Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Author cameos



It's becoming a bit of a trend, an author cropping up in a film adaptation of his own work. Part of the joy in watching a film based on a Marvel character is waiting to see where they manage to write creator – or more often co-creator – Stan Lee into the proceedings. He's popped up so far in two of the X-Men films, all three Spider-Man films, Daredevil, the two Hulk films, both Fantastic Four films and Iron Man but even before his big screen cameos he could be found in the made-for-TV adaptations of Nick Fury: Agent of Shield, Generation X and his first appearance was as the jury foreman in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.

There is a precedence for this because as far back as 1963 Stan Lee and his collaborator Jack Kirby appeared as themselves in The Fantastic Four #10 (Jan. 1963) where the two are depicted as similar to their real-world 398px-FF10 counterparts, creating comic books based on the "real" adventures of the Fantastic Four. Needless to say he's cropped up periodically and in various guises for many years afterwards.

Lee, of course, is not the only author who has appeared in an adaptation of his or her work. Stephenie Meyer has a cameo in the film version of her novel Twilight, Inspector Morse writer Colin Dexter has made appearances on the small screen as has Ian Rankin in Rebus. Dexter's cameos are more like those of director Alfred Hitchcock – blink and you'll miss him kind of things – but if I recall correctly Rankin got to say a few words. Of course, in all of these instances the writer is playing a part, they're not playing themselves. Dexter has appeared as a monk, a doctor, a prisoner and a tramp but usually he's just floating around in the background of a pub or walking by; if you weren't looking for him you'd never pay him any heed, just another extra.

Oh, and while we're talking about Dexters, writer Jeff Lindsay who penned Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the debut in a series of crime novels which were used as the inspiration for the grisly TV hit, also gets to appear in a cameo.

Alexander McCall Smith did give Ian Rankin a cameo part in his serial novel 44 Scotland Street, mentioning in his introduction that Rankin thought his portrait much "nicer" than he really felt himself to be. That's one thing, writing someone you know into your book as himself – a nice way of tipping your hat to someone you respect (the same goes for naming a character after someone you admire) – actually writing yourself into a work of fiction is something else entirely.

I suppose I could be facetious and say that the first person to write himself into his own story was God but that might be opening a whole can of worms so I won't bother. But if we stay with some of his penmen for the moment: Mark wrote himself into his gospel by describing the “young man with just a linen cloth round his body” who followed Jesus and the disciples to Gethsemane and who nearly got captured by the soldiers; Matthew wrote himself into his gospel by describing the time Jesus turned up at a tax office and called the tax collector to follow him and John wrote himself into his gospel by all his references to “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. Not sure about Luke. Are these the first author cameos one has to wonder?

Of course these are based on historical events but not all historians have felt the need to include details about themselves. When writing In Cold Blood author Truman Capote did five years of painstaking research before committing what he learned to the page and yet, he is not present. It would have been impossible for the flamboyant Capote to have put himself into his book without taking away from the story.

However when it came to his book, Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War, Jimmie Briggs felt that in his opinion only a first-person narrative could convey the emotions he felt as a chronicler of the events he recorded. Only then could he make his reader feel the same indignation and horror that he felt, he said.

I would suspect that the most common time when an author inserts himself into a piece of fiction is in the form of a 'Mary Sue'. I'll let Wikipedia explain:

Mary Sue is a science fiction fandom term for a popular form of home produced Star Trek fiction that first emerged in the 1970s. In it, young writers, mostly women, projected themselves as Ensign Mary Sue, the beautiful brilliant adjunct to Spock and or Kirk with whom everyone was in love, who saves the Enterprise (and the Federation) and who, often as not, dies with dramatic tragedy at the end, because the author knows she has to restore the Trek characters to their universe instead of have them live happily ever after with her alter ego.

Of course that was just the start. The real problem with Mary Sue is that she is perfect and perfection gets in the way of realistic story-telling but since her only function is to get it on with the True Love nothing is going to stand in her way. Nowadays most of the Mary Sues have moved to Hogwarts and are called Phoenix Niall, Ember Cree or Khrystle Jones who has a thing for Professor Snape.


ms1Click to enlarge 


But what we're really talking about here are works of serious fiction. There is the argument to be put forth that an author is all of his characters, that every work of fiction is autobiography – we've talked about this before – but there have been instances where the character on the page is more than something that has come out of an author's mind, the character represents the author in all but name. John Polidori wrote himself into his 1819 story 'The Vampyre: A Tale' as 'Aubrey', a naive young man who is forced by an ill-considered oath of secrecy to be complicit with the crimes of the mysterious and predatory Lord Ruthven.

In Beckett's Watt, the author includes a character called 'Sam' and assigns to him specific details concerning his own life. It is typical of Beckett to muddy the waters and many men cleverer than I have fretted over his motives for this.

Ernest Hemingway, arguably the most afflicted war correspondent there ever was, wrote himself into his novel The Sun Also Rises as the shell-shocked lush, Jake Barnes.

Agatha Christie includes herself in a number of her stories as 'Ariadne Oliver' a mystery novelist and a friend of Hercule Poirot, clearly a spoofed and caricatured alter ego of Christie. According to Wikipedia:

She is more usually used for comic relief or to provide a deus ex machina through her intuitive or sudden insights, a function that is especially apparent in Third Girl in which she furnishes Poirot with virtually every important clue.

Further functions of Mrs. Oliver are: to enable Christie to discuss overtly the techniques of detective fiction; to contrast the more fanciful apparatuses employed by mystery authors with the apparent realism of her own plots; and to satirise Christie's own experiences and instincts as a writer. Mrs. Oliver therefore serves a range of literary purposes for Christie.

Indeed this is the reason many authors put themselves into their own books, either for comic effect or to enable them a platform to air their own views. John Fowles did similar: he inserts himself into his novel The French Lieutenant's Woman to allow himself the freedom to comment upon his story from outside its framework.

Probably one of the most famous surrogates is 'Kilgore Trout' a recurring character in the works of Kurt Vonnegut. In interview Vonnegut has stated that Trout is based on the science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon but it is generally believed that Trout is actually a parody of Kurt Vonnegut himself. Not only of himself, but of all sci-fi writers. Several  stories Vonnegut attributes  to Kilgore  Trout  appear  someplace else  written by Vonnegut himself. Perhaps the best example of this is the Trout story called '2BR02B':

The people in '2BR02B' are so hopeless, and the world is so overpopulated, that the government has set up a purple-roofed Ethical Suicide Parlour at every major intersection, right next door to an orange-roofed Howard Johnson's". The visitors to the Suicide Parlour die painlessly and patriotically, and even get a free last meal at the Howard Johnson's next door. In Vonnegut's  short story 'Welcome  to  the  Monkey  House'  the story  opens in an Ethical Suicide Parlour  459512170_14b7f8b13e_o almost  identical  to  the  ones  described  in '2BR02B,' right down to the  purple roof and the Howard Johnson's next door. By actually writing stories that he had earlier attributed to Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut emphasises the similarities between the two. - Stephanie E. Bonner, Kilgore Trout: Kurt Vonnegut's Alter Ego

One of the clearest examples of an author writing himself into his own novel is in the case of Dickens. Before he set about writing David Copperfield he apparently attempted an autobiography which came to nothing but some of his working notes finally found their way straight into Copperfield with little editing and only a change of tense to first-person narrative according to Lynn Cain in Dickens, Family, Authorship.

What I'm more curious about are the authors who include themselves as themselves actually in the text of their novels or stories. I get the idea of adding in things that have happened to you personally to flesh out your character. I'm sure we've all done that. Some of Jonathan's memories in Living with the Truth are things that have happened to me. Take this section:

In the hospital, when he’d had meningitis (the bad kind) his parents weren’t allowed to visit him and all the nursing staff wore white masks all the time…

That bit is true – I believe it's my earliest memory – but the rest of the paragraph isn't, though I've never tried to disassociate myself from Jonathan. He is however a gross caricature of what I might have become twenty years in the then future. I do the same with Jim Valentine in The More Things Change but he's also not me.

According to Martin Amis, his father, Kingsley Amis, famously showed no interest in his son's work. "I can point out the exact place where he stopped and sent Money twirling through the air; that's where the character named 'Martin Amis' comes in." "Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself," Kingsley complained.

Amis writes himself into the novel as a kind of overseer and confidant in the narrator John Self's final breakdown. He is an arrogant character, but Self is not afraid to express his rather low opinion of Amis, such as the fact that he earns so much yet "lives like a student."

I do appear as myself – very briefly – in Living with the Truth. It’s a real blink-or-you'll-miss-me moment:

…and a young Scot had put the finishing touches to his first novel and couldn’t sleep for thinking about it, but he had no one to tell.

In the sequel, Stranger than Fiction, I decided to give myself more than a nod. I have to say I have no idea why I did, apart from the fact that it amused me at the time, but it was something I went on do develop in my third novel once the idea had got into my head. The idea was not new and I admit freely that I got the idea from a comic book author, Grant Morrison. During his (in)famous run on the comic Animal Man he actually wrote an issue where Buddy Baker (a.k.a. Animal Man) gets to meet and discuss the nature of his existence with Morrison himself. It is a fascinating concept.


AnimalMan26_01 Click to enlarge


There was another novel in my head when I decided to put myself into my own book and that was Spike Milligan's Puckoon where the lead character gets to have a dialogue with the book's author and takes the opportunity to complain about the state of his legs:

      “Holy God! Wot are dese den?”
      “Legs,” replies the author.
      “Legs? Whose legs?”
      “Mine? And who are you?”
      “The Author.”
      “Author? Did you write these legs?”
      “Well I don’t like dem. I coulda writted better legs myself. Did you write your legs?”
      “Ahh! Sooo! You got someone else to write your legs - and someone who’s a good leg writer - and den you write dis pair of crappy legs fer me.”

This is similar to Woody Allen writing himself into one of his one act plays in a scene where the characters get to phone him up and talk to him about their predicament.

You get the idea. Anyway I won't go and spoil things by explaining how Jonathan and I end up face to face but I do end up apologising to him for everything I put him through:

You’re sorry? Jonathan thought. So what good does being sorry do? And what good does being vindictive do? Part of him felt like punching him, part felt like hugging him but not enough of him felt anything to do either of these…

There is a school of thought that a reference to ones personal experiences might undercut an author's credibility. I don't think that it does. I regard myself as a serious novelist despite the fact most of my writing is leavened with humour. I think writers who suggest they never plunder their own lives are deluding themselves. It may not be specific events but it could be attitudes and experiences. At least if it's a character with my name then I have to hold my hand up: "Yeah, that's me, that's what I really think." That is assuming that the me you get to hear in the book is the me that's writing this. And that's all I'm saying on that subject.

As for the world of Mary Sue, from what I can see these are young girls enjoying themselves using pre-existing scenarios as templates. And why not? One of the hardest things with writing is getting all that stuff together. Many is the time I've thought of using some great work of fiction as a jumping off point. If it gets kids writing then that's only a good thing. Most will never take it further but for some it might lead to bigger things.

I'm curious if any of you have written yourself into any of your stories even if it was as a young ensign or yeoman on the USS Enterprise.


drodbar said...

A modest little cameo in the style of Alfred Hitchcock is good fun. But serious displays of authorial self-consciousness are a tired gambit, the sort of 'radical' ploy that is so exciting the first time one encounters it, so tiresome after about the fourth time.

A thoroughly researched and interesting dissertation, as always.

Art Durkee said...

Isaac Asimov: "Murder at the ABA." The novel from the first person POV of a character modeled on Harlan Ellison, and Asimov himself is a major character in the novel. It's a murder mystery, not SF.

Stephen King had a speaking role in the TV miniseries adaptation of his novel "The Stand."

To answer your last question, unless I count a couple of embarassing stories written in my teens, no, I've never written myself into a story. But then, I don't really write stories.

I'm aware that I've written myself into many poems, not as a character, but as viewpoint for things have happened to me. I choose not to decode that, for risk of killing the poems.

I'm aware that every character I've invented even in a poem usually has some aspect of me in it; at least to start with, although they might diverge later.

I'm more aware of the fact that my series of poems called Portraits are not me at all. Each one of those was in fact a response to a fictional character having a moment of epiphany, revelation, or transformation. They were all homages to characters who were so viscerally real to me, after reading the fiction (or whatever) they were in, that I simply HAD to respond.

John Baker said...

Not myself, but I've written my partner in sometimes, and a friend once, and the odd shop assistant or waitress, all without any hint of disguise.
Sometimes people tell me, years later, hey, you put me in your book.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, all I can say, Drodbar, is I hope if you ever get round to reading my second novel you're not disappointed by my approach to the problem.

Ah, Art, 'homages' sounds so much better than 'fan fiction'. It's like when I wrote my play Vladimir and Estragon are Dead, I'd no sooner finished it when I had to decide is this just self-indulgent fan fiction or something more worthy. I'll be honest, I still can't decide. But I like 'homage'.

And, John, I've never written anyone other than myself into my books. I have used the names of people I've known but the characters are totally different, often not even the same sex. The two fishermen in Living with the Truth were actually two girls I used to work with.

Dick said...

As ever, an erudite and thoroughly interesting post, Jim.

I have written as protagonist a great deal, but very rarely in the first person. So as to focus on narrative and theme, I have to distance myself from the experiences that I'm depicting so always the commentator is in place.

Ken Armstrong said...

I wrote my working partner into a short story and gave him sagging yellow underpants. He took them in good stride. :)

Jena Isle said...

I do that too, but very rarely- writing myself into my story. Most often our stories are based on actual people we have met or interacted with. That's why I'm a great admirer of sci-fi stories because they create an entirely new world of their own. They come up with names for things, places and people, and many other "facts" which seem true to a reader. Have you ever read sci-fi Jim? I read Battlefield Earth twice and had always relished the exciting sci-fi chapters.

This is another comprehensive article from a master. Kudos to you.

Art Durkee said...

Please, read some good SF with real literary merit, not "Battlefield Earth," one of the most cringe-worthy space operas ever committed.

Even if you just want to stick to space opera, E.D. "Doc" Smith's "Lensman" series is far superior. More modern space opera with very rich characters comes from C.J. Cherryh; good places to start are "Downbelow Station" or "The Pride of Chanur."

SF is the literature of ideas, and of literary invention. It never gets enough credit with the rest of literature, except on those rare occasions when a mainstream fiction author writes a successful "crossover."

Ken Armstrong said...

I like your own Ian M Banks for high quality space opera.

I came back because I neglected to mention the book(s) I'm just finishing 'The New York Trilogy' by Paul Auster where in the author installs himself into his own narrative in challenging and unusual ways. It's a most interesting post modern take on the detective story. I will seek out more from him.

Jim Murdoch said...

It's interesting, Dick, but when I did write that wee bit including me I was acutely aware that there was a me (the author) and a me (the character), there was, as you put it, a distance between the two.

The only instance, Ken where I've incorporated a character from work was in my short story 'Zeitgeist' but it was just the voice I pinched. He was from Kilmarnock and had a very rich tone. Also the opening line was straight out of his mouth.

I enjoy science fiction a lot, Jena, but I don't read so much these days. I'm with Art here, pick something decent to read. My favourite author is Philip K Dick and there's not much by him I wouldn't recommend. I also enjoy Isaac Asimov, especially his robot stories. By his own admission he's not a great writer but he is a decent storyteller. I've also read nothing by Alfred Bester that I didn't enjoy and was happy to reread.

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

I've never written myself or my friends in deliberately, but I can't deny that my voice or their personalities come through strongly sometimes.

I did wonder if that line in 'Living with the Truth' was about you... :)

Jim Murdoch said...

It is hard isn't it, Catherine? I find it much easier when it comes to the characters in my short stories - especially the women for some reason.

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