Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Do You or Don't You?

Terry Shames here, answering our weekly question: Do you include covid, politics, climate change among the background or foreground parts of the environment? If so, why? If not, why? 

I’ve read two recent books that include Covid, but only glancingly. One was Michael Connelly’s The Fifth Witness, and the other was Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney. In the first, the virus is mentioned toward the end in a casual way. The reader knows what’s coming, but Haller doesn’t. In Rooney’s, there are several long emails exchanges between friends and in the last couple of chapters there is reference to the fact that they haven’t seen each other in a while because of lockdown. They both fit in seamlessly, which I admire. 

 After 9/11 it took a few years before anyone mentioned the event in novels. And I remember the first time I read a book that used the even in its plot. In fact, I remember vividly each book I’ve read that refers to it or uses it directly. Which is to say that like 9/11, Covid had such a profound effect on the United States and the world that it will take time to let the ramifications of it settle in. In fact, because of the strange reluctance of some people to obtain vaccinations against the virus, part of a national rejection of science and expert opinions, I think it might take even longer. Notice I said “strange” reluctance. I hesitated to voice an opinion about it because the subject is a powder keg—another reason to hesitate before tackling such a major world event. 

 I write books set in small town Texas, an area noted for its conservative thinking. That means my characters have to include people with ideas and opinions directly opposed to my own. I’ve tried to make them seem fully human, not caricatures. For example, one of the characters is an advocate of gun rights. He is vocal about his opinion that people would be better off if they carried a gun. This is directly oppositional to my thinking. I’ve never made him a major character, but he’s sometimes a thorn in the side of Samuel Craddock because of his stance. But in one book, A Reckoning in the Back Country, I decided to focus more on him. When I did, he revealed a human side, a background that made him more sympathetic overall. It turned out he had a developmentally disabled son whom he treated with great respect and love. 

 All of my books are concerned with social issues—the way veterans are treated, gun carelessness, religious bigotry, racial intolerance, drugs, etc. In one book I addressed dog fighting, which was a subject that horrified me, and yet I felt like I wasn’t doing my job as a novelist if I pretended dog fighting doesn’t exist in rural areas of Texas. I don’t judge people who decide not to include social issues and national events in their books. It’s a hard decision. 

Authors have written great books that completely ignored current events--a war raging, political turmoil, economic upheaval. Jane Austen's book are about insular society, and there are glancing mentions of events, but nothing meaty. her aims are different. So it isn’t absolutely necessary to address these things. But I wouldn’t feel I was being true to myself as a writer if I didn’t give my characters the dimension of acting and reacting in the real world. 

 I recently read a good example of someone incorporating a social phenomenon in his book. In Last Looks by Howard Michael Gould, the protagonist has retired to become a hermit and has set himself the task of only owning 100 things. Gould manages to make the situation very funny, like when the protagonist has to decide whether a pair of sox is one thing or two. But it’s also thought-provoking, about careless consumption and how hard it is to stick to a strict regimen adopted out of the best intentions. 

Infusing humor is particularly difficult, and Gould does it brilliantly. By using humor he avoids being didactic. It’s a danger any writer faces who tries to incorporate current events and social issues; especially ones they have strong opinions about. It’s a decision we all have to make—how much to include, and how to tackle it. And sometimes why to tackle it at all. If it isn’t germane to the plot and characters, why do it? It can't be a casual decision because it affects people deeply and as authors, our job is to speak to our readers without preaching or being careless. p> 


Susan C Shea said...

I agree that you managed to bring serious issues into your Samuel Craddock series in a natural way, as they might actually be experienced in a small town, not as didactic arguments. That’s one reason your series works so well. Great post!

Terry said...

Thank you, Susan. There's a lot more to be said on the subject.

Frank Zafiro said...

Terry, I love the way you discuss fleshing out characters that are a) maybe unlikable at first glance (or second, or third), and b) who have views very different than our own. I think it shows your range as a writer.

Craddock is a great character but it's good that not everyone agrees with him. It's real, and it provides some contrast for the reader to have an even better handle on his values.

Regarding 9/11, I found myself feeling like I had to weave it into my sixth River City book, as it takes place in September of 2001. I don't know how I could have written a police-related book set in that time period without that watershed event being a factor. I took the approach that you wrote about preferring, weaving it in organically in a half dozen places or so, letting the event itself be there in the background. I think it works.

Since Craddock is a man, do you stil find readers attributing his beliefs and values to you (whether correct or not)? Or do they latch onto a female character as who they think is "you." I still find that readers try to make a one-for-one at times...

Terry said...

Thank you, Frank. Very nice comments. I had forgotten about a book I recently read that was totally set in lockdown and was brilliant. It's PURE by Jo Perry. A magical book.

It's funny, I don't get a lot of attributions about Samuel except that people love him and respect him. It's usually the minor characters that people in my family think they know, and they're usually wrong. There's only one character in all the books that's an exact rendering.

One of my favorite responses to Samuel was when a woman told me she wanted to marry him. I thought, "You do know he's fictional, right?"

Frank Zafiro said...

Way to dodge the woman's question, Terry!