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 Parshall 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 she 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.