Friday, October 16, 2009

Where It Comes From, Baby, I Don't Know

By Kevin Guilfoile

Tuesday night I was at the Northfield Public Library to participate in a panel discussion with The Outfit's own Libby Hellmann and Edgar-winning Chicago crime novelist Theresa Schwegel. It was a terrific crowd, standing room only, and we had a fun conversation. At some point a reader asked us for some of our favorite writers, and Theresa happened to mention David Foster Wallace. Regular readers of this blog know that I spent the summer reading Wallace's masterpiece, Infinite Jest and I mentioned that.

After the discussion I picked up copies of Libby's latest, Doubleback, and of Theresa's newest, Last Known Address.

The next day I had to go to the Secretary of State facility in Lombard to settle some address confusion on my car registration. I had just finished a book (our own Sara Paretsky's Hardball, which is every bit as good as you think) and since I wasn't sure how long I'd have to wait at Jesse White's place, I snapped up Last Known Address, on my way out the door.

The wait wasn't long (helpful note--Wednesday morning is apparently a very good time if you need new plates or your license renewed) but on like page five of Last Known Address I came across a character the narrator calls "Moms." And having just finished Infinite Jest, I immediately recognized "The Moms" as the name of a character in that novel. I sat in my government plastic molded chair connecting the dots--Theresa likes DFW, DFW had a character named The Moms. Theresa has a character named Moms. It must be a little tribute. But one I never would have noticed if not for a certain unique confluence of events and coincidences.

And I started thinking about how often I do this in my work. The character of Dr. Davis Moore in my first novel, Cast of Shadows, is a little nod in my head to Dr. Tom More in Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins. It doesn't mean anything. I never expected anyone else to put that together. In that same book, a character orders pumpkin ravioli at a restaurant because that's my wife's favorite dish at a certain place we go to and it made me smile to type it. (One critic bizarrely and hilariously chastised me for being the "kind of thriller writer" who considers it "essential to tell us, when two people are out to dinner, that one of them is eating pumpkin ravioli." Since I am apparently that kind of thriller writer, I've vowed to have someone eating pumpkin ravioli in every novel I write.)

I'm sure all novelists do this. You have to make so many arbitrary decisions when you write a novel--names of people and places--and some of them have significance, and some of them don't, and many of them have significance only to you.

Of course sometimes a reader assigns significance that isn't there, and that's okay. I could be wrong about Moms. It might mean something else altogether to Theresa, or it might mean nothing. But coming across it believing I knew where it came from, that I was sharing a little secret with the author, is one of the tiny thrills of reading.

Has this ever happened to you? You're reading a novel and you happen on some little detail that you're certain must be an obscure reference to something, maybe even a reference you weren't even supposed to get. Or to the writers in our company, maybe you've inserted something in a novel or story that means something only to you.

What are the tiny personal details--the Easter Eggs--hidden in your work?

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Kevin Guilfoile said...

It occurs to me now that the "writers in our company" are almost all at Bouchercon. Oh well.

David Heinzmann said...

Kevin, I've seen Walker Percy references from you previously, I think. I keep meaning to say something. He's the only writer of whom I've read every work (including Signposts in a Strange Land). Anyway, if you were here at Bouchercon I'd buy you a beer and talk about the Binx Bollings of the world. Lancelot is my favorite.

Mike Dennis said...

Good post, Kevin. I've done it many times. I've got a novel coming out next year which contains a reference to a town that was the hometown of a girl I haven't seen in 25 years. I inserted it in the hopes she would read it and know why I had done it. Since then, however, I'm back in contact with her and told her all about it. She's anxious to see it.

Dana King said...

I do it all the time, sometimes dropping in a more or less inside joke that only a handful of people will get. It would detract from anyone's understanding or enjoyment if they don't get it; they probably won't even know there's something there. Those who do get it will have a little free treat.