Wednesday, 3 April 2019

When in Doubt, Accessorize - Umberto Tosi

A few months ago I put an eye patch on a postwar, 1940s Los Angeles detective character named Frank Ritz (former Rissoli) in a story that I was working up. I don't know why. Maybe I was desperate for some defining accoutrement to focus my foggy protagonist. Maybe I was thinking of "the Man in the Hathaway Shirt" created by London's legendary "father of advertising" David Oglivy's that put an obscure, eponymous New England shirt maker on the map. Or, maybe I was thinking of the late, madcap revolutionary San Francisco editor and erstwhile colleague Warren Hinckle about whom I wrote on these pages in September 2016. Hinckle had lost an eye in a boyhood auto crash. As an adult he made the eye patch a trademark of his provocative, muckraking, buccaneering style of writing and publishing.

Then again, maybe I really just wanted to write about a pirate, in which case, I might have also given my character a peg leg.

Whatever my reason, the patch didn't help with my story-in-progress - at least not at first pass. My protagonist remained fuzzy - mired between the vaguely autobiographical, even more vaguely and - heaven forbid - caricature. In an of itself, the eye patch added no more to the character than would have a a mustache or a red bow tie.

Dadaist, Dos-Equis-man meme
It wasn't the eye patch per se, and certainly not the starched shirts that made the Hathaway ads persuasive enough to become cultural memes. It was the curiosity they evoked and narratives they inspired. Without the patch the figure would have been just another male model in a dress shirt. With the patch, you right away want to know this distinguished fellow's story.

It was a narrative idea from the get go. Ogilvy said he was inspired by James Thurber's classic 1939 short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" about the wild adventure fantasies of a white collar professional milquetoast. He bet  that the eye patch would give his Hathaway ad "story appeal" by giving the impression that the man in the white shirt also had a secret life - all by use of a cheap accessory.

Half a century later, a Hathaway-guy spin off ran the same course: Dos Equis' "most interesting man in the world" character - portrayed by septuagenarian American actor Jonathan Goldsmith from 2006 to 2018 oozed "story appeal" in all media. It also sold lots of tasty Mexican beer.

The fun is in the spun-off, tongue-in-cheek narratives. The distinguished bearded adventurer's outrageous, Rabelais-meets-Pecos-Bill tall tales of death-defying feats and over-the-top suaveness: "He once caught the Loch Ness Monster, but threw it back." "The police often question him just because they find him interesting." "He once taught a German Shepherd how to bark in Spanish."

Pecos Bill lassos a tornado!
It's a long way from clever ad copy to a compelling characterisation and story, of course, but there are parallels of process. There comes a point where, for me, details seem to assemble into mental mosaics. To use another metaphor of little-pieces-forming-big-pictures, writing a story often seems to me like assembling a jigsaw puzzle - one of those thousand-bit behemoths. Often I start out with a general picture of the story. Call that the photo on the puzzle box, except it's fuzzy. Open the box and all the pieces tumble out. I have no idea how they fit together. I didn't invent the puzzle pieces either. They exist already  - delivered from some alternative universe - in this case, 1948 L.A. - and scattered over a psychic card table in a seedy, film-noir hotel room with a view of railyards where I've gone to write Frank's hardboiled detective story.

Some of the pieces turn out to be strays that fit into another puzzle. Other pieces turn out to be missing. I try to assemble edges and prominent sections first, if I can. I try not to get frustrated and sweep all the pieces onto the floor in a fit of pique. Once again, I'm visited by the other me that writes. (For us writers, Borges identity long predates, supercedes and turns Robert Ludum's Bourne Identity inside out.)

"Interrogate your work." My inamorata, the artist Eleanor Spiess Ferris  tells her students  is a reliable way in the process of developing sketches into lively compositions. It works with writing too, once one puts aside conventional sanity and can converse with imaginary people.

Oh, what the hell. I returned to my desk one day in mid-March after a break and looked my detective straight in his one good eye and started asking him impolite questions that children are cautioned not to ask: "Okay Frank," I asked. "How did you lose your eye? What's it feel like? Does the patch itch? What's it like to be you?"

Mad Eye Moody (action figure) portrayed by Brendan Gleeson
I didn't hear voices, but juicy insights about the character started coming to mind - things I wanted to write about, things that led me to know him as a person. Turned out that Frankie Ritz had lost his eye in 1944 - not in direct combat, but being shot at by a black market gangster while stationed in a chaotic Naples with occupying allied forces military police. Frank had been tracking a high-ranking Nazi war criminal being hidden by the Black Hand offering him to the highest bidder. This figures later in the story - which by now has grown into a novella, perhaps a novel (who knows, perhaps a series.)

I realized at the same time that my protagonist suffers from a PTSD (although called "battle fatigue in his day) after the war. Moreover he would be plagued by  something called phantom eye syndrome - a sometimes painful medical condition analogous to phantom limb syndrome -  causing double vision, distortions, discomfort and even hallucinations in people who have lost an eye. Wearing a prosthetic eye can help subside the condition, according to medical literature. But Frank hates his glass eye. It was uncomfortable and seemed grotesque to him. He preferred his eye patch - even, like Warren Hinckle himself admitted, liked pirate look.

Once we broke the ice, Frank Ritz became almost talkative, sharing clues to his story, past and present, including a breakthrough when he told me that he had asked his army doctors: "What if I want to see what my phantom eye sees?"

As I typed this dialog line into my story, the door opened to several story paths I had not considered - beyond the playful irony of a one-eyed private eye, an ambiguously psychic and/or possibly hallucinatory delusional one. The story acquired a new title: "The Phantom Eye" and with it, magical reality dimensions.

Psych-thriller author Jane A. Adams
I remembered "Expand and Explore," one of the Viola Spolin theater workshop games I played back in my San Francisco improv days. The player starts a simple, random story line - for example, "Minnie walked down the street ..."  The coach calls out either "expand" or "explore" at points along the way. At "expand" the player must widen the context - camera "pan out" (eg. - "the street gave way to a road with no sidewalk on the outskirts of the small town." It was sunset...) At "explore" the player must go deep - closeup. (e.g. -  "a breeze cooled and dried the tears against her cheeks and blurred her vision. She mouthed her angry words mouthed her fury at Miranda. She didn't care where the road led.") Accessories, details, no matter how trivial they may seem, can provide interrogation points through which to expand and explore characters and stories.

I realized as well that "expanding" outside the Phantom Eye story, the patch also puts detective in the company of an impressive - and intimidating - handful of famous fictional detectives with disabilities: For example: Jeffrey Deaver's quadrapeligic sleuth Lincoln Rhyme, British psych-thriller author Jane A. Adams' blind ex-policewoman, Naomi Blake, American novelist George Chesbro's dwarf, psychic crimiologist and former circus performer Dr. Robert "Mongo the Magnificent" Frederickson.

Then there is of course TV's "Ironside" the redoubtable parapeligic ex-San Francisco cop detective played by Raymond Burr from 1967 to 1975 on NBC. Not to forget one of my favorites: ABC-TV's painfully neurotic OCPD-suffering San Francisco ex-cop PI Adrian Monk played exquisitely by Tony Shalhoub.

Last but not least, there's ex-RMP detective Cormoran Strike, who lost a leg in Afghanistan, created by J.K. Rowling writing as "Robert Gailbraith." Strike could be a pegleg pirate but apparently he's not. I haven't read any of Rowling's C. Strike novels, by the way. I never got into Harry Potter either, but in researching this blog post, I did find another Rowling synchronicity in that her Harry Potter character Alastor "Mad Eye" Moody posseses a magical prosthetic eye that allows him to see through all impediments, real and magical.

The take away, I suppose, is that although there is no one key to a writer, there are hairpins by which you can pick the locks to get through closed door in all directions. Sometimes we get a big idea and work out the details. But other times, lacking such grand visitations by the muse, we can always throw details against the walls until some of them stick and then expand from there.

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Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoƫ Tosi - nine grandchildren, three great grandchildren and resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com

3 comments:

Dipika Mukherjee said...

As I wrestle with my novel-in-progress, it is a timely reminder that "there are hairpins by which you can pick the locks to get through closed door in all directions." Thank you for this post Umberto.

Cecilia Peartree said...

I like the idea of 'expand and explore'. It sounds more purposeful than my usual ramblings!
I think it can be very useful to give a protagonist a defining physical feature. I rarely use much description in my writing but the heroine of my longer series has dark red hair that sticks up in spikes when she gets agitated. I don't know that I've ever seen any real people whose hair does that, only Sideshow Bob in the Simpsons! But it can be quite good shorthand for showing she's angry or something.

Griselda Heppel said...

I remember Ironside! It was really good and Raymond burr did a brilliant job of exuding authority, wisdom and gravitas from his wheelchair. Total opposite of Kojak which ran (in the UK at leas) round about the same period. I never liked him much, and following your analysis, I suppose the accessory that helped define his character was a kid’s lollipop, which made him look gross and creepy. Give me Ironside any day.
Thanks for this fascinating account of how you build a character through one small detail that opens up not only his personality but a rich back story, even drawing you into magical realism. All from an eye patch - brilliant! And for teaching me at least two things I’d never heard of before: milquetoast (had to google that one) and the splendid Hathaway shirt ad campaign.