Creating Character in Memoir: Blog Hop

The brilliant intellect Thaisa Frank, author of the stunning novels Heidegger’s Glasses, Enchantment, and A Brief History of Camouflage, tagged me in a blog hop, so that means I’m “it.” In this chain of blogs, started by publisher Mark Cunningham, writers of all persuasions are addressing seven basic questions about “character” in their recent or upcoming books. Most of those books are novels, so Thaisa thought it'd be interesting to get a memoirist's take on the subject of character: how does creating character in memoir differ or align with creating character in fiction? And at the end of this post, I pay it forward, tagging five more writers working on fascinating books, who then address the same character questions.

Many little girl characters wear this classic sandal

What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or a historic person? My character is myself, since my book, To Have Not, is a memoir, though it does read like a novel, in its collision of plot, character, setting, desire, conflict, repeating themes, and some kind of not-quite-tidy resolution. So the main character’s name is Frances. When I was writing about her, I did indeed see her as a character, as separate and distinct from myself, and often referred to her as “she” and “her.” That separation felt necessary to allow me to write memoir as literature, to turn my life into art, to be able to see the symbolic themes and allegories of her journey.

When and where is the story set? The story starts in the 1970s, in San Francisco, where I was born and raised, mostly in and around the Mission District and other low-rent neighborhoods (well, they were low rent at the time). Then it spends a few decades in New England, where I attended Brown University on scholarship, and discovered the stark realities of class in America.

What should we know about him/her? She’s poor and white, growing up in the inner city with parents who straddled the line between Beatnik and Hippie and had a laissez-faire parenting style. She grows up with brothers and other boys and eventually makes it out of the neighborhood into the white and wealthy world of the ivy league, so she straddles quite a few lines herself.

Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, high top, black: my footwear of choice as a kid in To Have Not

What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life? Her conflict is with money and all the privileges it bestows. She’s perfectly happy in her little concrete world of schoolyards and corner stores, until it begins to dawn on her, at around age eight, that not everyone lives this way, that the world is divided into Haves and Have Nots, that race and gender and money and optimism all contribute to this divide. From then on, she is consumed by want, shame, rage, and ambition. It turns out the poverty has gotten too deep inside her, nestled into her bones, and molded how she thinks, sees, walks, eats, kisses, dreams.

What is the personal goal of the character? It’s not wealth she’s after; it’s the confidence of the born-wealthy that she desires, the sense of entitlement that she believes is innate to the Haves, the way they see the world as open and full of opportunities just asking to be plucked. Of course, by her own logic, she will never be gifted with this innate sense of “I can do anything I want” because she was born poor. So, something has got to give: either she changes her philosophy and interpretation of the world or she swallows her ambition and remains poor. And I don’t mean poor just in money, but in confidence, love, happiness, and all that.

What is the title of this novel, and can we read more about it? To Have Not.

When was the book published? It was published in 2010, named a Best Memoir of that year by, and is available online in paperback or e-book versions.

Next up:

Janis Owens, author of the hauntingly beautiful, you’ll-never-see-the-world-the-same-again novel American Ghost, one of my top books of 2012, who is busy on her next novel.

Alison Luterman, poet, playwright and essayist extraordinaire, whose new collection of personal essays, Feral City, is coming out from Shebooks later this summer.

Theresa Williams, the multi-talented poet and fiction writer, who's newest, Blue Velvis, will be e-published later this summer/early fall by Shebooks.

Brent Winter, the extremely clever jack-of-all-trades just putting the finishing touches on his first novel.

Marianne Rogoff, another Shebooks author who writes fiction and memoir, and blends both forms in her upcoming book Endlessly Rocking.

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