FIVE WOMEN—Provocateurs and Touchstones

Five Flowers by Mike Gabelman via Flickr

I started out to write a book about a man. By the time I finished my novel, Provenance, it had become the story of five women—distinctly different in age, outlook, and objective—and how they uniquely shaped their lives as they changed the life of one man. Mother, Grandmother, Caretaker, Counselor, Lover—these women became provocateurs and touchstones in the life my primary character, Lance Henry Withers. They also shaped me as a writer as I came to understand the complexity of each character and the role they played in the arc of Lance’s life. Several factors informed the actions of each woman in Provenance—when and where they lived, marital status, social restrictions, age and most importantly, aspirations. These were key in how each woman acted and reacted in a story that surprisingly – even to the author—gave them equal footing with the primary character.

I begin Provenance in the early 20th century and followed my characters through five decades—a period of remarkable change in the lives of the women in the book as well as women in the real world. My character, Charlotte, was born in 1881 with a burning ambition to change her circumstances and, the sobering fact that she needed the complicity of men to make her dreams reality. Maggie, Charlotte’s daughter and Lance’s mother, was the opposite of her mother. She sought dependence—first on her husband and then her son—suffering betrayal and loss that she was not equipped to deal with without a man. Del, who managed the Whitaker household, became a study in wisdom, determination, and dignity during a time and place, the 1930s in the segregated south, when these were attributes not afforded people of color. Belle, was a woman before her time. During the 1930’s to 50’s, she was as sexually and socially unconventional as she was independent, intelligent, and beautiful teaching Lance how to live fully and successfully. And Emma, who embraced the emerging independence of women in the 60s and 70s, taught Lance about true love, and how it thrives when a man and a woman are equals.

Five women—provocateurs and touchstones—who changed a life as they, and the world around them, changed.

Scene Stealer: A Secondary Character Flexes Her Muscle

The kind of womanI’m thrilled that my novel, Provenance is getting great comments from readers. They’re saying things like, “I could not put the book down.” “The sign of a good book for me is when I think of the characters later on.” “I have thoughts and questions about the book that I want to explore with you.” “Your novel is wonderful!”  I love them all (the readers and the comments) however, the most surprising thing about reader’s reactions to Provenance has been the way one of my characters seems to have stolen the limelight from the lead character.

I thought Provenance was about Lance Henry Whitaker. That it was the story of a young man who finds out at the age of 18 that the father he adores has been lying to him his whole life. Lance believed he was a scion of the segregated South until his father, Hank, reveals he is a black man passing as white. In the early 20th century, when Provenance takes place, a revelation like that led to social disgrace – it might even end your life. Determined to continue to live undefined by race, Lance, his mother Maggie and his not so traditional grandmother, Charlotte, flee to Europe.

So, I’ve been promoting the book as a coming-of-age story about Lance, and while the cast of characters is engaging, Charlotte seems to resonate most with readers. Every conversation about the book, includes a question or comment about Charlotte. I wrote her as a strong, willful and determined female during a time when that kind of behavior from a lady was not encouraged and often not tolerated. Charlotte never believed the rules applied to her and so it seems respecting Lance as the primary character is totally in character for her.

Reader’s comments range from “Charlotte was the character I liked best; and in hindsight the book seemed to be really about her,” and “That Charlotte, she was something else.” “I couldn’t wait to see what Charlotte would do next.” “Charlotte was Charlotte to the very end, wasn’t she?” “Girrrrrlllll, that Charlotte, how did you come up with her?”

To answer that last question, I have no idea. Initially, Charlotte was a very minor character—she muscled her way into the story and took over. I guess she knew she was a central character, she just didn’t bother to tell me. But then, that is just so, Charlotte.