TRUE MEN by Karen Harrington
I was on a panel recently with author P. J. Hoover and she said something about the writing process that made me want to shout, oh, yes, me, too!
She said that when a writer is in the midst of drafting a new story, everything that happens in their life in those writing months is filtered through the writer and into the story. Some things pass through and some flow into the fictional realm. I used to think of this process as a writer being a human lint filter. But I like Hoover’s more elegant word.
When I was drafting my latest novel, MAYDAY, I filtered a lot of real life as I formed the characters. I usually do that with characters more than the actual plot. I try to find qualities I can speak to or admire. The main character is Wayne Kovok, who I first met in COURAGE FOR BEGINNERS. Wayne was a minor character; a loner who spoke in facts, rather than in feelings. Wayne was formed largely at the middle-school lunch table of my memory. But when I showed up at my local middle school a few years ago to meet a friend’s seventh grade daughter, I saw that the school lunch table much as I remembered. In fact, there was a solo table, set apart at the front of the cafeteria. Few sat there. These tables were an island, broken off of the main strings of tables nestled in neat rows in front of the auditorium stage. I waited for my young friend to arrive. She never did. Middle schoolers walked past. I felt out of place. I sat at the solo table. The island. In a funny way, real life led me to the concept of Loser Island in COURAGE. Haven’t many of us had to sit there? Thus, I found part of myself in Wayne.
I knew Wayne must have been interesting beyond Loser Island. So when he took center stage for MAYDAY, it was all inspired by the desire to know what Wayne’s home life was like. I wanted to see him at home, at his own table. Turns out, he didn’t always feel comfortable there, either. Slowly, he grows and emerges as the young man I always hoped he’d be. I think most authors harbor great dreams for their characters. They are our word-born children, after all. For Wayne, I wished he’d grow into someone who could give voice to his own thoughts, beliefs and dreams. A young man who could trust himself and his own instincts. In the story, this unfolds largely through the influence of an unlikely hero: his grandfather who is a larger-than-life, former military man. A man who would never sit at Loser Island and would chastise Wayne for sitting there.
His name is Truman Dalton.
I was hesitant to write such a huge chunk of the novel as a grandson/grandfather relationship. Would this resonate? My husband told me it would. He works in medicine and has for twenty years. He said that in the last ten years, he’s seen more grandparents bringing their grandkids to their appointments and that they were actively involved in the kids’ lives. That cinched it for me. Wayne and his grandfather would have their time to get to know each other under extraordinary circumstances. Grandpa would move into Wayne’s house to help him and his mother recover following a plane crash. But Grandpa soon faces a terminal illness. Then, it’s Wayne’s turn to help him.
I had a lot of models in mind for Grandpa’s character. I knew instinctively he would be part my dad, part Robert Duvall, part every honest man I’d ever met. Why not? That’s what makes writing so fun.
Military service and unabashed patriotism runs deep in my family. There is my father. Using wit to disarm a person before they know they’ve been bested. There is one of my mentors, the late, great author Pat Conroy. And a person possessing an uncanny tough and tender disposition. That’s my father-in-law. (In my mind, Mr. Duvall is all of these things.)
My father-in-law was tough and determined. He left home in his teens to be a ranch hand. He was also a big Teddy Bear, known for his rib crushing hugs. He was cut down in his prime by a fast, lethal cancer. I usually end up trying to figure out my obsessions while writing. Sometimes I’m aware that I’m trying to tease logic out of life, other times I don’t realize it until much later. Don’t good stories come from those questions that keep us up at night?
I didn’t realize I was going to write Wayne’s grandfather fighting an illness until two drafts into the book. Even then, I didn’t know I would be in the weeds, looking for the answer to the question that still plagued me: why?
That challenged me as a human. It still does. But my father-in-law taught me so much in his final months. When the family was awash in hospice decisions, he called me and said, “Why is everyone so concerned about this? I don’t want to leave home and be with strangers.”
“They want you to have the best care. They want you to have a good quality of life as long as possible.”
“But Karen, what about a person’s quality of death? Doesn’t that matter?”
Having brain cancer, he wasn’t always completely lucid or logical, but his words stung me with their poignancy. He was telling me something important. A quality death is important, isn’t it?
His wisdom wove its way onto the page before I realized it. Grandpa passed on the wisdom Wayne so needed to understand to get through seventh grade and beyond. Among many things, he taught Wayne that a person wants and needs a good death. With dignity and love and respect. Through the tears came the warm presence of my tough and loving father-in-law. I hope he would like knowing he passed his wisdom on to me. And to his grandchildren.
Because in a strange twist of fate, his presence will make an impact again this summer.
During the final months of his life, I asked him to write a letter to my unborn daughter, Chloe. We named her early so he could write the letter. He did. Chloe will receive that letter this summer as she comes of age, turning the magical age of 13. Is it any coincidence this is the same summer this book comes out? That Wayne also turns 13 on his journey in MAYDAY? Is this part of the mystery and unplanned beauty of life? I think so. Stories are healing that way, so many times more healing for the writer than one may ever know.
That’s why I named him Truman, after all. The character of Grandpa is really inspired by all of the truest men I’ve known. I have to tell you, I’ve shed many tears for one of my true men heroes, Mr. Conroy, in a brutally unjust, art-imitates-life, devastating kind of way. But again, life is simultaneously hurting and healing us all the time. Wayne would ask why. It’s okay to ask.
It’s my deepest hope that readers would recognize their inner Wayne and the tough and tender Truman Daltons they’ve known. For me, they both embody the notion of flawed, funny, determined and true men.
Karen Harrington is an author and former speechwriter. Her books include SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY (2013), COURAGE FOR BEGINNERS (2014) and MAYDAY (2016) all from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Her books have appeared on nine state reading lists. SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY was also a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the year, a 2014 Notable Children’s Book selection from the Children’s Literature Assembly and a 2014 Bank Street Children’s Book Committee Best Book of the Year. Karen lives in Dallas, TX with her family, where she enjoys reading, writing, cooking and walks with her rescue dog, Sam. Visit her at Karenharringtonbooks.com or @KA_Harrington