Friday, September 18, 2009

When Good Characters Do Despicable Things

By Kim

Two years ago I read The Underpainter, a novel by Jane Urquhart. The protagonist, Austin Fraser, creates a series of paintings depicting the people who touched his life and then erases the details by applying progressively lighter shades of paint. Over the course of the novel, the paintings become a metaphor for how an emotionally crippled man has avoided life. Jane Urquhart herself said in a June 2001 interview with January Magazine that she ‘hadn’t expected [Austin] was going to do what he had at the end’ and was so furious with him that she nearly couldn’t publish the book.

The Underpainter is the first and only book I’ve ever thrown across the room in disgust. After hearing the satisfying clunk against the wall, I promptly retrieved it and kept reading. As despicable as Austin was, I wanted to love him, as did many of the people in the novel, and his rejection came as a physical blow.

Around this time my aunt discovered a box in her attic containing eight drafts of a biography that my great-grandmother, Madonna, wrote about her husband, landscape painter Carl Ahrens. While I had a copy already and didn’t expect to find much new there, I skimmed page after page of onionskin paper, struggling to decipher the handwritten notes in the margins. My reward: ten pages worth of recollections that never made it into the version Madonna bound and donated to libraries back in 1945.

Learning of my discovery, several of my contacts from historical societies around Ontario and New York asked why I don’t just publish Madonna’s first-hand account. Why write a novel when I have 130 pages of fact? My reply: Which version of the truth would you like?

The drafts are a series of portraits of the same man, some flattering, some severe. The image Madonna clearly wished the world to see is reminiscent of a Bronte hero – tall, dark and brooding. While she alluded to his temper, she emphasized his gentleness in reverential tales of Carl engineering a prosthetic leg for his rooster or delighting his children by reviving a failing honeybee. She declared him a ‘wonderful and steadfast lover and a faithful husband,’ describing their relationship as companionable, passionate, with a few storms thrown in to keep things interesting. As a painter, Carl was a frustrated genius, worn down by constant illness and pain, unfairly ostracized for his individuality and his divorce from his first wife. Yes, he was cantankerous and sometimes difficult, she admitted, but with cause.

My aunts confirmed my suspicion that Madonna placed an airbrushed version of Carl on the highest pedestal she could find. They said my grandmother lamented that her childhood home was anything but harmonious. Her parents’ love for each other was obsessive, all-consuming, their arguments equally as passionate as their reconciliations. While I knew Madonna carefully concealed Carl’s warts out of love, I was intrigued by the thought of just where those warts may be and how deeply they burrowed.

I got my first clue when I found the following handwritten passage tucked inside the last draft, as though Madonna knew I would unearth it someday: He was afraid of my youth, my [singing] voice, even my appearance, and wanted to make sure of keeping me all for himself by shutting out every aspect of my life which he could not entirely dominate. It was quite understandable. He had changed the whole course of his life because he loved me…and said that so long as he had me, he did not need anyone else to make up his happiness. As he gave his love freely and without compromise, entirely to me, he not only wished, but demanded the same in return. He must be first, before the children, before music, before anything at all, and not only first, but second and third as well.

After I read this, I glared at a photo of my great-grandfather, arms crossed over my chest, and declared, “Explain yourself, please.” I heard no reply, of course, but my eyes drifted to his cane, and I empathized enough to imagine myself in his place. If I were afflicted with a crippling and excruciating illness that left me unable to care for myself, would I not cling to the one person on whom my survival depended? If that person were half my age, attractive, and had many admirers, would I not live in constant terror of being left alone to die?

Madonna’s version of events would only show Carl through the eyes of a woman in love. The narrative would be rosy and sweet, but it would also only tell half the story. As a wife, mother, and historian, I couldn’t gloss over the fact that Carl abandoned his first wife and their three children, no matter what his motives. The stories passed down by Carl’s son may have been exaggerated out of (justifiable) bitterness, but I believe Carl’s first family often faced the cruel streak that even Madonna admitted he possessed. I took careful notes, thankful that he was merely a verbal tyrant, not a brute, and agonized over how best to work in some of his most despicable behavior.

Writing those scenes infuriates me and it often takes a few days for me to forgive Carl enough to move on. Did I ever consider leaving them out? Not a chance. The most satisfying moment of my life as a writer was when one of my critique partners wrote at the end of one paragraph that she didn’t like Carl very much and, six sentences later, claimed to love him again. This contrast not only makes him a memorable character, but it’s likely a more accurate portrayal of the real man than those given by accounts from people with motives to protect or condemn.

Do I hope that readers will someday throw The Oak Lovers across the room? Sure. I hope to make them laugh and cry as well. Writers can’t have this sort of power over the emotions of strangers without taking risks, without unflinchingly exposing the flaws of the characters we create and letting them be judged accordingly. In the case of Austin Fraser, I’m still not sure of a verdict after two years of deliberations. That says a lot about the power of Jane Urquhart’s pen.


  1. Kathy Hickok18 September, 2009

    Dear Kim,

    Congratulations on doing such great research and considering the ethical implications of it as well. This is what the best biographers and historical novelists do so well. I am really looking forward to reading your book!


  2. Never having the chance to meet him, as his death preceded my birth by around 10 years, I can only guess but I expect he never would have really accepted me because I was a boy. I have often heard how hard he was on Laird and how dominating he was with Mom and Aunt Siegried. And of course Madonna but she had her ways of standing up to him. He was the classic alpha mail, at least in the later years. I heard he even told Madonna she could never remarry after he was gone. Way too possessive for me.

    He was a remarkable man with huge talent but I honestly can't say if I would have liked him. But you are getting some real insite and help from your muses and maybe your book will help me like him. Hope so.

    Love you,


  3. Dad,

    I believe, like your mom, I would have loved Carl very much (she was fiercely proud of him) but I also would have escaped home at the very first opportunity. It must have been horrible growing up in a home where the parents are so wrapped up in each other that the rest of the world may as well not be there. This has to have darkened her childhood memories somewhat.

    Yes, he did tell Madonna she could never remarry. Several times, in fact.

    I'm not sure I would have always liked Carl either. In fact, there are times when I'm writing that I don't like him at all. Of course, being a girl, and being that I appreciate and respect his artistic talent, he and I likely would have gotten along beautifully. I'd have loved him even when I wanted to wring his neck.

    You and Carl would have butted heads, no doubt. You share some traits though, and I don't mean the physical resemblance. You are both generous to a fault, you both are completely devoted to your wives, you both are artistic. You may not paint, but the work you do on a tractor is indeed art. You also share the same temper - quick to explode, quick to get over it, intimidating yet never violent. You may not see this, but trust me, Mom and I do. We've discussed it before. ;-)

    My book will probably leave you conflicted, as you are now. You have grown up with such mixed feelings about him, that I doubt anything I say will change that.

  4. Hi Kim,
    You are truly writing about an interesting character! How nice to know that he wasn't perfect. Leaving his first family gave a hint of that. Keep trying to portray his whole personality while honoring his great creativity as a painter. Don't leave anything out without giving full consideration to including it.
    Joyce Bischoff

  5. Kim,

    My first response to this posting is that you have, as a relatively young person and writer writer, been able to established your own voice. You are a very skillful writer as I have told you many times. I admire the way you choose your words and how they appear to just flow onto the page in such a visual way. I also admire your fearlessness in being so deeply honest and understanding about your beloved great-grandparents. It would not be worthwhile making Carl and Madonna cardboard characters. We want to know as much as we can about what motivated them; what was in their hearts and minds and made them 'tick'. Otherwise, why bother writing your book and why bother reading it. It would just end up being a shallow imagine of two very complex and very intriguing individuals. I can imagine you must experience a certain termoil at times, being faced with 'judging' them vs. 'revealing'
    the truth about them. The Biblical quote comes to mind: "He that is without sin, let him [her] cast the first stone." As a relative, I feel you are approaching your subjects courageously, carefully and with great compassion and I am sure, we your readers, will do the same thing.

    How exciting to have discovered more of Madonna's
    notes as you good deeper and deeper into the mysteries of these lovers!

    Paula Niall, Owen Sound, Ontario

  6. Dear Kim,
    I felt the excitement of your going through Madonna's notes thoroughly and finding her handwritten words so in contrast to what she had penned in her book. Your article is motivating to a writer, compelling one to be honest, even when it is uncomfortable. There are so many qualities in Carl that are admirable, yet he had weaknesses that you've allowed to come through clearly. Revealing his imperfections only makes one want to read more; after all we are all imperfect and can be obsessive about something. From Madonna's handwritten note, she reveals a secret desire that most men have when speaking honestly— to be first in a woman's heart. When she says he also wanted to be "second and third as well" that reveals his obsession in having her all to himself. She was his happiness and it wanted "all" of her. From what you have written, I feel if I had met him I would have liked his public persona, admired his work greatly, yet at the same time been conflicted by any glimpse of his darker side, not wanting to know, yet wanting to know as well. You've captured that in your writing. Of course I admit I'm prejudice and a big fan of yours.
    Love you,
    Aunt Betty

  7. Kathy and Joyce - thank you so much for taking the time to post here. Since The Oak Lovers started as a narrative nonfiction book, I had to do my best to be ethical about including facts, flattering or not. While I have changed the book to fiction, I still think it is important to include as many of the facts as I can. While I do include things in the book that I can't prove to be true, nothing goes in that I can prove to be false. I have well over 100 sources so far and as I find more I make adjustments to my text, as necessary. Nearly every character that appears in The Oak Lovers is a real historical figure, so I want to be ethical about how I portray them.

  8. If you aren't the reincarnation of Madonna then you're her soul sister. You keep writing - we'll keep reading:)

    Michael Ahrens
    Marshalltown, Iowa

  9. Paula,

    I agree that I would be doing Carl and Madonna a disservice by making them one-dimensional. While I am writing a love story, it would hardly belong on the romance shelves. They face many hurdles in order to be together, but that's only half the battle.

    I believe I'm writing the story as they would want it to be written, but you may call it courage if you like. ;-)

  10. Aunt Betty,

    I believe the thing that frustrated Madonna the most was that Carl was already first in her heart, that he had no reason to be jealous or fear she would leave him, as he would never have left her.

    I do wonder if his possessiveness would have been half as bad if he his life not literally depended on her for most of their marriage.

  11. Michael,

    Not sure I could be a reincarnation of Madonna since our life spans overlapped. ;-) But thanks very much for the compliment!

    There are aspects of her personality, particularly later in life when she converted to Catholicism and became extremely self-righteous, that would have driven me just as crazy as Carl's possessiveness. Earlier in life, though, I believe I would have enjoyed her a great deal. I love that she would poke fun at herself (being clumsy and unobservant). There were several times when reading her memoir than I about fell off my chair laughing.

  12. Kim, you mastered painting a balanced picture of a genius in this article. This was only possible after you found the alternate depictions of Carl written by the woman who was in love with him. Madonna was the one person who knew him intimately enough to sneak us a "tell all" that will be translated into your book. I'm anxiously awaiting your book since this is a taste of what is to come! -Dan

  13. Truly memorable characters have flaws we can relate to, or at least grab our attention, and Carl sure had his fair share of such shortcomings. Those on top of his health problems would have made living with him difficult at best. I, though, so wish I could step back in time and observe him at work and interacting with Madonna and their children. Yes, the more you bring to light about Carl the more I see certain of his characteristics in your father. No doubt they would have butted heads. Thankfully, your dad isn't possessive, but his survival doesn't depend on me. Carl couldn't have lived as long as he did without Madonna.

  14. Deb/Mom,

    As you well know, there are times you mention something that Dad has done/said that annoy you, and I remind you where he got that trait from. Of course, Dad also has a few of Carl's good qualities, such as his loyalty to you, his generosity, and his ability to tell an entertaining story (perhaps with minor embellishments).

  15. Dear Kim,

    You take my breath away with your perception of Madonna and your Great Grandfather. My Dad, Ben Graham had quite a different view of him. One of your great Aunts, who were friends of his, said to him once "Never marry a genius, they rarely make a living".

    Maxine Graham.

  16. Hi Maxine,

    Actually it was my grandmother who said that about geniuses never making a living. According to an article I saw (written by your Dad) she followed this with the statement that if she ever met a man who earned a steady twelve dollars a week she would marry him so fast he wouldn't know what hit him. Your father then commented (in the article) that twelve dollars a week was exactly what he was not making at the time. I suppose that may be a lucky thing for both of us!


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