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What do names mean as far as characters go? For me? Just about everything. Names personify people. It’s like the Jerry Seinfeld routine where he says if you name your kid ‘Jeeves’, you’re pretty much consigning him to a life as a butler. Based on your own relationships, experiences, and encounters, the moment a name is mentioned you’ll conjure up a preconception of the person attached to it. You might even think of certain characteristics that people with the same name share.

I have lots of rituals when it comes to naming my characters. To begin with, I’ll scribble a lowercase and UPPERCASE alphabet in a notebook. When I come up with a first name, I’ll scratch out the lowercase letter that name begins with. I’ll do the same for the surnames with the uppercase letters.

This is to ensure that, if possible, I don’t have characters whose names begin with the same letter. Hitting names that begin with the same letter can confuse readers. Well, that happens to me (as a reader). Hey, I thought Tom was married – why’s he kissing the neighbour? And then I backtrack and find that it was actually Ted, not Tom. Tom? Ted? At the start of reading a new book where you’re orienting yourself with the world and its inhabitants, that similarity can be confusing.

Years ago, I scoured the net and compiled lists of surnames, printed them up, and divided them by nationality through a couple of folders. While you can just as easily Google surnames now, it’s efficient to be able to open up a folder, go to the nationality I want, and pick a surname. Some of these surnames have meanings, or are derived from location. That’s also something to consider when picking the right surname.

As far as the first name goes (and while I could again just Google), I own a couple books of baby names. I like to read the meanings behind names, to see if it will have any special significance for the story. Some times there’s not. But other times I pick something for the meaning, which gives the character that added layer. Readers may never know it, but I know it’s there.

Sometimes, it’s just about feel. For Just Another Week in Suburbia, I wanted a name for the protagonist that was a little bit unusual, but without striking (i.e. memorable) connotations. ‘Gray’ was chosen as a surname because it wasn’t as strong as black or white, but something in the middle – something potentially bland. Nobody paints their house grey, or buys a grey car, or does anything in grey. And ‘Casper’? He was named after Casper the Friendly Ghost, because as a character that’s who he was – invisible and inoffensive within his own world.

His wife actually started the book as ‘Melissa’. But as I wrote the early chapters, that just didn’t feel right. I didn’t picture her as a ‘Melissa’. So, through the powers of FIND & REPLACE she became ‘Jane’. Now that felt like who she was meant to be. The only problem was that one of Casper’s best friends was named ‘Dane’. It could’ve been idiosyncratic for Casper to have a ‘Jane’ and a ‘Dane’ in his life, both close to him, but I decided that it would become distracting. So ‘Dane’ became ‘Luke’.

In August Falling the protagonist’s name is ‘August’, which (in Latin) bears the meaning of ‘majestic’ and ‘venerable’ – these are things that August isn’t. In fact, he’s the opposite. But I liked the irony of this character who had the majesty of this name, but was flawed, vulnerable, and doubting.

With the novel I’m currently writing, the character’s name is ‘Luke’ (yes, the Luke from Just Another Week in Suburbia). Although that was predetermined (thanks to Just Another Week in Suburbia), it felt right – a simple but strong name that feels like it belongs to somebody who could withstand a tremendous assault (without trying to give the story away).

My own name has been abbreviated to ‘Les Zig’ for simplicity. I would’ve liked something exotic for my first name, like ‘Lazaros’, but as a handle ‘Les Zig’ will do just fine.

Names – they’re simple things, but mean everything.

Luke

More complications this week, thanks to buying a new computer which then had the typical new computer teething problems – installing software, making sure everything I needed came across, etc.

This latest computer comes a lot sooner than expected. My previous new computer, a HP, sucked. So did the laptop – also a HP. Both systems had problems from the moment I turned them on. The laptop would freeze spontaneously. The HP helpline suggested the ever-famous ‘factory reset’. If anybody ever advises a factory reset, tell them to get stuffed. It’ll wipe out the problem, until the system just escalates itself back into that situation, which is exactly what happened. The helpline then ran me around, ringing me at times I’d tell them I wouldn’t be available, not ringing me when I told them they should, and (repeatedly) marking the case as resolved when it wasn’t. I tried three times to contact HP to talk about my problems in finding a solution, but they never got back to me.

I’m not a brand snob. I’ll gravitate to whatever does the best job, regardless of the brand. But I very easily get put off by things that don’t work as they should, or which have issues, or whose helplines run you around and waste your time. For that reason, I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever buy another HP product.

As I mentioned last week, the proof for my new book was returned, and I spent the weekend going over the proofreader’s meticulous corrections. The proofreader is often lost in anonymity. If a book’s great, the author gets all the credit. If it’s bad, often the editor is criticised. The proofreader? Most people wouldn’t know they exist, let alone what they do (usually proofread the book after it’s been laid out).

I can now reveal the title of my second book: Valley of the Farters. You’ll probably think this is the terrific lie for the week – as if I would be that blatant. I actually had ongoing arguments with my publisher about retaining this title, which I felt acted as a metaphor for the story.

Grace and Charles Abbott live in the remote Australian town of Isolation. When Charles dies unexpectedly from a heart attack at just 44, everybody is shocked. The townsfolk feel for Grace, but are then bemused when she shows no real signs of mourning, grow suspicious when she moves on with life as if nothing happened, and then paranoid that she might be a murderer when she begins another relationship, albeit with a woman.

The story is about preconceptions and how we, as a collective, can impose our expectations on somebody else. When they don’t behave as we believe they should, we’re quick to judge and condemn. In VotF, innuendo drives the townfolk of Isolation into a frenzy, until they confront Grace – here’s a snippet of that scene:

          Grace scowled as the townsfolk – a block of unnavigable human flesh – crammed into the pub. Their eyes burned with fury – Father Dowell, his face stern; Constable McNulty, her jaw square and hard; the Robinson twins, just thirteen, but seething with murderous anger. Their condemnation buried Grace, until she couldn’t breathe. She yanked at her collar and tore free her top button.
          ‘I’ve had it!’ she said. ‘I can’t keep fighting this. The town has grown rabid with your hate. It’s become poisonous. It doesn’t matter what I say. You just keep farting the same accusations. Isolation reeks. And I can’t do this no more.’

The question becomes is Grace guilty of an actual crime, or just a lack of obvious grieving?

It’s good that VotF is now out of the way, so I can focus entirely on ‘TFSoLY’. I’ve been able to jot down all the characters, although I’m getting the feeling that this book may go places I haven’t anticipated, so there may be other characters to discover yet.

I’m not going to give away too much of the plot, as I don’t want to disclose anything that’ll hurt the germination of the story in my mind, but I will reveal the protagonist is Luke (Handley), who appeared briefly in Just Another Week in Suburbia as Casper’s friend. The story will also centre on the relationship Luke has with the woman he said he was seeing, Chandra.

If you haven’t read JAWiS (you should), here’s part of Luke and Casper’s conversation about Luke’s new partner:

         ‘I’m seeing somebody now,’ Luke says.
         ‘Is it serious?’ Luke never got involved because of the restrictions it put on his lifestyle.
         ‘It might be.’
         ‘How long?’
         ‘A couple of months.’
         I note Jean Jacket and his two friends get up and leave. He doesn’t look at me on the way out. I thought he might throw me a reproachful look, as if to say, I’ll get you. But nothing.
         ‘Who is she? What’s her name? What’s she do?’
         ‘What are you? My mother?’
         ‘I’m …’
         ‘Curious, yeah?’
         ‘Amazed.’
         ‘Her name’s Chandra. She came in with friends at the club. We talked. It went from there.’
         ‘Just like that?’
         ‘That’s the way relationships are born. That’s the way life is. Just. Like. That.

Although JAWiS has Casper’s relationship as its foundation, the story is less about the relationship and more about Casper’s internalisation – an unravelling of everything safe that was once known into all these loose, fraying threads, and his attempts to reconcile who he is, what his life is, and what he wants it to be. That’s a wanky way of saying it’s him learning to deal with shit.

If you’ve ever had a truly traumatic moment disrupt everything you know, resulting in that hyper-awareness (anybody who’s ever suffered anxiety will know about that – it’s not just your standard awareness, but a meticulous and obsessive deconstruction of everything you know) you could empathise with Casper.

‘TFSoLY’ will take that further – or will at least try to. I know what I want to do, I have lots of dot points, but sometimes stories take on a life of their own.

 
Last Week’s Lie: If you thought Ryan O’Neill’s praise of Just Another Week in Suburbia was a lie, shame on you. That was true. Everything to do with Helen Garner was a lie – I’ve never met her, she’s never been a one-time paramour, and she hasn’t been a mentor.