in-depth as I just published a collection of short stories. It is rather a small collection in volume, but the first part of it I have dedicated to the poet bearing the famous name Visconti. Ottavio, Otto Visconti.
The second part of the collection is a compilation of various short stories that I have written recently. Some of them have been published in literary journals on line and in print.
In my short stories I use people I meet, then my family and friends. I hide skillfully their real identity, but it wouldn’t be fair to say I use them the way they are. They are often inspiration; I observe their whims and habits and then I intertwine those characteristics with some others that I invent for them and adorn their characters to the extent of absurdity in two ways: absurdly brave, positive and honest or absurdly naïve, mean and irascible. The aim is never to offend or to flatter any of them; it is just a curious game of building different responses or skills to the existent ones.
I ‘met’ Ottavio (let’s call him Otto!) quite a number of years ago.
I lived in Andalucia in 2002, where I was writing my second volume of a trilogy called ‘Spanish Stories.’ The first part was populated with difficult, discordant characters, tragic events and surprising, unpleasant twists. At that time, I met a writer there, a very self-destructive and harsh man who had never seen beauty in the world due to his experiences in his early childhood. We discussed literature and compared our work, but one could never win an argument with Nicholas, especially when he was under the influence of delicious Andalucian wine. He had some money, and the cost of living was quite low, hence everything was easily affordable, which could be a trap for the person who never exercised self-control and healthy self-respect.
I kept a loose friendship with him for the sake of exceptional conversations and, frankly, brilliant ideas that came from his mind when sober and civil.
One evening, he knocked at my door holding a bottle of wine asking me to come out to the beach and join in one of our conversations under the starry sky. I wasn’t up to that difficult task as I was able to quickly evaluate the state of his being. Out of the blue the sentence blew in with the wind through my open window and I said:
“Well, I can’t, I have a visitor.”
Usually, I do not look for excuses, I am pretty frank and I do speak my mind. It would have been more in my style to say, ‘Nicholas, you are tipsy and I am not going to waste my evening in arguing with you, but will rather spend the evening writing.’
But I said something that, at that moment, looked to me as a white lie.
When he walked down his silent road towards the sandy beach, I opened my laptop and the same gentle voice said:
“Otto, the poet.”
Well. Every writer knows well when the voice appears we have to follow it. He was so insecure, lonely, needy in his own way, but he had such a talent in narrating stories which sounded almost like long poems. He performed for me that evening a real drama of his life: narrating, crying, gesticulating and convincing me that he was a character worthy of my attention.
I was astounded, typing as quickly as I could to follow all his drama that was unfolding in front of my eyes. I asked him questions mentally, to which he had countless answers – such a complexity of inner life and depth of emotions.
After several hours he left me exhausted, so that I asked myself would it have been easier if I had gone out with Nicholas and argued with him?
I fell asleep.
But he had knocked at the door of the chamber of my dreams and had woken me up. It was precisely 3:00 am; the stars where shining; the pregnant moon was reflected on the ocean; there was not a single sound out there, in that perfect wilderness of Andalucia.
When I gathered that it was Otto again, I took my laptop and said:
“I am ready!” and obediently followed his voice.
During that time we had many ‘discussions’ and I had captured most of his outpourings from his gentle, yet disturbed, soul.
After some time had passed, Nicholas asked:
“How’s your visitor?”
“We are doing well.”
“Will you show it to me?”
“I am not ready,” I replied.
Years passed and I had written several novels since then. The stories of Otto the Poet were stored on my computer.
One day I published the story Simona. It was extremely well received by my readership. It was published in printed form in a literary journal and online, in two other languages. Shortly after the second publication, I opened the window before I started editing the just finished novel Dethroned. The gentle wind blew into my house and I heard a voice:
“It’s me! Otto, again.”
I was delighted as if a long lost friend had reappeared. Even though I was so keen to finish editing Dethroned, I left it aside for the time being. I found the majority of the stories Otto narrated to me years ago while hiding me in my room defending me from Nicholas’ unexpected visits. Nicholas had been the gentle but disturbed gentle soul on whom I had based Otto the Poet.
When I finished arranging and editing the stories, he encouraged me to collect some other stories and put them together into a collection.
Now that his stories have been published I wonder is he now at complete peace! He waited more than a decade to convince me to tell his stories to the world. He urged me to leave the novel and give him priority as his patience had worn out.
I wonder: Is this the end, or is there anything left to say? I think that time will show as Otto comes unannounced and unpredictably. And there is something within me that can’t just let go. And he is likable, child-like, extreme, though he is hyper-sensible and not resilient to the world, craving attention in need to tell everyone that we need a better world where poets would get a pat on the back and accolades rather than ruthless businessmen who never deal with matters of the human soul. On that note let’s finish with some of Otto’s remarks:
“I was a broken man when I reached Milan. A city I disliked; big, too big for a poet; dirty, too dirty for a pure soul; indifferent, not a home for a frightened person, yet I had no other. I sat down and cried. Not a single person to understand me, not a single friend, not a single soul mate! Carla came to mind; actually she wasn’t all that bad. There were moments when she understood me; there were moments when trying to stroke my hair, she would say, “Otto, you are such an eccentric,” or she would say, ”Well yes, you are a true poetic soul; no place for reality!”
What kind of reality, I ask myself? What is reality? Whose reality? Did Carla think I was supposed to live in her Reality? My Reality was seen with my eyes; I felt it with my heart and it beat to my heart’s rhythm, moved to the rhythm of my breathing, resounded to the rhythm of my footsteps, restless with phrases that are mine and smells of my sweat; and when it is blurred, it is blurred by the mist of my tears. How could Carla say anything about My Reality, how could she have comprehended what My Reality was at all! And how did she dare even try to tell me that I had – no place for reality?
And her Reality?
Employment. Bank employee. She puts on a black dress and blouse that’s not too dark, although not too bright either, that’s not buttoned up from top to bottom, yet certainly not unbuttoned ‘where it shouldn’t be unbuttoned’; she wears shoes in which one feels secure because they don’t differ in any way from those that others wear; her hair gathered at the back of her head in ponytail style does not allow it to be lively and free; she never uses too little or too much perfume, just the right measure that is needed and suits her (or the picture of her Reality). Her smile is made-to-measure for that reality, in other words gracious but not too friendly so that ‘just anyone’ wouldn’t dare approach her or talk out of turn with her. That smile is a barometer. Anybody who is knowledgeable about smiles knows the type of barometer that allows approach to a certain extent only. When I first met her I did not know about that barometer, but later on her Reality taught me what it was. Her mother was a part of her Reality, but not of mine. I simply avoided her and ignored her, as if she did not exist in my Reality. She was an occupant of the Reality of my wife, but I refused to acknowledge all the protagonists of her Reality. There was no room for her in mine; and when both women attempted to push her into my Reality, as I said before, I said, “Ta-ta, I’m leaving since there isn’t any room for you in my Reality.”
Fascinating! Thank you for stopping by to give us a glimpse into the mind of a writer, Branka, and how we relate with our characters! :)