How do you discover who your primary character(s) will be, in a story? Often, for me, the character comes first — I see her or him, leaning against a counter, or walking with a friend on a golf course, or chasing after a child, and the story comes to me through the character. Sometimes, though, it’s not so quick or direct, and I have to search — especially when the story is also one I am searching for, because it appears embedded and half-buried in history.
With Edgar Degas’ winter sojourn in New Orleans, in 1872-3, it was his gorgeous, odd paintings that touched me, and moved me. Each of them appeared to enfold some part of a larger story — possibly one filled with conflict and sorrow. I wanted somehow to write about that whole winter — to discover why these paintings of his cousins and family members held such intensity and power. I tried so many voices: Edgar’s; a servant child’s; 10 year old Josephine’s (Edgar’s cousin Tell’s daughter from Tell’s first marriage); Didi (Tell’s older sister). In each case, I was happy with some elements of the voice and the implicit story, yet I felt frustrated, because I just couldn’t get inside the character with honesty and a sense of truth.
One day, a new voice came to me — I don’t know how. Maybe I was simply ready for it. I wrote it down, just a floating paragraph, and I knew — this was it! I had discovered a voice for Tell (Estelle Musson Balfour De Gas, Edgar’s cousin and sister-in-law, who had lost her sight in her twenties). And with Tell’s voice, came her character. With each word, I found out more about her: how honest she was, and pragmatic, and loving. Also, how carefully she resisted knowing too much of the truth about her own marriage and her relationship to her cousin Edgar.
I had thought I couldn’t possibly write in this voice, because I wasn’t sure what it would have been like to have lost my sight by the age of 29, and to be pregnant with my fourth child in a rented mansion in New Orleans. How does a fiction writer ever have the courage to write a story outside of her or his own experience? I have to say, though, in this case, I got lucky. I started to listen to Tell, and she was happy to let me in. It was a great relief. From that first floating paragraph on, I came to know her, as fully as she would let me.