The continuing stooooooory of how the Grand Vizier puts his feet up and lets other people talk some sense for a change. This week: KT McCaffrey (right) on casting fiction.
Casting Characters in Fiction
As a writer, the question I get asked most frequently is without a doubt, ‘Do I base my characters on real people, i.e. acquaintances, or do I conjure them up from my imagination?’ My answers are never as clear-cut as I’d like them to be. I could say that for the most part my characters, as the disclaimer at the beginning of my books claims, are fictitious and that any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Well yes, that’s the necessary legalistic position, but of course as an observer of the human condition I am influenced by the people I interact with on a daily basis, so it follows that these same people inform the characters that inhabit the pages of my books. In essence my characters are created from an amalgamation of the crowd I hang with, taking various personality traits and physical shapes from each and blending them so that they form a believable whole.
Only in one instance did I base a character almost entirely on a living person. In my second novel, KILLING TIME, the fictitious character Jacqueline Miller has been involved in a serious car accident that has changed her life irrevocably. Half her face had been badly damaged in the accident, and evidence of cosmetic surgery remained visible beneath the carefully applied make-up; her left eye looks strangely out of line with the right one. In a court case resulting from the accident, Jacqueline is awarded enough money to allow her give up her teacher’s job and to purchase two houses in Leeson Park.
Here’s the reality: back in 1969, as a student in the NCAD I got to know a Cork-born woman named Lean Scully. She’d been a teacher before a horrific road accident almost brought her life to an abrupt end. The accident had seriously disfigured her and she needed a series of extensive skin grafts to her face. Arising out of the accident and subsequent court case, she received enough compensation to buy two magnificent houses, numbers 49 and 50 in Leeson Park. She opened a public relations practice in No. 49. Sounds familiar? Even though I was just an art student back then she sometimes hired me to design brochures and corporate publications for her clients. The money I earned ended up in the tills of The Pembroke, Toners and The International Bar. Happy days!
Lean Scully, this woman I was later to morph into the Jacqueline Miller character, kept lodgers in the second house – among them a young American student from Milwaukee named Peter Straub (right), who would become famous many years later for novels like GHOST STORY, THE FLOATING DRAGON, and THE TALISMAN (written with his friend Stephen King). Straub was attending university at the time, struggling to write poetry and studying for a Ph.D. I knew him on a nodding basis and attended a few poetry readings he gave in various pubs popular with us students (The great traditional musician Donal Lunny who, incidentally was a fellow traveller of mine in the NCAD, took up residence at one stage in the same rooms that Peter Straub once inhabited.)
Throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s I continued to do occasional design work for Lean and was always delighted when she invited me to attend the lavish, boozy parties she threw in No. 49. In 1999, when I decided to write my first book, REVENGE, Lean offered to read the manuscript before I offered it to a publisher. Unlike me, she was one of those people who knew every rule and regulation in regard to the proper usage of the English language. She was aghast at what I’d given her. ‘It seems to me,’ she said in her deep throaty voice, ‘you have a bucket full of commas, semicolons, apostrophes, and all you do is throw them at the page.’ In my defence, the manuscript represent my very first attempt at writing, though there are some people today who claim I’ve still got that bucket. Once Lean had managed to teach me to turn my text into what she called ‘acceptable English’, she enjoyed reading my books. I remember being concerned about giving her KILLING TIME to read, wondering what she’d make of Jacqueline Miller character. To my surprise, she didn’t make the connection. There is of course the possibility that she didn’t want to make the connection on account of the unsavoury actions I had the fictitious character enact in my story.
Lean loved reading and listening to classical music but her great love, her passion, was for the theatre. She had become a permanent fixture at the Edinburgh Festival, where her support and opinions were taken seriously and greatly appreciated. In contrast, certain well-known theatrical heads in Dublin viewed her as something of a nuisance and dismissed her with rude indifference. When Lean died in 2004, she had the last laugh, taking revenge on those in Dublin theatre land who had subjected her to such shabby treatment. In her will, she directed her executors to sell the two houses in Leeson Park, and after a bequest to a friend and the Carmelite Fathers, the proceeds from the property was to go to the Edinburgh Festival. I understand it amounted to the guts of €5 million. Don’t you just love it?
During her lifetime, Lean mixed with the movers and shakers, the glamour set, the golden circle, but I was one of only a dozen people in attendance at her burial in Dean’s Grange cemetery. How sad is that? Since her death all my characters have remained fictitious and any resemblance to real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Yeah, right ...
KT McCaffrey’s THE CAT TRAP is published by Robert Hale
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.