Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Character with My Name

Sandra Parshall

I knew a character in a future Thomas H. Cook novel would bear my name, but – considering how long it takes a novel to wend its way through the production process – I thought “future” meant 2010 or beyond. I acquired the naming rights to a Cook character last October, when a generous friend placed the winning bid at the Bouchercon live auction and passed it on to me as a gift. I resigned myself to waiting a year or two to see it happen. So I was both startled and thrilled a few days ago when I was reading Cook’s just-released novel, The Fate of Katherine Carr, and came upon this bit of dialog on page 24: “Sandra Parshall, the woman who runs Brookwood Residential...”

I gave a little yelp of pleasure and read on, thinking that would be “my” only appearance in my favorite writer’s new book. But wait! On page 35, my name popped up again in a telephone conversation, followed by a full-blown scene. A speaking part! I felt like a lowly film extra who’s been plucked from the anonymous crowd and shoved in front of the camera.

I have to admit it felt weird. I’ve used real people’s names in stories, so I ought to know better, but there I was, comparing the fictional Sandra Parsh
all to the real me. She’s described as “a woman in her late thirties” – oh, hey, I like losing all those years and reclaiming what I’ve begun to think of as my youth. But... she has “somewhat lusterless brown hair, cut in a way that was ruthlessly indifferent to style.” Now hold on a minute. I don’t have the best hair in the world, and heaven knows it drives me nuts most of the time, but this seems a bit unkind. Oh, stop it, I told myself. This is a character, it isn’t you! But the next day found me in the hair care aisle at CVS, weighing the virtues of various products that promised to leave the user’s tresses shiny enough to blind onlookers. Can Tom Cook now claim that his novel has changed a life, or at least someone’s hair? Alas, no. After trying new products, I don’t see much difference in the luster level, and as for the style, I lay all the blame squarely on Cassie, my hairdresser.

The brief trauma of the lusterless hair behind me, I continued reading, certain I wouldn’t see my name again. But on page 63, the fictional Sandra turns up on one end of a telephone conversation. We don’t learn a great deal about her, but s
he seems a compassionate person, a professional caregiver who tries to project optimism for the sake of desperately ill patients. I approve. I’m happy to lend my name to this fictional woman.

I’m getting a little worried, though, about reactions to the way I’ve used real names in my next book, Broken Places, which will be out in March 2010. I don’t expect the real Cricket to object to the fictional Cricket being bigger, heavier, and shaggier, but will the person who bought the naming rights for a dog feel that I’ve insulted the real Cricket? Will the owners of the real Maggie, Lisa, and Mr. Piggles take offense at my portrayals? Will the real Angie think my character, a young woman, is a bit too blindly devoted to her handsome employer? But I gave her nice hair, Angie!

I’m beginning to appreciate the courage of a writer like Robert Fate, whose new book, Baby Shark’s Jugglers at the Border, is filled with characters named for real people. Although most will be pleased with the mentions, Bob writes in the acknowledgments, “Andre Jardini will complain, but doesn’t he always?” I’m not sure I’ll ever dare to go that far with humans, but I’ll be at Bouchercon this fall, once more offering an animal name as a prize in the live auction. If someone wants to donate a princely sum to charity, I'll add another animal of any species the winning bidder wants. Then the PDD readers may have to suffer along with me as I struggle to justify the presence of a walrus or camel in a rural Virginia community.

By the way, my blog sister Julia Buckley recently interviewed Thomas Cook about The Fate of Katherine Carr and his writing life, and if you haven’t read the interview yet, you missed something special. It’s an excellent complement
to a wonderful book, which I would recommend even if it didn’t have my name in it.


jennymilch said...

This was LOL funny, Sandy...I'm so sorry Thomas doesn't like your hair. Men and their crazy tastes ;)

I would definitely feel a transference to any character named for me--seems to me you got off relatively easy. I mean, what if "you'd" tried and failed to kill someone? Would you have found yourself in the aisle of the ammo store, critiquing "your" choice of bullet...?

In all seriousness, do writers who do this tend to keep the bad guy from being named for someone real?

Sandra Parshall said...

Jenny, some people *ask* to have their names given to villains -- or victims. I don't want to speculate on what this says about them!

Susan D said...

Yeah, know what you mean. Very weird feeling. I had the fun of getting a character named for me in Meg Gardiner's 2008 novel, The Dirty Secrets Club, and read it with trepidation, knowing I could meet myself around the next page turn.

But my character is a little more, well, flamboyant than I am, in many ways. The snake tattoo, the porn queen past, the fiery death.

Not going to emulate her in any way. All right, maybe the tattoo.

Sandra Parshall said...

Go for the tattoo, Susan! Life imitating art.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

So funny, Sandy!Hilarious.

I agree, it's a complicated thing.Idon;t see how anyone could help but think it was personal. And that's why--when a person who won an auction for my my Feb book wanted to be the murder victim, it was a bit difficult to do it. I mean--it felt like I was killing him off. So I decided not to. But the book decided something altogether different.

So, RIP. I hope he's happy!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

That would be really odd, reading about yourself (even if the character doesn't look like you.)

I'm a little leery of doing the contest/bidding route and using real names. I know probably it would be fine, but I always worry things like that could bite me in the rear end later...

Mystery Writing is Murder

Vicki Lane said...

What fun, Sandy! My name made a list in one of John Ramsey Miller's thriller but he didn't mention the character's hair -- or anything else.

I've had some great experiences using names that people won in a raffle or some such. One man wanted his late father's name used -- 'and it would be nice if he was still alive,' he said. This gave me an idea and a magical character who will doubtless pop up in a later book.

Pen N. Hand said...

I ordered The Fate of Katherine Carr the other night and will get extra pleasure from reading it.

Linda Reilly said...

Sandra, that was hilarious! Last year I entered the "name the genre" contest on Oceanview Publishing's web site. I couldn't believe it when I won! I'm now slated to be a character one of author Don Bruns's novels. He asked me what kind of character I saw myself as, but I told him he could do as he wished. I did mention that I was an animal lover, so he is making me the girlfriend of a guy who owns a petting zoo. Ought to be funny. I agree, though, that the idea of being a character in a book feels a bit strange!

Julia Buckley said...

Sandra, the funny thing is that I read this book, and I don't even remember seeing your name? Does this mean I was skimming, or that my brain just blanked out? Now I have to go back and look. :)

And I think you have nice hair. No woman I know likes her own hair.

Theresa de Valence said...

Sandra, what fun! This was a greaaat post!


Kris Neri said...

Great post, Sandy! And what an honor. Thomas H. Cook is a super writer. I've named characters after real people, but I never really thought about how it would affect them. They asked for it, after all. I've also always wanted one named after me, but I'm too cheap to bid on it at conventions. Now I think I dodged a bullet. What if they gave me bad hair, too, or made my clothes clash or something?

Anonymous said...

I had that same odd feeling the first time I read my name used for a character. I, too, knew it was coming, had paid my charity auction money for it, and still felt weird reading it.

Your hair comment cracked me up. I could choose to wonder if you don't like MY hair... (but I didn't react that way)

From the Real Angie