[This is my second guest post for Penguin USA's blog.]
Ever assume that the protagonist of a novel is a self-portrait of the author? I have.
I make the author-equals-protagonist assumption so often that I have to laugh at myself when I catch myself at it. For example, I was happily reading Literacy and Longing in L.A., the story of a bibliophile who uses books for comfort and escape (oh how I could relate to that), when my fuzzy cocoon of protagonist/author/me kindredness broke open upon the protagonist's announcing her dislike for Jane Austen. What?! My favorite author scorned by the book-loving heroine of a book I really like?
After the initial shock passed, I reconnected with the heroine. After all, poor misguided thing, look what she was missing out on: Jane Austen. It didn't even occur to me that her tastes might not be shared by her creators, coauthors Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack. In fact, when I was about to meet Jennifer and Karen as my fellow panelists at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, I actually felt a bit of trepidation. Would these Austen-hating authors snub me? After all, the title of my novel, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, says it all.
No, I told myself, that's just plain silly. And of course, they were absolutely lovely. To my surprise, Karen Mack even mentioned the Austen thing during the panel. It seems that she and Jennifer had received quite a lot of angry emails from Jane Austen devotees berating them for their lack of literary taste. Karen wanted it on record that although her protagonist had no use for Austen, both Karen and Jennifer love her.
I was duly chastened. Not that I was one of the people who had fired off an angry email (nor did I have an impulse to do so). But I, like them, had not questioned my assumption that author equals protagonist.
As an author, I should have known better. After all, many a reader has assumed that at least parts of Courtney, the protagonist of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, are exactly like me. And I don't mean just her taste in books. The question is usually couched in polite language, e.g., "How much of Courtney is you?" But I imagine what they really want to know is do I thrive on high drama, consider vodka to be one of the four basic food groups, and can I "be had," as Bette Davis famously quipped in All About Eve, "for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut."
Notice I'm not answering the questions. [Pauses to sip from huge martini glass.]
See? You fell for it.
Here is the real answer: Authors are like actors. We step inside the minds of the characters who speak to us, we hear what they say, and we become them, we live inside their worlds—while we are writing, that is. Not that we don't think about them all the time when we're away from our desks, hear them inside our heads, see scenes unfolding. But we still know the difference between them and us.
At least I hope we do.