by Tracy Kiely
My parents were huge fans of Bob Newhart, especially his early work as a stand up comedian. They’d play his bits at parties, and pretty soon I was a fan too. I can remember coming home from school and perching on the backside of the couch facing my dad’s stereo system. (As befitting the 80s, the entire system was roughly the size of a small car. I believe at some point there was even a discussion about splurging on a “diamond stylus.”) From my perch, I’d flip through their collection of Newhart LPs (look it up all you youngsters), plop the chosen record on turntable, and then slip on the enormous gray and white cushioned headphones that resembled the headsets worn by helicopter pilots in Vietnam. Oh, yeah. Add a pair of bright pink leg warmers to the mix, and you have a pretty clear idea why I was never nominated to the Homecoming Court.
If you’re not familiar with Newhart’s early stuff, a.) You should become so right now, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7YBaiJMnik
and b.) a lot of it revolved around imagined telephone conversations. He’d set up the premise, and then say “I think it might go something like this...”
Some of his best bits include an imagined conversation from Sir Walter Raleigh trying to explain tobacco to the head of the West Indies Company in England (“Let me get this straight, Walt, you've bought eighty tons of leaves? Ah…this may come as a kind of a surprise to you, Walt, but come fall in England, we're kinda up to our...,”) and a call between a slick press agent and a reluctant President Lincoln (“Abe, do the speech the way Charlie wrote it. The Inaugural Speech swung, didn’t it?”)
Anyway, the point of this rather long introduction is to explain that when I started writing my first book, Murder at Longbourn, I wanted to reveal my protagonist’s situation quickly, without the reader feeling as if they were receiving a tutorial. Elizabeth was a young woman who had just broken up with her two-timing boyfriend. This decision, while good for her self-esteem, has left her without a date for New Year’s. I needed to give Elizabeth a reason to visit her Aunt Winnie’s new Inn, where, of course, romance and murder awaited. I also had a writing teacher who once advised me to give my main character a headache (not literally, of course; she just meant to add tension). To achieve both Elizabeth's need to leave town and her so-called headache, I created the character, Katherine, Elizabeth’s forever smug and condescending older sister. Katherine is married and the mother of a "perfect child." She is constantly telling Elizabeth what is wrong with her life and how to fix it. She is the reason Advil comes in those large bottles. No doubt due to my admiration of Newhart, I decided to introduce both Katherine and Elizabeth’s reason to visit Aunt through an awkward telephone call:
“Seeing the caller ID, my mood went from bad to worse.
It was my sister, Katherine. I knew what was coming. One of her goals in life is to see me married – and while I’m in no way opposed to the idea, it’s not my driving force in life. As I expected, no sooner did she hear my voice than she launched into rapid-fire speech. She had heard the news of my breakup from our mother and was clearly dumbfounded. How could I let a “catch” like Mark “slip away?” Didn’t I understand that with each passing year my chances of getting married diminished? (I’m all of 26). Didn’t I know that I had to “reel them in” while I was still young? (The way Katherine tossed around the fishing jargon you’d think she was a seasoned angler. Which was odd, given that the closest she ever got to fish was in her grocer’s frozen section.)
I didn’t want to tell her the real reason for the breakup – that Mark had been seeing at least two other women behind my back. But knowing she’d interrogate me until she got all the lurid details, I resigned myself to the inevitable. Candidly I volunteered, “He cheated on me, Katherine, okay?”
“Katherine, are you there?”
Finally, all in one breath I got, “Oh, you poor, poor thing. Are you alone right now? You shouldn’t be alone. Where’s Bridget? Oh, that’s right, Colin’s proposing this weekend, isn’t he? Well, don’t let that get you down. I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re thinking that you’re going to end up some lonely, old woman who lives with cats, but that’s not true!”
“Actually, Katherine, I wasn’t thinking that...”
“Good, that’s the spirit! Ok, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll come down. No, that won’t work. Tom and I are having a huge party this weekend for some clients. You’ll just have to come here.”
My brother-in-law sells hot tubs. It wasn’t hard to imagine where the night would end with a party composed of fellow enthusiasts in a house with the deluxe model.
She continued on. “You come here and we’ll forget all about Mark. We won’t even mention him. Do you know who he was seeing? Is she pretty? You poor, poor thing.”
The thing about my sister is that she does mean well. However, her idea of well and my idea of well are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Thanking her for her concern and promising that I would call if I needed to talk, I hung up on another, “Oh, you poor, poor thing.”
I looked at the bag of Oreos. After my third one, I realized I needed something stronger. I needed a large glass of chardonnay and a larger dose of Cary Grant. Pulling my wooly cardigan around me, I went in search of Bridget’s DVD collection. Passing the hall table, I reread Aunt Winnie’s invitation and decided her affair was just what I needed. Right after North by Northwest.”
Katherine pretty much disappears after that scene, as she had played her role and was free to disappear into the Well of Lost Characters. However, Katherine really struck a chord with a lot of readers. It seemed that most people have a Katherine in their lives (God help them) and therefore could commiserate with Elizabeth’s perpetual frustration in dealing with her. So, I brought Katherine back for a larger role in the third book in the series, Murder Most Persuasive, and again, readers seemed to enjoy the sisters’ “Love/Annoy the Crap Out of Each Other” relationship. I will keep Katherine around as she is (unintentionally) entertaining, but I can’t see her taking on a major permanent role. As Jane Austen herself said, “Of some entertainments, a little goes a long way.” Katherine is one of those entertainments.
Happily, Bob Newhart is not.