HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Ever fallen in love with a character in a book? We all have, I bet. King Arthur always appealed to me (much more than Lancelot), and Henry V, and my affection for Morse is well-known around the Jungle Red salon. Charles (and Caroline) Todd’s Inspector Rutledge, love him, and Roderick Alleyn, and John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy. What can I say? I do.
And I can certainly understand, as Liz Zelvin says, that Dorothy Sayers fell in love with Peter Wimsey. Who wouldn’t?
But what about our own characters’ ability to make us love them? Hmm. That’s interesting, because we created them. Didn’t we?
Long time dear friend of the Reds Elizabeth Zelvin is a psychotherapist in her other life, so I bet—she can explain it.
Falling in Love with A Secondary Character
It's widely understood that writers sometimes fall in love with their own characters. In the mystery genre, most famously, Dorothy L. Sayers is said to have fallen in love with Lord Peter Wimsey as he developed from a Bertie Wooster-like silly ass about town in the early books into a brilliant, perceptive, superbly competent, and highly attractive man--what today we might call a feminist's kind of man. I don't know if Harriet Vane would have called herself a feminist, but in my late 20th to 21st century eyes, she's one of us.
Being a feminist, I'm mildly embarrassed by the fact that I have now written two series with male protagonists: the Bruce Kohler mysteries and the Diego Mendoza and Admiral Columbus series, including the Agatha-nominated "The Green Cross" and my new novel, Voyage of Strangers.
When somebody asks a group of authors, "Who writes about a strong female character?" I instinctively raise my hand. Oops. The truth is, having been writing my whole life before getting my first novel published at age 64, I felt I was entitled to leapfrog over the young novelist's autobiographical opus and write about someone quite different from myself: in this case, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, a New Yorker with a smart mouth and an ill-concealed heart of gold ("ham on wry," as he says himself).
Diego, the young marrano sailor with Columbus who made his first appearance in "The Green Cross" and tells the story of Columbus's second voyage in Voyage of Strangers, is one of those characters who appear unexpectedly out of the unconscious or the ether or wherever the Muse hangs out, demanding that their voice be heard. The author is just the channel. I've always felt as if Diego is not only real, but had been waiting for five hundred years for me to tell his story. Voyage of Strangers is about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, told from the outsider perspective of a secret Jew at the moment when the Jews were driven out of Spain on pain of torture and death at the hands of the Inquisition.
Those who have read my mysteries know that I do have a significant woman character: Barbara, a world-class codependent who only wants to help and is addicted to minding everybody's business, especially Bruce's and her boyfriend Jimmy's (Bruce's best friend), whether the business at hand is sobriety or murder. I'm very fond of Barbara, but I can't say I'm in love with her. It would be too much like looking in the funhouse mirror. Barbara isn't me, but we have much in common, including being nice Jewish girls from Queens who never expected to know as much as we do about alcoholism. Unlike me, Barbara has no boundaries and no brakes. It's what makes her such fun to write. Readers have told me she is a strong female character. Some think she's "a hoot." And at least one person asked me if I'd ever felt (as she evidently did) as if I wanted to slap Barbara. I don't mind. If Barbara's that real to readers, I'm happy.
There were no women on the voyage of discovery in 1492, so of course there were no women in "The Green Cross," which took place on the Santa Maria. Nor did I develop any female characters in "Navidad," the second story in the series. (Both stories first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.) But I couldn't write a novel without women. Diego's sister Rachel was simmering in my head for more than a year before I set a word of Voyage of Strangers on virtual paper. And I'm in love with Rachel.
As it happens, the Jews were expelled from Spain on the same day Columbus and his three ships set sail into the unknown. So how come Rachel was still in Spain when Columbus and his men returned in triumph early in 1493? The Mendoza family had lived in Seville, where the Inquisition had been cheerfully burning Jews (and especially converso backsliders, whom they called heretics and swine--marranos) for years. Rachel, the youngest daughter, had been sent away to a convent school in Barcelona, where there was no tribunal and a genuine converso aunt with influence, for safety. But the aunt is being courted by a rather nasty supporter of the Inquisition, and Diego quickly realizes he has to get her out of Spain as soon as possible.
When we first meet Rachel, she's putting on a friend's brother's clothes, preparatory to sneaking out of the convent and into the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who will be greeting Columbus and his followers and getting their first look at the treasures and curiosities he's brought back, including gold, near-naked Taino captives, and some colorful but ill-behaved parrots. She's thinking, How hard can it be to be a boy?
I certainly didn't plan it, but Rachel is a darling. She's irrepressible, curious, impulsive, brave, and funny, and everyone who meets her loves her. Diego is determined to send her to Italy, where their parents and sisters have gone, before he embarks on the second expedition to Hispaniola. Rachel is equally determined to go with him, even when Admiral Columbus himself says no. (Of course she spoke up and asked him almost as soon as she met him. That's Rachel.)
Whether she's getting the mayor's wife in a Spanish village to roast a kid (ie a baby goat) for their dinner on the road, concocting a plan to help a Moorish slave escape from slavery, outclimbing the ship's boys in the rigging of the Mariagalante on the Ocean Sea, or playing batey, pounding yuca, or making poisoned arrowheads with her Taino friends, Rachel has a gift for friendship and for adapting to any surroundings. Her favorite words to her brother are, "Diego, you worry too much."
It took a long time to get Voyage of Strangers published once I'd written it. But one of the reasons I persisted was that I wanted so much to introduce Rachel to all of you. I think you'll love her too.
HANK: Liz! The research! How did you get involved in this story?
And Reds, what character have you fallen in love with?
Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York psychotherapist and author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series as well as the Diego Mendoza and Admiral Columbus series. Her new novel, Voyage of Strangers, is available for Kindle and Kindle app at
http://tinyurl.com/voyage-strangers. Three of Liz's stories have been nominated for the Agatha Award and one for the Derringer Award for Best Short Story. Her author website is at http://elizabethzelvin.com.