A standard piece of advice to new writers is that you shouldn’t write more than one novel, or a few short stories, about writers. It’s too easy to write about yourself as nakedly as that, too self-mythologizing, too incestuous. Now, this advice is by no means followed by all (consider the works of Stephen King!), but I find it a handy rule to bear in mind: to have writers, or other creative types, not be the default protagonists, but to use them only when they are essential to the plot or the themes.
And there are some excellent themes you can explore with writers. One is their use of anything that happens in their life as fodder for their writing. If they undergo a traumatic experience, many of them will admit to a little detached voice in the back of their head, trying to crystallize the experience as it happens, so that they can distil it to words at a later date. It’s a cliché that when a fictional author breaks up with their partner, said partner will soon appear in the author’s next book as a thoroughly demonized figure.
Today’s story runs with this theme with effective cruelty. As Martin says in one of his introductions: “This is a writer’s story, yes, and more true than some of us would care to admit.”
Richard Cantling is a successful author who lives alone in a large remote house. One day he receives a painting in the post, a portrait of Edward Donohue, the star of his first novel. He assumes it’s from his daughter, which is a surprise, because a few months ago she left after a bitter quarrel (the details of which are not revealed immediately), having slashed up a portrait she’d painted of him many years before. Still, he assumes it is a token of reconciliation, and hangs it up in the hall.
That night the phone rings and the caller says his name is Edward Donohue. He tells Cantling to come downstairs so they can talk. Dazed, Cantling staggers downstairs, to see Donohue in the flesh: the slick teenage rebel, just as Cantling wrote him. The witty lines and deeds stolen from Cantling’s friends roll off Donohue’s tongue effortlessly.
More surprisingly, Donohue calls him, “Dad.” This reminds Cantling of an argument he had with his former wife Helen when she wanted to name her impending child ‘Edward’. Richard resists; he’s already used ‘Edward’ for Donohue, and doesn’t want to change it.
He was tired of being interrupted. He leaned back in his chair. “How long have you been carrying the baby?”
Helen looked baffled. “You know. Seven months now. And a week.”
Cantling leaned forward and slapped the stack of manuscript pages piled up beside his typewriter. “Well, I’ve been carrying this baby for three damned years now. This is the fourth fucking draft, and the last one. He was named Edward on the first draft, and on the second draft, and on the third draft, and he’s damn well going to be named Edward when the goddamned book comes out. He’d been named Edward for years before that night of fond memory when you decided to surprise me by throwing away your diaphragm, and thereby got yourself knocked up.”
“It’s not fair,” she complained. “He’s only a character. This is our baby.”
“Fair? You want fair? OK. I’ll make it fair. Our firstborn son will get named Edward. How’s that for fair?”
Helen’s face softened. She smiled shyly.
He held up a hand before she had a chance to say anything. “Of course, I figure I’m only about a month away from finishing this damn thing, if you ever stop interrupting me. You’ve got a little further to go. But that’s as fair as I can make it. You pop before I type THE END and you got the name. Otherwise, my baby here—” he slapped the manuscript again “is—first-born.”
And this isn’t the only time Cantling has cannibalized his own reality to feed his fictions. The next day another portrait arrives; and over his writing career he has made many children…
George R.R. Martin was my third week teacher at Clarion West 2012, and this post is part of the 2013 Write-a-thon. See here for more details.
Portraits of his Children by George R.R. Martin
Word count: 15,300
Awards: Nebula Award winner, SF Chronicle Award winner, Hugo Award nominee
First published: Asimov’s, Nov 1985
Where to find it: Portraits of his Children, collection, 1987, Dark Harvest
Future on Ice, edited by Orson Scott Card, 2000, Tor
Dreamsongs: GRRM: A Retrospective, collection, 2007, Gollancz/Orion
Dreamsongs II, collection, 2012, Bantam