Susan Isaacs: Dreadful Gloria and the Voices Inside My Head
Best-selling author Susan Isaacs explains how certain characters will carve out their own space inside the mind of a writer.
I hear voices. Okay, not like Joan of Arc. But since my first novel, Compromising Positions, characters come to me, tap me on the shoulder and say, “I need you to tell my story.” Most often they add, “please.” No doubt my psyche has its unpleasant backstreets, yet until Goldberg Variations, even my most troubled protagonists rose to my consciousness with proper manners.
Homicide cop Steve Brady of Magic Hour, traumatized Vietnam vet, recovering alcoholic, recovering heroin addict, might have been gruff and capable of violence, but he would never disrespect his elders. Lily White’s main character, a criminal lawyer, was one tough dame in court. In life, too, in part because Lily had been betrayed by her family – her supposed source of support. Yet during the writing, I loved that her courtesy stayed intact. It was part of her nature, and it became a weapon in her defense arsenal as well.
But, then along came Gloria (née Goldberg) Garrison. Wow, was she dreadful! But wait. Let me go back a bit.
I’d just finished my previous book, As Husbands Go. I was living in that pleasant, idea-free zone between novels. One afternoon, I was listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations with passionate focus. That lasted for about ninety seconds before I got distracted. Not a unique occurrence in my life. It can be anything. A birdy tweet. Someone sneezing a half block away. A solar eclipse.
This time the distraction was the iTunes app on my cell: Goldberg Variations scrolled across the screen over and over. By the time it lost its hypnotic hold on me, I had my new title. I also had the subject matter of my next novel: four Goldbergs, members of a family, how they differed and what (if anything) they had in common.
I decided on three twenty-somethings and someone older. Mother? Father? Nah. A grandmother felt right, but as she started to emerge, I realized no chocolate chip cookies would be coming out of this woman’s oven. “I decided” sounds like an aloof, writerly choice, so I should take it back. I didn’t think up Gloria Garrison; she came to me as she was. Tall, thin, and chic, for starters, an appropriate look for someone in the beauty/fashion makeover business. But God, was she mean!
The woman who come out of my imagination was one of those perceptive people who are witty and pitiless. Somehow, she could sense people’s most sensitive areas. Then zing, right at that target. The awful truth, spoken out loud, so no one hearing it can ever get it out of their heads. Her thoughts were even more scathing--and insightful.
It’s Gloria’s meanness that sets the story in motion. Her company, Glory Inc., is set to be taken over by her colleague and dear friend Keith. But her inability (or unwillingness) to suppress herself so alienated him that he’s willing to turn his back on a multimillion dollar sure thing. Gloria concludes her only choice is to pick one of the three grandchildren to inherit. There’s one problem though; she barely knows them. Well, so what? They don’t have to like her. She’s simply going to select one – and only one – to take over what she’s created. By inviting all three to Santa Fe, she’s having an audition, seeking out the star.
A dreadful woman. But listen, did Dostoevsky ever think, “Gee, that Rashkolnikov is a lovely guy”? Protagonists don’t have to be sweetie pies. They don’t even have to be nice. But authors and readers need to discern some quality in main characters that holds out the possibility of redemption. You and I need to root for them, whether or not they ever get to where we hope they will go.
I’d never had a “bad” main character before. But when creating minor ones like the gangster Fancy Phil Lowenstein in Long Time No See or the mysterious, retired CIA spook Jacques Harlow in Past Perfect, their redeeming social value emerged in the course of the action. (The only irredeemably evil characters I’ve ever written were sociopaths, people completely lacking in conscience and empathy.)
Naturally, I was nervous about writing from the point of view of a woman so distanced from her own flesh and blood that she could refer to her grandchildren as “the odious three.” But as I began the first chapter, I found writing whatever came into Gloria’s head a delight. Creating a character who doesn’t stifle herself freed me from the Tyranny of Nice. Like so many other women, I was raised by my family and culture to be a people pleaser: not just to be pleasant and avoid giving offense, but to make whomever I was with feel good.
Writing in the first person about someone who “doesn’t give a rat’s ass about charity” was not a guilty pleasure, it was pure pleasure. Her opinions, background, and interests were far enough from mine that I didn’t feel exposed. Gloria’s a former model who combines fashion savvy with keen business skills. I’m more the type who believes aqua and purple are a great color combination. I yawn at the words “balance sheet.” Maybe that’s also why I needed Gloria, to make me think in new, analytical ways.
Another difference between us: unlike me, she has no inner censor. She observes her family with breezy contempt: Her son is “Bradley, that bubblehead.” Her daughter-in-law “is built like a blowup sex toy, though admittedly better dressed.”
A novel with one awful, though amusing, protagonist dropping bon mots, or, in Gloria’s case, mal mots would not be enough of a challenge for me. I had two goals I wanted to accomplish in this book. First, the title is Goldberg Variations. Gloria may set events into motion, but her grandchildren are also main characters. She’s certainly one hell of a first-person narrator, but I created (I hope) three other strong and unique alternating voices: Daisy’s, her brother Matt’s, and their cousin Raquel’s. I needed them to be as fully realized characters as their grandmother. The word Variations is about the diversity that arises within a family—and within America as well.
Also, given that Gloria is so estranged from her family, I wanted to offer her a shot at reconciliation. This was the only one of my thirteen novels for which I did not make an outline. I needed to be surprised about which one of the grandchildren, if any, would inherit Glory. Beyond that, I wanted to see how Gloria’s chance for redemption would play out. I didn’t want it to come from on high, but from the three kids. They could point the way to the path.
Would she take it? Even if she did, is a dreadful human being who is seventy-nine-year-old capable of anything more than superficial change?
There’s an anecdote about the arts I’ve always loved, about the Russian ballet impresario Diaghilev; he challenged Jean Cocteau to rise to a creative occasion with the statement, “Etonnez-moi”: Astonish me.
And that’s what I wanted from Gloria. Dreadful Gloria. I didn’t worry about whether the novel’s ending was happy or not, whether she came together with her family or continued along her old, cold path. I just wanted to be astonished.
-- Susan Isaacs