Character Interview with Jolene Wiley, Voices of the Dead
I signed up for the Writer Nation spring challenge, which has been both fun and productive so far. Today’s task is a character interview, which I’ve never done before. I tooled around on the internet to find some standard questions to ask your character, but I was either meh about them or, if they were good and juicy questions, the answers to them would maybe give too much away.
I’ve been fascinated with the whole 36 questions to make strangers fall in love with each other since it appeared a few years ago for at least two reasons. One—though I realize astrology is not a personality test—I have always identified with the description of my Scorpio star sign as one that has no interest in chit chat and small talk. Never talk about religion, politics, or sex “they” say. Well, those are my three favorite topics. And two, I think relationships are built and maintained by communicating whether that be body language, steamy missives passed hand to hand, deep conversation, or a version of flaming semifore you work out between the two of you. The premise of these questions is that if two strangers reveal their deepest selves in conversation, love can happen. Isn’t that what we all want to believe?
So, it isn’t the complete set of questions as some of them are partner exchanges and well, at the end of the day, Jo and I talking is me talking to myself and I didn’t want to make that any weirder than it already was.
1.Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
My dad. Or maybe Leonard Cohen. You didn’t say alive or dead. Alive? Let’s make it amusing. Both Nick Caves and both Warren Ellises.
2. Would you like to be famous?
No. Fame means you stop belonging to yourself.
3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say?
No. I hate making calls. They are pretty much only for emergencies. Texting is easier.
4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
Sleepy morning sex. A walk along the river in Ljubljana to Cacao or another favorite coffee haunt. A perfect cafe latté. Seeing an art or photography exhibit and having a deep conversation or debate about it afterward. Catching some live music somewhere in town, walking home, and taking a long hot bath before crawling back into bed, maybe alone.
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
To myself, this morning getting dressed. To someone else, probably my son when he was a baby.
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
(Laughs scandalously loudly)
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
(Keeps laughing and then takes a breath) With the eventual heat-death of the universe?
8. Name three things you and your partner have in common. [OK, we’ll do this one.]
We both have 20-something grown sons, a penchant for black clothes and very similar taste in music.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
For the care and love of friends and chosen family. I’m certain I would not have made it this far without it.
10. If you could change anything about they way you were raised, what would it be?
(Laughs, but snarkily) I mean there’s a laundry list of things I would probably change, but what would that mean? What in my current life—the good things—would be altered? I could dwell on this question all damn day, but it wouldn’t change the past.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
First I’d remind anyone to be careful what they wish for in that department. But if I could have the choice of what I’d gained? I don’t know … Wait. Yes, I do know. I would wish to attain some inner peace. Cheesy maybe but very true.
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
I’d want to always know when I was being lied to, even if it was for what the person talking to me thought was for good reasons.
14. Is there something you’ve dreamed of for a long time?
How long is a long time? For the last year or so, I’ve dreamt of going back to being a slinger of tea and fancy sandwiches.
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
Survival. Mine and my kiddo’s.
16. What do you value most in friendship?
Honesty and always having my back.
17. What is your most treasured memory?
The one I tell is the day Faron, my son, first smiled at me. it felt like maybe I hadn’t completely screwed up if this little being was happy to see me. The one I keep to myself is a day I spent in an orchard a long time ago.
18. What is your most terrible memory?
Can we skip this one? I’m sure you can find a newspaper article about it with half the real story.
19. If you knew that in one year you would suddenly die, would you change anything about the way you are now living?
No. The way we spend our hours is the way we spend our days. I had been living the life I wanted, but things changed a bit.
20. What does friendship mean to you?
Everything. Friendships are the relationships that keep me tethered to the earth. You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends and whether you want to be friends with your family or not.
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
My chosen family is very close; we’ve been through a lot together. (Laughs again) No. My childhood was difficult but not as much as other’s.
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
How long do you have?
26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share …”
A giant eye roll? I have good people in my life, and I have a few I share things with that I wish I didn’t. We all have to carry our own burdens.
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for them to know.
Very bad things happen to people close to me.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
Hm. There are a few. When I was still in college in Chattanooga, this very famous photographer came to do a talk for some joint event between the local art museum and the university. I was kind of enamored with her in both a brain crush way and in a more direct, physical way. After the talk at a party at a professor’s house, I wormed my way into a circle of people chatting with her. She kept looking at me with this intense expression and I thought maybe she was coming on to me. The circle dwindled and it was soon just the two of us. Before I could say anything that would have been mortifying later, she leaned in and whispered in my ear that I had a giant piece of spinach from the canapés wedged in my teeth. Lesson learned: don’t each spinach canapés at parties.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
I don’t, as a rule, cry in front of other people and by extension that means I’m probably not going to tell you the last time I cried by myself either.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
In public, lots of horrible things. In private, nothing. Gallows humor is key to survival.
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone?
Nothing. I don’t take that chance any more.
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be?
Nothing. If the loved ones and pets are safe, nothing else matters; it’s just stuff.
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
My son’s. I don’t think I need to explain why.
After I signed my contract with Griffyn Ink, Eli Jackson, indie publisher badass, sent me an envelope with two really nice pens. The enclosed note said they were for signing copies when my book came out. I put them in my desk box, the closest thing I have to a drawer because I work at an old IKEA sofa table with the legs cut down. That I would be signing books seemed like an impossibly far off and surreal thing.
I’ve signed a few now. The first one went to my sister, who has always encouraged me, in life and in writing. A stack went off to Slovenia and a few to heart-friends who have supported me along the way. I’ve also signed a few to readers who bought my book at the first few pre-release events on the mini-tour. Those pens are really nice and the readers were even nicer. It still boggles my mind that someone picked up my book, read the back, and purchased it. That happened. I got to watch it happen.
A book with my name on the spine on my shelf, and now a few others’ shelves as well, is an undeniable fact and yet…
I’m incredulous I finished writing and editing a manuscript, someone wanted to publish it, and it’s a thing out in the world. Surely not me. I kept telling myself if one person who’s never met me and doesn’t know anything about me said something nice about the book, then it would be real. It happened and I still didn’t believe it.
The crushing insecurity of the creative mind is a real thing. Self-doubt or imposter syndrome or whatever name you want to give it, is a giant hurdle for a lot of people. There is fantastic work missing from library shelves and gallery walls and concert halls because it is so easy to talk ourselves out onto the I’m-not-good-enough ledge. Trust me there’s a lot of room out here on this jut of land; I’ve built a house on it and farm turnips.
On this journey from idea to dead-tree book in my hand, I’ve learned a few things. Having the idea is a good thing. Putting my butt in the seat to write was an act of will. Finishing it might have been an act of divinity. I did those three things. Of course there were hours and days of “who could possibly want to read this”? Those still happen; I know it’s not literature for the ages. There was the crushing reality of a typo on the opening page (fixed after I ordered my copies for the mini-tour).
Nothing is for everyone. And everything will have at least one devoted fan (I’m totally cool with the fact that it could be my sister). Someone is going to write a review somewhere savaging my book. It is guaranteed to happen and I might print it out and frame it. Someone might also write a review because they laughed out loud (in a good way) at a scene. Someone might cry when a character dies. I hope I hear about it, but I might not get to.
I fully believe when you put anything you create out into the world – a book, a film, a painting, even your kid – you have no control over how anyone else sees your work. That’s a scary prospect but it’s ultimately the thing that makes it real for me. I told a story I wanted to tell. It made me happy to write it. I hope you enjoy reading it. I’m writing the next book in the series.
Step. Step. Step. Back from the yawning canyon of self-doubt. Don’t look down.
I listen to music when I write. It helps set my mood and puts me in the place I need to be with the characters. Who by Water was influenced by a copious amount of Leonard Cohen, both back catalogue and his last release You Want It Darker. At some point, I imagined myself mailing a copy of the book off to him, but, of course, that won’t happen now.
Most of the first book was written and edited in 2016, better known as The Year of the Suck. For me the albums of 2016 that sum up the year best are the previously mentioned Cohen release, David Bowie’s Black Star, Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. I think there are traces of them all in the work. Whether it’s overt or not is another story.
I’ve put together a couple playlists for Who by Water. I don’t know that I necessarily recommend you listen while you read. Each song takes me back to a place in the book and in the lives of the characters and maybe these will work that way for you, too. Let me know.
They are a little different based on what was available on the platform and just to mix it up a bit.
“Bring It On” – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
“Rebel Girl” – Bikini Kill
“Wanderlust King” – Gogol Bordello
On iTunes: Who by Water soundtrack
On YouTube: Who by Water soundtrack
I’ll confess that most of my knowledge of plotting is from field research, mostly reading and watching mysteries since Nancy Drew. I think I’m better at creating characters. Or characters are better at finding me than story arcs, depending on how, or if, you think the muse works. The jury’s still out for me. I tend to straddle that line between wannabe mystic and skeptical pragmatist in the rest of my life, so no surprise I’m suspicious of some external force being the only source of inspiration.
My sister has been my alpha reader, cheering me on from the new and rewritten chapters I’ve inundated her with. (Thank you!) I saved a character because she liked her and was sad to see her disappear. That changed the final arc of the story. She also asked me if I was the protagonist. That stopped me cold. I really didn’t think so, but we definitely have a few things in common.
We both ran off to Slovenia in the early 1990s, but where I came home, Jo stayed. She, like me, is weirdly organized despite having a chaotic mind sometimes. We both have a penchant for mono-chromatic wardrobes and have very similar tastes in music. I used to think I wanted to open a teashop. I get to do that vicariously through her. We both swear like sailors around our inner sanctum folks. We have similar coloring, or used to. I wanted a character that would read American in Slovenia and that’s a tall, cornfed, blue-eyed blonde. But I’m not as brave or impulsive as she is. I’m also not as free from the daggers of others’ opinions as she is in living her life. I strive for that, but I am so not there yet.
I think all writers have a bit of themselves in their characters. It’s a point of connection for figuring out the psychology of their stories. Every character is also a creature of the writer’s mind or plucked and molded from amongst the personalities the writer knows in real life viewed through their perspective. My sister’s question gave me pause though. Maybe Jo was just a vehicle for wish fulfillment and I needed to reevaluate. I took a quick online Myers-Briggs assessment as her to see if she and I were indeed the same person. I’m an INFJ. Jo is an ENFJ.
Uh oh. Is she just an outgoing me?
Nope. According to 16 Personalities, INFJs are the Advocate personality and ENFJs are the Protagonist personality. Funny that. There are similarities but ENFJs are mesmerizing leaders (think Barack Obama or Oprah). The thought of leading the charge scares the absolute crap out of my INFJ self. I’m much happier behind the scenes writing, not starring, in the action.
Just for fun, or for the things writers do to procrastinate from actual writing, I took the MB for my other characters, too. You know, to make sure they weren’t all the same person with different hair. They weren’t. It was really helpful for fleshing out the character sketches I had for each of them. And the assessments became handy references for how each character might act given a choice or situation.
I don’t know that I recommend living your life by the tenets of your personality type, however insightful they feel. Can 8 billion people really be divvied up into 16 buckets? Maybe. Despite our desire to cling to our snowflake uniqueness, I think we are all driven by the same altruistic ideals and base desires fighting it out in our psyches. But it’s at least a little more scientific than a horoscope, says the happily self-confessed Scorpio.
Whether or not you see the MB as infallible or not, it can apparently be a useful tool for writers, or at least this writer. I’m curious if anyone else has used the MB assessment this way or uses other things, like horoscopes or the Enneagram, to flesh out characters’ personalities.
Last May I started writing a novel. That was a surprise. My dream of being a writer was to be a poet. Then it was to be a fairly obscure blogger with a small but dedicated following. Then it was to be a memoirist. Then this novel slammed into me out of nowhere when I rounded a corner onto a quiet street in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
No one really prepared me for being a novelist. In school, I took poetry workshops. I tried fiction, short stories mostly, once in undergrad and once in grad school. Though I thought I learned a lot, both instructors where not, how shall we say, encouraging about my future as a fiction writer.
I do still write poems. They are mostly for me and I show them to Keifel when I think they aren’t particularly terrible. There isn’t a precise moment when I stopped wanting to be a poet. There was something about me needing to focus on being a parent and putting food on my damn family. I will not say those were necessarily rational thoughts. Now the kiddos are grown and can put food on themselves for the most part, the idea that I can’t be more than one thing at a time has wilted. (Thank all the gods for that.)
I finished the first draft of the novel with a working title of Still Water. Then I worried over at least three heavy rewrites and am now into the editing stage, or about to be. One more pass for egregious errors. (That thing I said about not being able to spell. It’s true and I think way faster than I type.)
That book has a new title, Who by Water, from the second line of Leonard Cohen’s song “Who by Fire.” It’s haunting and has followed morbid, Scorpio me around for years, especially this cover. When I realized just how many other books in the world had some version of still water or still waters in the title, I had to come up with something else. I landed on the current title for two reasons. In my heart of hearts, I knew water was at the core of this book. Jo, the main character who informed me I needed to write this book while I was standing on that quiet street, listens to Leonard Cohen when things are going badly for her.
The book is slated for an April 2017 release with indie imprint, Griffyn Ink.
So more about the book will follow. I just wanted to start this new adventure by saying, even though I’m not a hundred percent clear on how I got here, I’m glad of it. And I’m already working on book two with Jo and her tribe.