Here’s a perfect example of why it’s so hard to write a novel in the first person. I was writing this novel… Alicia’s Ghost, with a good friend, John Mendoza. He’s of Mexican descent; I’m not. We’d gotten to the point in our book where the storyteller (our hunky, handsome college professor, Mexican-American ex-prize fighter) Carlos Mann has to describe things he just can’t know. Someone has murdered his wife, and now she’s back to haunt him. More than that, she’s been trashing his apartment because after three years he’s finally started to show an interest in another woman… one who’s alive. Now what?
John and I talked through the possibilities. We could let our hero’s wife, Alicia, start to tell the story. She was there for all the events Carlos had missed. The problem for me as the guy who actually composed the narrative, was that it would make me have to explain everything in Alicia’s words and from her point of view. I’d have to start thinking and talking like to a twenty three year old Mexican girl from a rural town who’s made it big as a model in Mexico City but still knows very little English… a girl everyone picked on when she was a kid… until Carlos came along and saved her. Needless to say she idolizes him.
I was intimidated by the task. After all, it’s one thing to write a few lines of dialogue that capture the personality and speech of a person. But it’s a whole other thing to try and let that character tell half of the story. I had to ask myself, could I, (an older guy who knew no Spanish and very few Latinas) do that? Well I guess I could try and see how it went. And then I could rewrite everything if it didn’t work. So I closed my eyes, pictured out heroine, put my fingers on the keyboard and started to write… this:
This is Alicia. I am sorry that my English is not good. But I have to tell you some very important things, no matter how I sound.
Not bad for a start, I thought: simple words, simple sentences, she doesn’t understand the language well enough to catch the nuances and double meanings that might be there. She sounds ESL as she should. I think I might have been channeling some characters from popular television shows and mixing in the voices of women I’d read about in novels like Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea (a really great book by the way).
When Alicia makes here entrance into our story she’s listening to her husband talk to his psychiatrist about her murder and the fact that he reacted to it by developing an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Alicia describes the scene. Her Carlos is sitting across from the shrink who is smoking:
The old man with the pipe explains it so simply. Carlos was so broken-hearted when he found me dead that his mind went crazy… but in a very strange way. Instead of running around throwing things, as I would do, he began to organize things, over-organize them until he was so busy organizing that it made him forget about the day of my blood.
The old doctor says that, in some ways, Carlos is showing his love for me when he does this.
I kept going and found that I was really starting to enjoy the experience, entering the mind of a beautiful, tough girl who was so in love with her husband that she refused to move on into the next world. She was a ghost. But what actually is a ghost and what rules govern their behavior? John and I decided that it was our novel so we could create any kind of ghost we wanted. Among other things that meant we could let Alicia and her ghost friends appear to humans in whenever form they chose. They could be hideous ghouls or as beautiful as they were in real life, and they could have an actual physical presence too. Alicia says:
The first time I left our apartment was when I had to go to Chinatown to rescue Carlos. I had to search out other ghosts to help me. And then Carlos and I returned to our little home, and we made love, and that was so beautiful. Gracias a Dios, I am dead but I enjoyed it… and so did he.
Yep, we even invented ghost sex. But more importantly I really had to start thinking like a Latina, planning things the way she would plan them, anticipating the way she would act, describing her flirtations the way she would flirt, maybe being a little upset with the way guys behave. After Alicia’s Ghost comes back to her husband she decides to tell him about the day she died. This is how it starts:
Carlos has his drink, and I slide down next to him on the couch. I’ve unbuttoned the top of my passport-photo dress so that he will look at me, any part of me that will keep his obsession/compulsions away. I reach over and stroke the hair on the back of his head. It is neat and short, but curly. His neck is shaved. Still, there is enough there to play with.
He’s looking where I’ve undone the button.
“Carlos,” I say, “my eyes are up here.” He smiles and kisses my cheek.
You get the idea. Later reviewers told us that of all the voices in our books, the one we really got right was Alicia. It made me so damn happy. Somehow I had give a voice to a wonderful woman who was tough enough to be telling me, the writer, how things would be and what she wanted to say. She had quite a few surprises for us too. And I’ll tell you about these adventures the next time around.