My greatest challenge in writing the Velvet Bridge was to tell the tale in such a way to expose the flaws in my protagonist, Mattie Featherstone, and not leave the reader disliking her. Even though the behavior and life decisions Mattie makes in the beginning are below the standard of acceptable behavior and decency, particularly for a mother, my job is to make sure the reader loves her anyway.
True-to-life fiction is different from other kinds of fiction, in that the writer must not wander away from the truth, must not sugarcoat, or whitewash. Two principles I know to be true: the first is that not one of us knows the real value of our worth, the stuff we are made of, until we have been tested by powers beyond our control; the other is that until we have walked in their shoes, we are not qualified to judge anyone. On these two premises, Mattie’s character is based.
The callousness Mattie exhibits toward her children, depicting the reality of the time and place, contrasts the love she showed for them prior to her husband’s death. Clearly, this indicates that something has gone “haywire” inside her. I found myself at the mercy of the character and her experiences, her behavior and her choices, wishing not to offend the reader with the vulgarity and crude associations to which the widowed Mattie subjects herself and her daughters. I think the most difficult thing a fiction writer faces is allowing a character to develop in her own way. The circumstances must be allowed to influence, and often dictate, the character’s choices, not always the writer’s. In The Velvet Bridge, I had to give Mattie complete freedom to royally screw up, to color herself in such a bad light that I ran the risk of alienating the reader.
I want the reader to forgive her and care about her, rejoicing with her when she overcomes and triumphs in the end. In real life situations, the person who stumbles, but prevails, and moves forward in a positive way, gains respect, past sins forgiven. True to life fiction should mirror real life, and the assumption is that the reader will react to the fictitious drama the way he or she would to real life drama. When this does not happen, the writer has failed in presenting the right tone in the storytelling.
When the protagonist is a mother, like Mattie in The Velvet Bridge, and ill-equipped psychologically, and sociologically, to cope with what life has dealt her, the result can be devastating and far-reaching. Therein lies the tension, the dynamics for a rich tale, both in plot and character development. But it takes a fine hand indeed to know what to lend to, or take away from, the process. A good, plausible accounting for why the protagonist reacts in a particular way to events and situations requires complete knowledge of her by the writer.
I find myself exploring, in most of my writing, circumstances where people are in conflict with their own environment and their need to escape—no matter what. I am drawn to the conditions of poverty and ignorance, and the injustice and the absence of dignity found there. Most people do not choose to live in poverty, or in ignorance. Too often they simply lack the physical, emotional, or mental strength required to rise above the daily grind of it, in an honorable and noble way. The very nature of poverty and ignorance keeps people trapped by it, enslaved in a curious way to its degradation.
There is such a need for intervention, even now in the 21st Century. Reports show as many as one out of five adults is illiterate, unable to read most of the writing on their own paychecks. Children are growing up illiterate and abused more today than ever. Government can only do so much, but the human touch—the helping hands and caring hearts of gentle people in every community—can change lives, strengthening families for generations to come.
Women—poor, uneducated, and without assistance—like Mattie, living out their lives during the first half of the 20th Century, rarely raised themselves above such a low position. Without the intervention of kind people, concerned citizens, women like Mattie were lost, their lives wasted. The Velvet Bridge is a story with a happy ending, one I wish I could create for all women and children living in poverty, abuse, and illiteracy today.