I’ve been reading some excellent books on the craft of writing. All contain good advice, memorable insights and quotes that I mark with sticky tabs. One in particular that resonated from Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips, was right on the first page. I liked it because it summarizes eloquently (of course!) what I often feel as a reader and what I strive to impart as a writer. Hemingway says:
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.
I reflect on the books that made me feel exactly as Hemingway describes and realize that scenes and lines from novels I read years ago still pop into my head. Maybe that’s what makes them enduring. I think of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Beloved, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits and Island Beneath the Sea. The list continues, strung together by a few common threads. Many of the aforementioned books, for example, have nineteenth or early twentieth century settings, deal with oppression and slavery, and tend to have strong female characters.
Later in the book, Hemingway talks about the credibility of characters. Indeed, it is the characters with whom we identify that make the story real to us. Things that happen to them could happen to us; we can relate to how they feel, to the actions they take. We share their adventures and their heartaches. I’m not ashamed to admit that a couple of decades ago I fell in love with Ann Rice’s vampire, Lestat. I knew he was a vampire, of course, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief despite his heinous eating habits. None of the awful things he did made me cringe or feel his pain as much as when his favorite mare got taken out from under him. That’s when he truly won my heart.
As popular as Rice’s vampire and witch series were, my favorite book of hers was actually The Feast of All Saints. She invited me into a nineteenth century Louisiana that was dark and unfamiliar once she delved into the underworld of the slave economy. My heart broke for her characters. I’ve never forgotten them or their moments of grace in dire situations. The same holds true for the novels I mentioned earlier. I come to think of the characters as people I know and care about in all of my favorite books, as if what happened to them also happened to me. What would I have done in similar circumstances?
For years I tried to convey to my Spanish Literature students that what stands out in the proscribed reading list is the quality of that which perdura, or endures—the idea that what we read remains timeless as long as we can not only relate to it, but also integrate it into our personal experience. An example of how that works in House Key is when Kelly reads the short story, “Las medias rojas” (“The Red Stockings”) by Emilia Pardo Bazán for a school assignment. She identifies so fully with the main character that she feels emboldened and decides to take charge of her destiny, as well. It’s a huge risk and a lot goes down as a consequence, but her life does change.
Readers take risks, too. And in doing so, we give characters permission to fulfill and participate in their destinies their way. I followed one such character down the very crooked memory lane of his Alzheimer’s in Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Instead of getting lost in the fissures of his memory, I was living his adventures right alongside him. I was encouraging him to rewrite his own fate much in the way the protagonist in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story, “El sur” (“The South”—also on the Spanish AP Lit reading list) does.
However, there was a piece missing in my message to students. I wish I could have articulated half as eloquently as Hemingway that the literature we read not only endures because it resonates with us, but because we buy into the reality of something that plausibly happened to us or people we care about. We can feel their pain and share their joy. The characters are that real to us.
It makes me happy that as a writer, the characters that constantly talk in my head get set free to live out their lives on paper and in our imaginations, and become real to readers, as well. I reflect upon the books that filled me with joy, ripped my heart out, and that ultimately helped me articulate and confirm who I am to myself. In Hemingway’s words, such books “are truer than if they had really happened.” I think that’s the juncture at which we awaken to our thoughts changing, our ideas expanding, and our lives growing. Such awakening can even empower us to take action that results in personal transformation.