Your Character Would Like A Word With You
One night a couple of years ago, I came home late and found my wife already half asleep.
"Your character called you back." She rolled over and opened one eye. "I left the number on your desk."
I walked into the next room and there it was, scrawled in blue ink on a yellow pad. Darryl King, one of the main characters from my first novel, Slow Motion Riot, published fifteen years ago. His number was in our area code with an exchange in our neighborhood.
"Call tomorrow after nine," the note said. Of course, I had called him in the first place. But now I wondered if that had been wise.
In my book, Darryl was a handful, boyishly impulsive and explosively angry. Within the first few pages of the novel, he'd murdered a New York City police officer. The book did well enough, but over the years I've sometimes wondered if I wasn't a little hard on Darryl. So I'd begun to research a very different kind of book, one that traced a character's hard road from prison to redemption with all its detours and potholes.
To prepare, I had lunch at Junior's in Brooklyn with an old friend, who has done a couple of short stints in prison back in the mid-70s. As we divided up the check—my friend having turned into a scrupulous and hard-working taxpayer long ago—I asked him if he knew anybody who'd gotten out of prison more recently who might be able to talk about the transition to the outside world in a thoughtful way.
"Yeah," he said after a half-minute. "Darryl King."
"No." I counted out my change. "You're confused. Darryl King is the character in that book I gave you a few years ago."
"No," my friend corrected me. "You're the one who's confused."
It turned out that the Darryl King he knew was not only a real person, he had a couple of things in common with the character I'd created. Like the Darryl I'd made up, he'd been arrested and accused of gunning down a New York cop. In fact, he'd served twenty-five years for the crime. Unlike my character, however, he insisted that he was innocent, the victim of mistaken identity. I hesitated about calling him at first, even though he worked for an advocacy group just a few blocks from my home. For one thing, I didn't want to get into the business of investigating his claims about a crime that happened a quarter-century before. For another, I wasn't particularly eager to get into an awkward detailed discussion about why he wasn't my character.
Weirdly, it was a dilemma I should have been used to. Because in fact, he wasn't even the first real-life Darryl King I'd run into. Shortly after Slow Motion Riot came out in 1991, I got a letter from "the Frankfort Career Development Center," a rather misleadingly titled minimum security prison in Kentucky, from a completely different Darryl King, asking for an autograph and thanking me for giving him inspiration.
If that wasn't strange enough, a few years later, as I was putting the finishing touches on a book called Casino Moon, about a young Italian-American named Anthony struggling with the legacy of a father murdered under mysterious circumstances, I met, yes, a young Italian-American named Anthony struggling with the legacy of a father murdered under mysterious circumstances. At the time, I shrugged it off, since the name is so common. Several years later, however, just as I was finishing a book called Man of the Hour, about a young Palestinian named Nasser who emigrates from Bethlehem to Brooklyn at the age of six I met—you guessed it—a Nasser who had done the exact same thing. Again, I tried to shrug it off, even as I explained to the real Nasser that the fictional one was not based on him.
I am by temperament perhaps a bit jaded. I don't check my horoscope or go to palm readers. I try not to rely on coincidences and chance meetings when I plot out my novels and I don't tend to like writers who do. But any way you cut it, that's a lot of people with the same name and similar biographical details.
I tried to tell myself it was all just a matter of statistical probability. I tend to spend a lot of time doing research when I write my books, hanging out with real people who do the same things my characters do, studying styles of dress and behavior, picking up habits of speech and thought until they become almost second-nature. Maybe I'd tipped the odds in favor of these coincidences just by accumulating an excessive amount of information and then sifting it through it to come up with a median average for my character names and details.
Still, I felt a little uneasy after I called the real Darryl King and set up a lunch date. What if he didn't believe me when I said my book wasn't about him? As a precaution, I brought along not only a copy of my novel but the letter I'd received from the other Darryl King in Kentucky.
"That is strange," he admitted, looking over both the letter and the book as we sat down at a local sandwich place. "You even spell Darryl the same way I do, instead of with one R."
To my relief, he looked little like the blunt and furious man-child I'd described in my novel. He was a large-framed soft-voiced man in his fifties, with dark-framed glasses and a thin mustache.
"There's all sorts of things out there," he mused, folding the letter up and putting it inside the novel. "It's almost spiritual. I don't mean spiritual in the religious sense. I mean, spiritual in the way that there are connections waiting to be made in the world. If we could just learn to use more of our brain power we'd see them more often."
We sat and talked for quite some time. Even though I was still wary because of the original charges against him, I found myself starting to like him. He was candid, self-effacing and insightful. And ironically, the more I talked to him, the more I found myself able to imagine a character who would be the polar opposite of the one I'd etched such an acid portrait of years before.
He talked about the fear of being inside, but more importantly, the fear of getting out. He talked about what it was like coming back to the world after twenty-five years. How everything seemed different, even women and the way they carried themselves on the street. He talked about how difficult it was to unlearn the cautionary habits of prison life, of trying not to say "excuse me" every time he accidentally brushed up against someone on the subway, because he'd just come from a place wherever even the slightest unwelcome contact could earn a man a shank in the neck. He talked about finishing a meal at a restaurant and carrying his silverware to the door, as if he still had to return his knife and fork to the guard before going back to his cell.
"It's like getting out of the hospital after you've just had major surgery," he said. "You're not ready. You hear all kinds of crazy things about what it's like out there. So it just builds up in your mind until it's scarier to get out than it is to stay in."
It would be another two years before I finished the novel I was researching that day, but by the time I paid the check most of the foundation had been laid.
"What's the character's name in your new story?" Darryl King asked, getting up from the table with my old book under his arm.
"Julian Vega," I said, before worriedly adding, "You don't know anybody with that name, do you?"
He shook his head. "I don't think so."
I started to say goodbye. "I appreciate you being understanding about the coincidence with the name, Darryl. Can I give you a call some time if I have other questions?"
I saw a flicker of hesitation behind his frames.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Nothing. It's fine." He offered his hand. "I was just thinking I might like to write a book myself."
This piece originally appeared on Huffingtonpost.com
© Peter Blauner