When novelists resurrect the dead for a work of fiction, research is critical, but it’s only a starting point. Breathing life into a historical figure requires an elusive second step.
Some writers do this with impressive grace. Michael Cunningham, for example, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, and Paula McLain, who had a runaway bestseller with The Paris Wife, brought literary legends to vivid life. Nancy Horan did the same for America’s greatest architect in Loving Frank, and Melanie Benjamin reimmortalized the Lindberghs in her newest blockbuster, The Aviator’s Wife.
I suppose it was natural for me—a longtime Dorothy Parker fan—to dream of resurrecting America’s most audacious wit as a character in a novel, especially since I’d been carrying her on my shoulder since I was a young teenager. That voice I heard making snide remarks about my life, my choices, my friends, my enemies, and this whole confounding modern world belonged to Dorothy Parker. Indeed, my darkest, meanest thoughts were all attributable to my bitch-muse. (At least, that’s what I told myself.)
But it wasn’t until I took note of how many novels paid homage to the brilliant Jane Austen that it occurred to me how much I would love reading a book that did the same thing for my idol. My next thought was exuberant: I would write the thing myself!
At that moment, I thought recreating Dorothy Parker would be easy. After all, words are my music, and Mrs. Parker’s voice was a tune I knew well. Besides, it didn’t even feel like a resurrection, because to me, she never really died. Yes, she passed in 1967, but Dorothy Parker has always felt like a vital force, her voice resonating with a freshness that feels alive.
Once I got the green light from my publisher, I was ready to speed through this project. All I had to do was reread Parker’s biographies to study the details of her life, and steep myself in her writing to inhabit her voice. Then I would simply imagine her in my fictional scenes, and she would speak right through me. It would be more like channeling than writing. Except this was Dorothy Parker, the sharpest wit of the 20th century. Her voice was not only distinct, but precise. One false step and I might as well be singing the whole song off key. I quickly realized it was less like channeling a tune and more like building a Steinway with my bare hands.
Still, I was determined. I began the first scene in which the ghost of Parker actually appears, seating her in a wingback chair with her poodle, Cliché, and I let my unsuspecting protagonist come upon the two apparitions, nearly fainting at the sight. “It is customary,” said the ghost, as she petted the small dog on her lap, “to offer a guest a drink.”
It was a small step, but it was a start. Dorothy Parker had spoken. And that opening line did two things for me. First, it established her voice—a commanding presence within a framework of gentility. The propriety telegraphed that she was from a different era, and created a decorum she could bust wide open. (When Parker dropped the f-bomb—as she was known to do—it had shock value.)
It also gave me a couple of props to work with. These are things that help define a character and can come in handy for both the dialogue and the plot. In Parker’s case, the dog and the drink were the right choices. From there, I proceeded at a painstaking pace. Even the rapid banter between my two characters had to be constructed with delicate precision, especially when Parker uttered a quip. In order to create the jokes with the greatest economy of words, I had to carefully piece together the dialogue leading up to it.
After writing these scenes, I revised them again and again. Then I reread Parker’s nonfiction—the essays and letters in which her own voice was most evident—and revised some more. In the midst of all this deliberate and careful rewriting, I became aware of something wonderful happening. The book was starting to sing.
Parker once said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” For even the most unfussy authors, there’s enough despair in the process to relate to that. In my case, I certainly love having written Farewell, Dorothy Parker. She also said, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”
Funny, maybe I was channeling her after all.