INTERVIEW: ED McCLANAHAN
Your characters have this trademark quality of the quirky and the genuinely moving. What sort of steps to you take to create them?
I write what I like to call "redemptive fiction," wherein I lead my characters to the brink of beyond-the-pale unacceptability, trusting that I'll find something in them—or better yet, that they will find something in themselves—that draws them back from the abyss. In A Congress of Wonders, the heroes are those characters who somehow find grace or strength in their own suffering (never mind that it's usually comic suffering) and thereby rise above the reader's expectations for them: In "Juanita and the Frog Prince," Juanita Sparks puts her fate in the hands of a most unpromising protector, and is richly rewarded for her faith; in the other two stories, Wanda Pearl Ratliff and Finch Fronk (respectively) transcend their joyless, barren lives when Wanda Pearl reveals her capacity for maternal love and Finch discovers that celibacy has not excluded him from fatherhood.
What sort of advice can you give to young writers approaching character for the first time?
Remember that character is fluid, not static or rigid; like water, it seeks its own level. Writers make a terrible mistake when they pre-conceive their characters in such a way as to constrict the possibility of change, of growth—or, for that matter, of diminution. A character who can't surprise the writer can't surprise the reader either. Or, to put it another way, characters need to get out of character once in a while, just like regular folks; it keep the old juices flowing.
What do you never want to see another writer do with character again?
The least interesting characters are the ones you can't see into, the opaque ones who don't seem to have any inner life. A good character has more facets than a fly's eyeball. May the ghost of Flannery O'Connor smack the hand of any writer who forgets that.
ED McCLANAHAN is author of The Natural Man, Famous People I Have Known, and A Congress of Wonders. This interview first appeared in Rebel Yell (1998).