Of Two Davids

[Light spoilers for the book]

Sometimes inspiration is very general; sometimes very specific.

In a previous post, I noted that the first full draft of The Racetrack Chronicle went out on December 1, 2016. In the pages of that draft, we find Maggie’s inamorato, David Wright, basically complete. But two weeks later, Travelers began airing in the United States, and Patrick Gilmore’s characterization of David Mailer swam into view.

And it changed everything, really.

So much so, in fact, that Gilmore’s mentioned by name on the “thanks” page. Right by James S.A. Corey, without whom I couldn’t have written the dang thing at all! What gives?

I wrote about Travelers after season one, so I won’t rehash those praises here. Suffice to say that it’s the best show on television at the moment, challenged only (in a different genre) by The Good Place. (I’d associate myself with Jason Snell’s comments on The Incomparable.) This post is about how Gilmore’s performance as David Mailer helped me bridge my “empathy gap” with David Wright and Maggie.

Here’s a window into how things work in my shop. Because I’m a fraud—that is, because I can’t actually just make things up, like wot proper writers do—the only way that I can write is to do what I think actors do: Fully-imagine fully-formed characters, get into their skin, develop Stockholm syndrome, and let them tell me what they think, how they feel, and what they say. Of course, actors go through that process after getting the script, whereas I’m doing it precisely in order to create the script. But you get the idea. There’s almost no line of dialogue in the book that I feel that ”Simon actual” “wrote”; I finessed, polished, and structured, but in substance, it’s all from the characters.

(Especially Abigail. She routinely spouted things that made me blush and sputter “there’s no way that’s going in the book, Abi.” And then we’d fight, and she’d usually win because Jon frakkin’ Winokur kept sandbagging me, posting quotes about how writers need to be brave and just put the frakkin’ line in the frakkin’ book. “See?” Abi would cackle. Sometimes reprovingly, but mostly lecherously. But I digress.)

In the first round of drafts, inhabiting David Wright was fun but difficult. By contrast, inhabiting characters like, say, the COB or Jackson Spencer was just fun, and I understand better now what attracts people to acting. (Writing a couple of lines for Aaron Douglas’ Chief Tyrol was pure joy.) Inhabiting Abigail was fun and difficult in equal parts; she gets some of her traits from me, her self-loathing, misandry, and overcompensation, for example. David was tougher because the stakes were higher: I’m not like any of those characters, so writing any of them required an act of empathy. But David was central to Maggie’s character-arc. He, more than any character save Abigail and Maggie herself, had to work; had to not just scan (as he did in the pre-Mailer 12/1 draft), but feel right.

Inhabiting Maggie was usually painful, but—because she’s the primary character, the person with whom I always identified in the first instance, of whose personality and background I had the strongest impression, and in whom I was the most invested—it was never hard. With one exception: David.

Structurally, I needed Maggie Edmondson to fall in love with David Wright. Truly, madly, deeply, irrevocably. Dramatically, I needed the reader to feel it. And personally, just for myself, I needed to feel that I was doing that relationship justice. That it was organic and fair; that nothing was imposed on her.

As a near-middle-aged, heterosexual male with more than a little bit of misandry, that posed a serious challenge of empathy: How could I write a young woman in love, with a man, in a way that had veracity and integrity, in a way that conveyed real feeling? David falling for her was easy to empathize with; her for him? I found that difficult. So it’s fair to say (and some beta-readers did say) that in that first draft, David Wright (and Maggie’s romance with him) was functional, but felt hollow.

Enter stage right Travelers, Gilmore, and “other David.”

From the instant we meet him, David Mailer radiates warmth, integrity, decency, and humanity. It’s no surprise as Marcy is drawn off-mission and in. Always hard to know how much of a characterization comes from the writing and how much from the performance, of course; I think that what’s sympathetic in Maggie Edmondson came from Cairns, but I’m less certain where Kat MacLaren is concerned, for example. My feeling—with due respect for the writers—is that what connects us to David Mailer is in the timbre of Gilmore’s open-hearted performance. Either way, though, the operative point was this: In David Mailer, Gilmore believably provided a model of a good man, and I felt that I could entirely empathize as Marcy falls for him. And that gave me a way “in” for writing Maggie falling for David Wright.

I don’t think that Wright’s then-existing dialogue changed an awful lot. There’s more of it in the final draft, to be sure. What changed completely was the way that the character felt to me, and as a result, Maggie’s interaction with him and the way it’s presented. Maybe it’s in my head—I hope not, I hope it’s on the page—but I see a sea-change between the December 2016 draft and the final text in how Wright comes across, and in Maggie’s feelings for him. There’s a warmth and veracity to him, and I think a depth to her feelings, that couldn’t have been there. After seeing Gilmore as Mailer, I was able to get into Maggie’s skin on this and feel her feelings for him as her boundaries melt and gives herself over to their relationship.

And when (as he eventually must) he meets his untimely end, I genuinely feel it as a hammer-blow, not only in Maggie’s reaction, but directly and organically as a reaction of my own to this character’s fate. It changes the context of that event, not only in the book, but when watching season one of the show. It amps up the pathos to the “flash forward,” Future Imperfect. And in Rubicon, Maggie’s lingering hurt years later rings true in a way that I’m not sure that it did before; the theme that we don’t really ever get over these losses resonates more strongly because of the warmth watching Mailer let me imbue into Wright and his relationship with Maggie.

Gilmore’s performance created a context and inspiration, and a range of empathetic and emotional possibility for the 2017 redraft that significantly and materially improved the book. And for that I’m very thankful to him.

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