Wednesday, June 10, 2009
It's Just a Name...
Most of my writing career, I’ve published non-fiction. Once I wrote a short article about a woman who I’ll now call Gertie McGuiness, who lived next door to me when I was growing up. After I was married, I read a death announcement that put me into tears. I read the names of childhood playmates who were going to be pallbearers for Gertie McGuiness, other relatives I recognized. My husband and I rushed to the visitation at the funeral home – me sobbing, him holding me by the elbow.
We entered a crowded room of mourners and then – Gertie McGuiness walked toward me and said, “Hi, Latayne.” My husband said he had to hold me up.
“I th-thought you were dead,” I said. She chuckled, put her arm around me, and led me to the coffin where her sister-in-law – a woman also named Gertie who married one of the McGuiness brothers – lay serenely. Others in the room brushed aside tears and smiled at my sputtering delight at finding that my friend, the other Gertie McGuinness, was still alive.
So I wrote an article for our hometown newspaper (later reprinted nationally), called “Saying Goodbye to Gertie.” It was about redemption, getting someone back from the dead. I was eminently pleased with the whole matter.
But the next time I saw Gertie McGuiness, she seemed miffed. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “You said I laughed. It was my sister-in-law’s funeral. I didn’t laugh.”
Of course she (like Sarah of old, now that I think about it) did indeed laugh. But she didn’t want to be remembered for insensitivity. It was her name on the line, after all.
You would have thought that lesson would have stuck with me a little better, but I thought fiction was different. In my novel Latter-day Cipher I named a minor character after a rather silly-sounding alias, something like “Rocky Richochet,” used briefly 20 years ago by a friend’s rebellious son. I characterized the character through the eyes of the villain, who called him “a punk kid.”
Imagine my distress last Sunday when my friend accosted me in the geographical middle of our church right after services and said sternly, “Did you or did you not call Rocky Richochet a punk kid?” He was angry.
I explained that in the book I had used versions of my own childrens’ names – of those characters, one died, two were infants, another was mentally unbalanced. They had been delighted in seeing details or names slipped into the narratives. He wasn’t dissuaded from his anger. (I have to admit I too began to become upset at the accusative tone, the public setting my friend chose.)
It was fiction, I kept saying to the man, it’s fiction.
But not to this man. I think he saw himself as the protector of his son's reputation, and he was not a bit pleased. And I don’t think he’ll get over it, though I apologized over and over.
How about you? Have you ever had any repercussions from using a name in your writing?