This seems to be a question novelists are frequently asked. No one has asked me because no one knows me as a novelist—if they know I write at all, I think they assume because of my age (and lack of “success”) that I’m a hobbyist, much like some retired person might take up watercolor painting to while away the hours and “express themselves.” (See what I have to put up with? Oh, to be known for who I am! But I suppose we could all say that, couldn’t we.)
I might say that my first play, Hank’s Orange Crate Folly, was autobiographical because, after all, Hank the protagonist reflected my own feeling that race need not be a factor in friendship. Then I’d have to explain the ending, though, where he pontificates about it while standing on a crate and opts for martyrdom by running in front of a car. Maybe that’s why I used the word “folly” in the title—to claim it might be good to be blind to color but foolish to seek martyrdom over it. I don’t know—I didn’t think that at the time. “The play just wrote itself,” as I seem to believe about most of my writing. So I’m inclined to think that Hank is me in the main, though not me at the end.
That won’t wash, though, because I think it infers an inconsistency of character in Hank; moreover it appears as if I’m happy to claim the good Hank as my own and the unhinged one as belonging to someone else. I won’t do that, because it seems arbitrary, not to mention weak. So I’ll go out on a limb and say that Hank may in fact be me, and possibly the reason I wrote the martyrdom part is because of my feeling that on this point (race relations), no one in my immediate community understood me (or Hank)—and what were the options for making clear one’s point of view about it?
Maybe as a naive young student I saw no other way but to “do as the Tibetans do” and opt for self-sacrifice (though I’m unaware if they did that then). This is just speculation, you understand. I’ve never thought about it until just now—though I would find myself considering a role for self-sacrifice in some of the subsequent works. In fact, I had tragic ends for a few more of my protagonists in those early years (and both leads in my short films came to naught, too), but as I started to get a sense that something could be done, my characters have been far more optimistic and willing to have a longstanding go at the problem.
Looking back, it seems to me that my early protagonists were too much like me, and I actually did get a little fed up with it at the time. First, because I didn’t want a character to be my mouthpiece—I wanted him (early ones were typically male) to have a voice of his own. In think I finally accomplished this, though certainly not completely. Secondly, how could I grow as a writer (or have any self-respect as one) if I simply recycled myself through my characters? I had to challenge myself more, and that meant creating new characters to carry the torch.
I’ll tell you what the trap was. If I were a mystery writer, for example, or writing a historical romance, it would be less difficult to make up any kind of character whatsoever to carry the story, because intrigue and entertainment are the tandem goals and just about anyone in the protagonist’s shoes could do that—providing they were drawn well enough. But in my case I was “born with a point of view” that varied widely from my friends and my countrymen, so who better to show that point of view in the story than someone who at least resembled me? That’s the conundrum I faced when dealing with protagonists—I could create all manner of supporting characters, and interesting ones, too, but when it came to telling my story, who could do it better than me? It was a rut I labored long and hard to get out of, and I think that’s why I started to give female characters much stronger parts and finally lead roles—they weren’t me!
Back to the original question: is my writing autobiographical? Though we’ve never really gotten away from that question, I think I can give a more succinct answer at this point. To make my view of the world come to life as clearly as possible, I believe that much of my early writing was autobiographical (not to mention being imbued with a sense of the tragic). But as I matured as a person and as a writer and began to see the overall picture better, I was able to break free of that to some extent. My main motivation for doing so? I didn’t want my writing to be about me, but about creating a more just and fulfilling world. I’m almost ashamed at how long it took to start making that work on the page, but I do take some satisfaction in finally having gotten it out as I saw it. I’m a late-bloomer in almost every respect, so I hope you’ll give me some credit for coming around as much as I have.