A bit obscure even for a Fran Porretto title, eh? Well, that’s not accidental.
I own exactly one “collectible” book: a first-edition copy of East and West, the earliest collection of W. Somerset Maugham’s short stories. I inherited it from an uncle who was a great reader and an aficionado of Maugham. The stories are marvelous, but today I have in mind something Maugham says in the Preface to the collection:
“There are authors who state that they never have a living model in mind when they create a character. I think they are mistaken. They are of this opinion because they have not scrutinized with sufficient care the recollections and impressions upon which they have constructed the person who, they fondly imagine, is of their invention. It they did they would discover that, unless he was taken from some book they had read, a practice by no means uncommon, he was suggested by one or more persons they had at one time known or seen. The great writers of the past made no secret of the fact that their characters were founded on living people….You are much more likely to depict a character who is a recognizable human being, with his own individuality, if you have a living model. The imagination can create nothing out of the void. It needs the stimulus of sensation.”
I haven’t reread that Preface in quite a number of years. I didn’t recall Maugham’s forceful assertion when I stumbled across the book earlier today. Moreover, despite Maugham’s far greater talent than mine own, I found myself wanting to dispute with him. I’ve always thought my heroes and heroines were pure creations of my mind. Indeed, it would distress me greatly to happen upon anyone who resembles one of them.
Which brings me to a story from real life. Shortly after I wrote Chosen One and On Broken Wings, the foundation stones of the Onteora Canon, Beth and I went on a brief drive into continental New York to scout for potential retirement locales. We drove north along the western side of the Hudson River, through Orange and Ulster County and into Greene and Schoharie, which are part of the region known as Adirondack Park.
I may have mentioned previously that I thought “Onteora” was my personal invention. I spent a couple of hours one day putting phonemes together, trying to construct something that sounds appropriately New Yorkish, as a name for my fictional playground, and eventually arrived at “Onteora.” It sounded right, and I checked whether any of New York’s sixty-two counties bore that name, found none, and was satisfied. “Onteora” became the name of the semi-depressed inland county full of heroes and geniuses in which I’ve situated so many novels and stories.
Well, on our way north and west through New York, I was disabused of my notion of originality. We passed a number of institutions that had “Onteora” in their names. Beth noticed first.
“I thought that was original with you?” she said.
“I thought so too,” I replied. “Looks like I was wrong.”
As we were interested in looking at houses, we needed a realtor who’d be willing to waste an hour or so on us. So when we stopped for lunch – at the Onteora Cafe, of course – we asked the proprietress for a recommendation. (After praising her split-pea soup, of course.)
“There’s a real good one right up the road,” she said. “Just keep going north and look for a big sign that says ‘Redmond Realty.’ He’ll show you around.”
I began to feel ill. “Redmond, you say?”
She nodded. “Yeah. Good guy, as honest as the day is long. You’ll like him.”
Beth was practically vibrating at that point. I was afraid she might have a stroke. I asked, as offhandedly as I could manage, “What’s his first name?”
The proprietress frowned briefly. “Louis, I think.”
I was dealing with that when I heard the sound of large motorcycles approaching and parking outside the cafe. The door opened and four large, tough-looking bikers entered.
I looked at Beth, she nodded, and we rose. I laid fifty dollars on the table, muttered “Thanks” to the proprietress, and we immediately drove straight home.
It was the sort of event that can make you believe in astral travel.
Maybe Maugham was right.