Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Bracelet and the Damage Done

By Hilary Davidson

When I started writing The Damage Done, I pictured my main character, Lily Moore, as a woman who never got too attached to things. She was, after all, someone who'd abandoned New York for Spain — breaking off her engagement in the process — without bothering to move any of her possessions with her (beyond whatever fit into her suitcase). I imagined that Lily's rootless upbringing, moving from town to town with an alcoholic mother and wayward sister, had made her immune to the siren call of acquisition. That wasn't to say Lily didn't have strong preferences. I knew that she loved old movies and wore vintage clothes and had a soft spot for objects past their best-before date, such as the black rotary-dial phone in her old apartment. (My grandmother, the woman responsible for my love of old movies, had a phone exactly like it in her apartment in Toronto; sometimes I wish I'd kept it, so I gave it to Lily.) But I expected Lily would have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward material goods.

By the end of Chapter 1, Lily set me straight.

I used to be puzzled when I heard authors talk about characters charting their own paths, making moves that surprised the people who created them. How was that possible? I still can't explain it, but I can tell you that Lily's obsession with a silver bracelet — a gift from her father — wasn't part of my original plan. It wasn't even in my first version of the chapter. That had Lily walking through her old apartment, believing her sister, Claudia, is dead, and noticing some odd, out-of-place things (which later become clues when Lily discovers a woman who'd stolen Claudia's identity was actually living in the apartment). Technically, the scene had what I wanted, but it lacked emotional depth. Lily was understandably sad about her sister, but her relationship with Claudia had so much frustration, tension, and even white-hot fury in it, and nothing in the scene brought that out... until Lily discovered the bracelet. I don't know where the idea came from; I only know that Lily felt as if she'd been punched when she found it:

As I sat on the edge of the bed, it felt as if the year since the apartment had been mine had multiplied into ten. I’d left it behind with almost everything I owned when I’d moved to Spain. Why had I been in such a rush? My own personal life was a shambles, but… My eyes fell on a silver bracelet and I made a strangled sound. It looked almost innocent, sitting atop the scarred wood of the old dresser. I stood and grabbed it, then rolled it around in my hands. It was an inch-wide bangle with an interlacing Irish scrollwork pattern on its surface. The inscription read For Lily, With Love Always, Dad.

For a moment I thought I’d burst into tears. It wasn’t awful enough that Claudia was dead; now I was reminded how much I hated her sometimes. The bracelet was the last Christmas present I ever had from my father. He’d even let me open it on Christmas Eve. We’ll have to wrap it up tight again, he’d said, imagine the hell your mother will give me otherwise. Then he’d died that night and I’d treasured and guarded his gift. I’d worn it to sleep as a teenager, afraid my mother would sell it for brandy or gin. Eighteen months ago, when I’d allowed a very sick Claudia to move in with me, it went missing. My sister had hepatitis then, and her normally pale skin was flushed yellow with jaundice. You don’t think I took it, do you? she’d said, the picture of frail innocence. Deep down, I’d always known she had. Even when she wasn’t shooting heroin she needed cash to buy her more-than-state-allotted doses of methadone, which provided its own high. But I’d never suspected she would steal it just to take it away from me. Dropping onto the bed, I took deep breaths and tried to pull myself together. I hadn’t thought I could be sadder or angrier or more miserable than I was when I found out my sister was dead, but I was wrong.

Contrary to what I'd pictured, Lily had a powerful attachment to objects... but only to a tiny number of objects. The fact that she's had to leave so much behind as she's moved around has only made her obsess about the things she's determined to keep. Understanding that side of her really brought her to life in my mind.


clpauwels said...

What a powerful scene! I love it when characters reveal themselves to me (as the writer) in such memorable ways.

Of course the non-writers of the world think we're crazy if we talk about such things ;-)

Chris said...

This reminds me of a lovely bit of advice Jane Espenson once gave about writing character: it's that tiny detail that seems to play against type that truly brings a character into focus. Lily's attachment to the bracelet is all the more affecting for being rare in her world, and it tells us everything we need to know about who she is.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks so much for your kind comments, Pat and Chris! Sometimes when I'm writing, that famous Emerson quotation about consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds tugs at me. I've come to realize that it's these twists and inconsistencies that make characters human.

Supriya Savkoor said...

Love this scene, Hilary! Thanks for sharing.