A Writer’s Notebook: Character interview

For a short set-up, I’ll reveal only that I’m currently thinking about—but not yet working on—a story about a character who is very difficult for me to understand, for reasons which will be apparent in the exercise itself. So this week, I decided to get to know him a little better by interviewing that character, a process I’ll explain in more detail below.

Me: Ford, thank you for agreeing to meet with me—I know this must be difficult for you.

Ford Randall Kemp: Whatever. I just want to get through this, get it over with, you know?

M: I’ll try to be brief. But let’s just jump right into it, to keep things quick, okay? So, you were imprisoned ten years ago for the rape of—

FRK: It wasn’t rape.

M: For the statutory rape of a young girl.

FRK: She was fifteen. I was eighteen. I can name you two or three dozen people my age did the same damned thing. What else you supposed to do in this town but drink and screw? We was all doing it, and what went on between me and her was consensual.

M: But still you were convicted.

FRK: Her damned parents kept pushing it. And then there was that preacher.

M: The youth group leader, Ben Hager.

FRK: He’s the one. People here will do whatever a church fellow tells `em, they’ll believe whatever he says. Him and those parents, they had me lynched `fore I ever went into that courtroom.

M: There was another witness, too—a girl, a friend of Chen’s?

FRK: That’s what I heard. Don’t know who she is—she gave a statement but never testified.

M: Do you resent them still? The Hager man, the parents, that girl?

FRK: I don’t know. I mean, there’s a part of me’s still mad as hell, and I sure couldn’t stay in a room with them for longer than thirty seconds—

M: And yet you came back to Boerne. Why’d you return to this town? After all that happened?

FRK: This is where I’m from, where my family is from. It’s who I am. It’s in my blood. It’s hard, on a lot of people besides me I know, but damn it, they can’t take away my roots. I belong here same as anyone, got the same right to be here as anyone.

M: A lot of people would rather start over, I’d think. Have you found it difficult to find work? To reconnect with old friends?

FRK: It’s hard, sure. I’ve been a few places, asked around about work. They got these flyers, with my picture and my name, some stuff about what they said I done, those things are pasted all over. At the HEB and the Wal-Mart, at the library, at the schools, at the old folks home. So it’s hard. I got a job mowing lawns, for one, and I go around collecting trash, not like a garbage man but more like a salvage man, picking up things out of the trash I can sell off other places or fix up, things like that. I make ends meet.

M: And old friends? New friends? How has it been trying to fit back into your old life?

FRK: I ain’t got a old life. There’s some fellows I knew back in the day, we see each other at the bar now and then. Some has moved out and some don’t want to know me any more. There’s a couple of fellows, but that’s it. Had me a dog for a while, but he’s disappeared now. I think one of my neighbors took him.

M: Why do you think that?

FRK: I don’t know. I’d of said it was to mess with me, to, what do you call it, deprive me of happiness? But this neighbor of mine don’t seem interested in that, and he’s new around here besides, don’t have any history with what everyone else is so upset about. I don’t really like the looks of that guy, to tell you the truth.

M: Let’s get back to life here. Do you see a future in Boerne? Are you planning to stay long?

FRK: Why? You looking to run me out too?

M: I’m not looking for anything, Ford. I’m just asking what people want to know.

FRK: People can just suck it up and sit tight, cause I ain’t going anywheres.

M: What about Chen? Have you been in contact with her since you got out?

FRK: I ain’t supposed to, no. Besides, I don’t think she’s around here no more. I hear she went up north somewhere, Dallas or somewhere.

M: If you could talk to her today, what would you tell her?

FRK: I ain’t got nothing to say to her.

M: Are you angry that she turned you in?

FRK: She didn’t turn me in. I done told you, it was that Ben fellow and that friend of hers, whoever it was. Chen and me was . . . . Look, I ain’t gonna talk about her anymore.

M: There was some talk during the trial, I think about why she was never put on the stand. If it was consensual, why didn’t you call her as a witness to say so.

FRK: I said I ain’t— Look, we did, okay? Or, I did. I talked to her, and called her up and asked her to tell folks—to tell her own folks, anyway—that we was doing what she wanted us to do. She never said word one. Never answered my calls, never called me back. I saw her in the courtroom once, in the back. She just sat there. She knew what was happening to me and she just sat there quiet and hiding from it all like she was embarrassed or something, I don’t know, and that little . . . . She, she let it happen. She didn’t say nothing to stop it.

M: So you blame her, then, for what happened.

FRK: I blame this whole goddamned town, is who I blame.

M: Then why did you come back here?

FRK: To hell with all y’all, is why I come back here. And to hell with you, too.

M: I’m sorry—

FRK: You’ll see. I’m telling you now, you’ll see why I come back. And to hell with me too.

This exercise is fairly common and has a lot of variations, from the short and simple to the lengthy and elaborate, but for today’s exercise, I decided to shy away from written lists of questions and treat this as an actual interview—and then just wing it. There are some pretty complicated ways to go about the character interview, with setting descriptions, background notes, comments on mannerisms, and so on (check out Gina Candido’s Suite101 article for this sort of exercise), but I wanted more than anything to hear Ford’s voice, to let him speak, so today, I focused on that.

Very little of this will make it into the story I intend to write, but it’s actually proven invaluable, because the free nature of this exercise and the requirement that I just get out of the way and let Ford speak for himself has allowed me to discover some interesting bits of background I didn’t know about before, and it’s given me a clearer picture of Ford’s emotional state and some inkling–even though he hasn’t said so aloud–of what he was really thinking about when he moved back into this town. And now I’m looking forward to writing the story.

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