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Monday, October 12, 2015

That Dodgy Galwegian

This blog post will conclude the official Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead apology tour.

To my friends in Ireland: I apologize for including a dodgy Irish character. I know you will pick apart the way he speaks and find him inauthentic. My excuse—and I’m sticking with it—is that we are seeing him only as he appears and sounds through the narrator’s young, inexperienced American eyes and ears.

It’s a funny story how the character called Séamus came to be part of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. Well, funny to me anyway.

I had always promised myself that I would never write a novel in the first person. Maybe I’m just lazy, but it always seemed like too much work to have to write constantly in the voice of a particular character for hundreds of pages. But as I finalized my ideas for my first novel, I realized that I wanted it to be—among other things—something of an homage to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And that meant that it really needed to be narrated by its main character in his own regional voice.

But, I figured, that would be a piece of cake because the story takes place in the time and place where I myself came of age, so this would be a voice that I should know well—or so I thought. When reading over what I had written, I kept finding usages that sounded more like 21st century Ireland than 1970s San Joaquin Valley. Even when I thought I had fixed all of them, my indispensable friend Dayle found more. We went around and around for a long time over the verb “to bring” versus “to take” when applied to a person (as in “he took her shopping”). It turns out “to bring” a person somewhere is a particularly Irish usage of English—and one that I had not even realized I had adopted wholeheartedly. In short, my use of English had been hopelessly affected by all of these years living on the Emerald Isle.

This made the writing a lot more work—and a lot more frustrating—than I had anticipated. So, to amuse myself, I decided to include an Irish character. This was an entirely plausible story detail because you cannot go anywhere in the world without meeting the Irish. They turn up everywhere—even, presumably, in 1970s Mexico. And, in my deluded thinking, I figured that the exercise of actually trying to make a character sound authentically Irish would somehow, by contrast, make it easier to maintain the American sound of my other characters. At least that was theory. In practice, however, it was even more work to make Séamus sound authentically Irish than to keep Dallas and his friend Lonnie sounding like they were from Kern County.

To make it worse, there was the added pressure from the fact that the Irish tend to be extemely critical of Irish characters who do not come off as authentic to them. Not only do American and English actors get roundly slated for bad Irish accents in movie and television roles, but my wife has been known to roast perfectly competent Dublin actors for doing inadequate Connacht accents. Fortunately, it wasn’t as though I had to somehow get vowel sounds just right. After all, you cannot actually hear the accent of a character who exists only on a printed page. But the usage and tone certainly have to be right.

After the book was published, I was on tenterhooks every time I heard from anyone who had read the book and who was Irish. Strangely, to date no one has actually said they found Séamus inauthentic as a globe-trotting Galwegian. To be clear, no one has praised the character as a masterful creation either. Irish readers, at least in my limited sampling, seem to have little reaction to him at all. I would be tempted to attribute this lack of criticism to politeness, but I have never known the Irish to be polite about this sort of thing in any other situation. Even my wife—who I expected to excoriate me over the character because, well, that’s just what she does—had virtually nothing to say about him.

Yes, I would prefer that lots of people were heartily congratulating my on getting the nuances of my Irish character exactly right. But, realistically, I am actually ecstatic to be hearing nothing at all. I have convinced myself that that is actually the highest praise of all.

To everyone I know: I apologize one more time for all the bad words. It won’t happen again.

Hmmm. I may have lied about that one. I really can’t promise I will never again have any sweary characters in anything I ever write again. But I can promise that there will be virtually no expletives in my next book of which, I am happy to note, the first draft was completed over the weekend! And yes, it is written in the third person. And no, there are no Irish characters (or American ones for that matter), although there are characters with Irish names.

And I do not plan to make any apologies about any of it.

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