Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Freaks ’R’ Us: Inhabiting Alien Characters

Author Andrew W. M. Beierle’s 2002 Lambda award winning novel, The Winter of Our Discotheque, had aging star Dallas Eden playing fairy godfather to Tony Alexamenos’s young ingénue. In his new novel, First Person Plural, his characters are a unique set of conjoined twins that have their own set of personalities and problems, one is straight and one is gay, but they share the same torso and legs.

And you thought you had sibling problems…

In the first post of what will be an ongoing series of guest posts by different authors on writing, Andrew discusses what it's like to find commonality between writer and character as well as the difficulties in writing about conjoined twins.

Thanks for joining us today, Andrew.

Freaks ’R’ Us: Inhabiting Alien Characters
By Andrew W. M. Beierle

When I first told a friend about the theme of my new novel, First Person Plural—an exploration of the private lives of conjoined twins, one gay and one straight, who share a single body—he expressed concern for my mental health.

It was not that he thought I was insane for attempting to tackle such bizarre content. Rather, knowing how deeply writers need to immerse themselves in their characters, even to identify with them, he thought the process just might drive me crazy.

“I’m worried about you spending two years in the company of such freaks,” he said.

Despite the fact that two years turned into five, I’ve emerged as sane as when the journey began in 2000 with my short story “La Vie Sexuelle des Monstres” (“The Sex Life of Monsters”), a reference to a 1904 study of the romantic adventures of Italian brothers Giovanni and Giacomo Tocci, upon whom my characters, Owen and Porter Jamison were based, in part.

An extremely rare set of conjoined twins of the type dicephalus (literally “two-headed”), Owen and Porter are separate individuals from their necks up but share a single body. As children, they’re seen as a single entity—Owenandporter, or more often, Porterandowen. As they grow to adulthood, their differences become more pronounced: Porter is outgoing and charismatic while Owen is cerebral and artistic. When Porter becomes a high school jock hero, complete with cheerleader girlfriend, a greater distinction emerges, as Owen gradually comes to realize that he’s gay.

Porter’s unease with his brother’s sexuality leaves Owen feeling increasingly alienated from his twin, especially when Porter falls in love and Owen becomes the unwilling third side of a complicated love triangle. And when Owen finally begins to explore his own desires, the rift grows deeper.

Contrary to my friend’s concerns, it has been neither difficult nor unpleasant spending time with Owen and Porter (or, for that matter, crazy-making). In fact, of all the characters I have ever created, I feel closest to them for the very reason that they are so unusual, so unlike me or anyone I know.

My interest in writing about the alien, the “other,” was sparked largely by three novels: Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, in which a mother ingests a variety of drugs and toxic substances during pregnancy to produce offspring who will populate the family-owned sideshow; Mrs. Caliban, by Rachel Ingalls, which depicts a love affair between a lonely married woman and a sea monster; and The Giant’s House, by Elizabeth McCracken, a romance between a meek librarian and a very tall young man.

In First Person Plural, I wanted to use my two-headed protagonists as a metaphor for the alienation I felt as a gay man. Despite the progress gay people have made since I came out at the age of eighteen in 1969, I remained constantly aware of feeling different. And I felt that no matter how hard I tried to fit in (short of going back into the closet), I would always remain as obviously different as if I . . . well, had two heads. Voilá.

We’ve all been told in creative writing seminars that we need to know our characters intimately. What makes them happy or sad. What motivates them. What scares them.

All that is well and good, but when we try to bring them alive on the page for our readers, we tend to focus on externals, on descriptions: what color hair or eyes they have, whether they are tall or short, fat or thin, plain or pretty. We attempt to demonstrate personality through specific characteristics or through the choices they make: What size shoe they wear, what flavor ice cream they prefer. Mac or PC? Lefty or righty? Boxers or briefs?

Many times, our principal characters most closely resemble ourselves. While it is not unheard of, it is somewhat unusual for a man to write from a female protagonist’s perspective, or vice versa. And we tend to base lesser characters on people we know—parents, siblings, friends, and lovers (or ex-lovers, oh yes, ex-lovers are a favorite species). We adopt the personality templates whole, only the names are changed to protect the innocent (or to protect us from lawsuits by the guilty).

But how do we convincingly inhabit alien characters? How did I get into the heads (pun fully intended) of Owen and Porter?

In some ways, my methods were not out of the ordinary. Calling to mind my personal discomfort at hearing other people eat—the slurping of soup or crunching of cereal drives me from the dining room—I imagined what it must have been like for Owen to listen to Porter, whose head was always tangential to his own, chew his Lifesavers instead of letting them dissolve silently in his mouth. I thought about what it would be like for Owen to get razor burn from Porter’s stubble when his brother first began to grow a beard. And at night, lying alone in my bed, I imagined what it would be like to have another person sleeping not beside me but, in a way, inside me, his half of our body inert while I remained alert and restless.

One night I realized I had developed the habit of crossing my ankles over one another and interlocking my big toes. Somehow, it subconsciously gave me a sense of security, of self-containment, of completeness, that did not exist when my feet were not intertwined. I realized that quirk might serve as a powerful connection between Owen and Porter, especially when they were younger—a way for one to let the other one know he was there for him. At that moment I realized I had become, if not Owen and Porter then at least one of them.

While I did not set out to write a “message” novel, it is my fervent hope that straight people who read First Person Plural may find something in the character of Owen with which they identify, some hope or habit they recognize as their own, and thereby come to understand that we are not so different, any of us, under the skin, behind the labels, beneath the armor we each don daily to protect ourselves and to conform.

As Rosemarie Garland Thomson, an Emory University faculty member and author of Extraordinary Bodies, writes, “People who are visually different have always provoked the imagination of their fellow human beings. The extraordinary body is fundamental to the narratives by which we make sense of ourselves and our world.”

You can read more about First Person Plural at http://andrewbeierle.com/. For the record, Porter wears boxers; Owen prefers briefs. They alternate.

Thank you again, Andrew, for generously agreeing to kick off the guest blogging here at Bookseller Chick.

If you have any questions for the author or would like to learn more about his body of work, please leave your comment below. On Saturday one commenter will be chosen at random to receive a copy of First Person Plural before its release date on August 28th.*

*To be sent out after my trip to Denver is over.


Anonymous said...

Andrew, I intend to read the book. It sounds very interesting. Thanks for the link.


Anonymous said...

I am very eager to read your book. Your explanation of how you formed your characters in "First Person Plural" is very intriguing and makes me think about life in more of an in-depth way. Thank you for guest-blogging.


Anonymous said...

What sounds like a bizare concept now seems like a lovely homage to the struggles we all face in discovering our true identities. Plus, what a wonderful author's photo!


Stephanie said...

So many questions, but I'll only give you two. Did you speak to any conjoined twins during the course of your research? And how did you choose their names. (I quite like their names).

Anonymous said...


The twins were actually named for a couple I know, but the choice turned out to be quite providential. As the characters developed, it became clear that to some extent Porter "carried" Owen, much the way a railroad porter carries luggage (because Porter really took "ownership" of the body in ways Owen did not). And Owen sounds a bit like "owe," as if he "owed" his life to Porter. Their last name, Jamison, came as a result of thinking about Janus, the two-headed god. Owen and Porter were Janus's "sons," so to speak, thus Janus's son became Jamison. I had thought of using Janson or something similar, but Jamison worked best for me.

Although I did extensive research for the book, I never actually spoke to conjoined twins. These books were among the most helpful:

The Two-Headed Boy and Other Medical Marvels, by Jan Bondeson, Cornell University Press, 2000.

Psychological Profiles of Conjoined Twins: Heredity, Environment, and Identity, by J. David Smith, Praeger, 1988

Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, by Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Columbia University Press, 1997.

One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal, by Alice Domurat Dreger, Harvard University Press, 2004.

Twins: And What They Tell Us About Who We Are, by Lawrence Wright, John Wiley & Sons, 1999.

Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior, by Nancy L. Segal, Plume, 2000.

Also there were a couple of very interesting Discovery Channel programs about Abigail and Brittany Hensel and Lori and Dori (Reba) Schappell that helped.

Thanks for your interest.

Andrew Beierle