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The Thirty-Second Annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry featuring Claire Keegan, the winner of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, took place on February 19, 2010 at The Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia, MD.  The evening benefited the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo).

I have been thinking about this evening for more than a month now trying to formulate the strange confusion that arises every time I hear an author read his or her work.

Keegan read Walk the Blue Fields, a short story from her newly published collection with the same title.  I was enchanted by her Irish accent, by her long and wavy strawberry hair, by her bold sense of humor, even by her outfit — a long black cotton dress, high boots, and a string of small pearls around her neck and a matching bracelet.

Nevertheless, something didn’t feel right.

I believe, I finally came to a satisfying conclusion.  I think that the seed of my disheartening experience lies in the dissonance between the written word of an author and the author’s interpretation of that word in a public reading.

Fictional characters are like water.  They take the shape of the writer’s or the reader’s interpretation and they become alive only through the eyes and minds of those who write or read about them.

In other words:  The fictional character is created by an author in a process that takes many weeks or months (sometimes years). During this time the character becomes a “someone” who the author gets to know in a very intimate way.

The character’s physical features become set in a way that is comfortable and acceptable for the author, as do the tone of voice and style of speaking. And then everything else — the way the character smells and walks,  the way his skin looks in a low light, the way he smiles (the shape of his teeth), the way he eats his oatmeal in the morning, and the way he thinks about his neighbor — become set in a way that is comfortable and acceptable for the author.

And then the book is published.  And then the book finds its way to my hands.  And then I read about the character created by the author.  And the character becomes mine!

The fictional character I imagine while reading a story has physical features I give him.  He walks the way I see him walk.  He eats his scrambled eggs the way I see him eat.  He smiles the smile I give him.  And he makes love to his wife the way I imagine it, and he falls asleep the way I want him to fall asleep.

And then we have a public reading by the author and I am utterly confused because what I hear from the author has nothing to do with the character I imagined.

Can you imagine this?

Suddenly, my gentle priest from Walk the Blue Fields is literally killed and replaced by a different priest by the author.  I do fight and try desperately to resuscitate my beloved gentle priest but I can’t, because the author’s voice is persuasive and it seems like she  knows her character very well.

What I learned during the public reading humbled me.

Fictional characters take the shape we give them over and over again.  Every reader makes a new character from the one given by the author and this is the magic of writing and reading.  This is the magic of the silent dialog between the author and the reader.

I realized that my characters, the characters I invent in my writings don’t belong to me either.  I have to be in peace knowing that you, my reader will take my characters and you will make them your own.

May I be at peace with the unimaginable persistence and strength of the silent dialog!

27 Responses to “Walking the blue fields with Claire Keegan”

  1. blogolicious says:

    People often say that when going to a film version of a novel, you should let go of any notions of how the story is “supposed” to go. Novels and films are such different media. What works in print does not always work in film. So perhaps we should approach readings–either by authors or actors–the same way: As a different medium of expression that cannot, and should not, try to reproduce the reading experience.

  2. Krystal says:

    When I read a book, I do the same things you do. I imagine them the way I want to see them.
    When I read a book and the book turns into a movie, I become excited because I finally get to see how the director and author portrays the character and I get to see how close i had predicted.

  3. laurin says:

    When I read a book a lot of times I do the same thing you do. I try to imagine what the characters look like and based off of their actions and comments. I love to see the movie if there is one on the book I read because I really am able to see how those that directed the movie how their perception on the character is and i can compare to the thoughts i had about the character when i was reading.

  4. Blogolicious says:

    Yes, isn’t it shocking sometimes when you compare the character in your head to the particular actor they picked? And it’s disappointing when they pick an actor who isn’t up to the role.

  5. Jovan says:

    When I watch a movie after reading the book I seem to like the book alot more. From reading the book you can visualize the characters and the setting in a lot better. I feel like I become close to the character and their emotions in the book. Movies are great because you can really sense the drama through the music but there is little to no room for imagination.

  6. Jovan says:

    When I watch a movie after reading the book I seem to like the book alot more. From reading the book you can visualize the characters and the setting a lot better. I feel like I become close to the character and their emotions in the book. Movies are great because you can really sense the drama through the music but there is little to no room for imagination.

  7. Kaitlin says:

    I mostly find myself disappointed when I read a book first and then see the movie based on it. Books have so much more detail because you can’t describe in a picture all of the words written down on paper. For example, I saw the movie Twilight after I read the book and the detail was so much richer and enticing in the book, but the detail from the movie was captivating at the same time. Movies draw people in with a visual aspect but books draw the reader in with the richness of detail in words.

  8. David S says:

    We all will see what we wish to see. A character can never be defined to be seen the same by everyone, as whatever we do/are is defined by what we know in our lifetime. My most current experiance is not differing of character, but a massive rewrite of the book Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. The movie is loosly based off the book, as the movie adds a new character, and changes the feel to it. Books are preferred, in my opinion, as we imagine as see what we want to see. We imagine what each character will sound like, and most of what they look like (if not throughly explained). A movie shows you, solidly, what the author, or really the director, thinks the part should look like. Their idea is shoved down your throat, and if you do not think it meshes well, you will not enjoy the preformance.

  9. Summer says:

    I cannot think of any books that I have read that also have a movie created about them. I already know that many feel movies do not live up to books and I am sure I would find this to be the case. When I read a book I also make the character my own and when I talk to someone who has read the same book we often have conflicting ideas about the characters appearance and attitudes. I have seen the movie Chitti-Chitti Bang-Bang and saw the play, but I loved the play because it was exciting and beautiful although lots of details were left out. However, I believe when something is read alone it allows the reader to shape and imagine the characters and allows for a mental image that is the readers alone.

  10. Tyler Finn says:

    I really agree with what the poster “blogolicious” said about this topic. Lots of people go to the movies with their gigantic sodas and overflowing popcorn in tote expecting to watch the same book that they spent hours and hours reading on the couch. People need to understand that movies are different from books and you’re not going to get the same exact thing. Yes, the characters are going to be slightly different because we cannot genetically modify the perfect person to fit the character. I remember feeling this way when I first watched the Harry Potter movies. I knew that they were going to be different but yet I found myself nitpicking over little details that made the movie not as good as the book. Unfortunately for a director to get every small detail exactly as it was in the movie it would take millions and millions of dollars from the production company and the movie would be days long. People need to understand that the movie is a short adaptation of a book and sit back and enjoy the show.

  11. David S says:

    Let me rewrite that… I really feel bad for posting that in an English classroom. We all will see what we wish to see. A character can never be defined to be seen the same by everyone, as whatever we do/are is defined by what we know in our lifetime. My most current experience is not differing of character, but a massive rewrite of the book Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. The movie is loosely based off the book, as the movie adds a new character, and changes the feel to it. Books are preferred, in my opinion, as we imagine as see what we want to see. We imagine what each character will sound like, and most of what they look like (if not thoroughly explained). A movie shows you, solidly, what the author, or really the director, thinks the part should look like. Their idea is shoved down your throat, and if you do not think it meshes well, you will not enjoy the performance.

  12. Ella Anderson says:

    Often times, we are disappointed after seeing a movie that was based off of a book that we previously read. In my experience, I believe this to be true because when we read we create our own visualizations of characters and situations rather than having it forced upon us by what we are watching. Each and every one of us has different interpretations when we read a book, however when we watch a movie there is most likely little left to be interpreted or imagined. The beauty of reading is that five people could read the same thing and each and every one of them could have a different picture in their mind of what is transpiring and who the characters in the story are. In order to avoid disappointment, I think it is better to first see the movie and then read the book; although you may not have the same interpretation that you may have had had you not seen the movie first, you are certainly not going to be as disappointed by changes that are made throughout the story.

  13. Kaitlin says:

    Danuta,
    I completely agree with what you wrote in your blog. Especially the part where you say, “The fictional character I imagine while reading a story has physical features I give him. He walks the way I see him walk. He eats his scrambled eggs the way I see him eat. He smiles the smile I give him. And he makes love to his wife the way I imagine it, and he falls asleep the way I want him to fall asleep.” Then you talk about how you became so confused because the way the author read it was nothing like you imagined in your own mind. I understand that completely because when I read the Twilight Saga, I made the characters in my mind from head to toe with the descriptions that the author gave me but when I saw the movie I felt as if I was robbed in my mind because the characters I created in my head were no more.

  14. Tyler Foster says:

    I agree that when reading a book your imagination lets you take the character and add your own thoughts about him or her. You take what the author gives you but sometimes in your mind you add a little more by thoughts about the characters description or character traits. Whereas if I were to see a movie for example then a movie is more straight forward.

    I tend to like books more then movies because of the amount of detail and explanation an author gives. If I were to name one movie I liked more then the book, it would be Fight Club. The book was very descriptive and had a way about it but I liked the movie a lot more. One the way it was shot with great cinematography makes me appreciate it a lot more because I react more to visuals then words. I also like the way the story line followed the book and allowed the viewer to catch the plot all in the end. The book had aspects not in the movie but its the same the other way too. The depiction the movie allowed and the acting ability of Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter drew me in more then the book.

  15. Matt Bloom says:

    I agree that while you are reading you make the characters you own. You in vision them they way your mind interprets them and you hold on to that vision as long as the author stays consistent in their description. However, throughout the story your vision or opinion on the character is subject to change depending on what they do or what happens to them in the story. I also agree that what works in print does not always work in film. The Harry Potter movies were a real let down after I watched them because of all the details that were left out. I realize that it is impossible to keep everything but the way I saw the characters was completely skewed after seeing the movies.

  16. Haymi says:

    I can’t remember any book that I read and has move. I think when we read we see interpret each words in our way of understanding. Because everyone has different way of thinking, it is very frustrating to see what you picture is not the same as the Author is picturing. I can even imaging how much lost it could be what you expected to look and feel the characters are not what the author meant them.

  17. Haymi says:

    I can’t remember any book that I read and has movie. I think when we read we see interpret each words in our way of understanding. Because everyone has different way of thinking, it is very frustrating to see what you picture is not the same as the Author is picturing. I can even imaging how much lost it could be what you expected to look and feel the characters are not what the author meant them.

  18. mike grenfell says:

    When I read a book, I tend to avoid seeing the movie that is based on the book. When I read Harry Potter, I saw the movie that followed, and I was disappointed because I had imagined the characters to look a certain way, and the movie gave a much different view that I did not like. Because of the disappointing first movie, I avoided seeing the other ones.

  19. jaleel says:

    when reading books, i often visualize what i am reading. I like being consumed by the book and getting into the book on a whole other level. Sometimes when i read i get so consumed by the book that i loose focus on my physical presence and get lost in a mental sate. I find that when a book is made into a movie, it doesn’t give off the best, and a lot of the time a lot of the book is lost. I prefer reading the book because it gives of more than what the movie does.

  20. Shawn McCreary says:

    I have expreince reading “A Rasin In the Sun” and then watching a screen play based on the film. I feel that you tend not to like the films so much because you get into the zone of reading and getting a feel of all the details and descriptions of the characters and surroundings that you start to draw your own picture of what you see in the readings. And when the Director and creator of the movies created their own image of how they feel the movie should be made then you would automatically not agree because it is not what you pictured. I still feel “The Raisin and The Sun” film was good because it compensated with the level of acting and magnified on other details of the reading since they could not put all details in the film. If the director put all details in film, then the movie would be atleast 6 hrs long. And i know i dont want to watch a 6 hr long movie.

  21. Melanie B says:

    I agree that reading a book that was made into a movie is more detail then going to see it at a movie theater. It requires a lot of senses from the story to be cut out to make it fit a certain time slot. The movie that I went to go see was The Devil Wears Prada. I had never read the book but heard that it was really good. The movie is one of my favorites and I loved the actors who played in it. I did not get the chance to image what they would have looked like but was very entertained when I went to go see it.

  22. T-Aslam says:

    When I read a Novel and then I went to the theater to watch movie on the same novel that I read. I was shocked to see the there is difference on how the Novel was written and how it was produced.

  23. Michael Leonard says:

    You are absolutely correct, writing provides so little information, it only gives us the basic outline, and our minds fill in what isn’t there. Then, when we come into contact with a different media of the same story, preferably one with visually stimuli, we then see how different our interpretation of the story differs from someone else’s. To me this generally results in disappointment, the transfer from one media to another, because I remember quite a large number of times where I went to see a movie with no real knowledge of what is going to happen and I enjoyed it quite a lot, examples of this are the first two Harry Potter movies, I Am Legend and the Da Vinci code. Then there are other events where I have read the subject matter that the movie is based on and I found myself disappointed, Such examples are most of the Harry Potter movies, The Watchmen and Star Wars Revenge of the Sith, I was so disappointed when I saw Revenge of the Sith, I imagine what I felt was the same when the older Star Wars fans saw episode I. There are few occasions where people saw the first form of media and then saw the second, and liking it more. In fact, the only time I recall that happening to me is when I read the comic V for Vendetta, and then saw the movie and liked the movie a lot more. I suppose for me, it is better to see the movie first and then read the book or comic because I don’t know anything and it easier to impress and surprise people who don’t know what to expect. Rather than reading a book or comic, I have this feeling and tone I got from the story, and I guess I expect to see and feel it in the movie and for it to be executed perfectly, even though it is stupid and foolish to expect such things me and other people do it anyway. I suppose when I read V for Vendetta, I expected a lot from the comic because the movie trailers looked good and I thought this must be awesome in order to make something look this good. When I read it I thought it was okay, I didn’t really get much of a strong feeling from it. But when I saw the movie, it brought a strong and powerful emotion that the comic lacked, and they made slight changes to the story that I felt really magnified the overall experience, though I wasn’t surprise by the story, I was surprise how differently I felt after watching it.

  24. Darcy G says:

    For me, that’s one of the true joys of reading…allowing my imagination to fill in the details and then, depending on my mood or where I am in my life, re-work those details to suit how I interpret it. And there are some books I re-visit to see if my interpretation has changed or if my relationship with the characters has altered. I find going to movies based on books I have loved is very rarely satisfying but it’s interesting to see how others view those characters, and what parts they extract from the story to make the movie.

  25. Felicia Tuttle says:

    I could not have put this in better words myself! I often get irritated as well when my own characters are ruined by a movie, or simply someone else’s point of view. This has always been difficult for me to explain to other people, but after reading this article I feel humbled as well. When I read literature involving characters, I develop a vivid mental image of those characters. I often feel like these people/characters are very familiar to me as I read because I let my imagination paint the character and how they exist. They almost become a sort of imaginary friends, as childish as that sounds…nevertheless, it is the truth. I do this even when little is written about the character. For example, when reading about Claire Keegan in this article I developed who she is in my mind, even though little was said about her. I love reading novels because of the attachments I develop to certain characters. I am sad when I finish reading a book because it means no more visiting these people that I created by transferring words into an imaginary world. I definitely enjoy reading a book over watching a movie any day because there are so many details in a book and the images created are from my own mind which usually means I will like those images. When I read Harry Potter years ago, I was so fascinated because of the whimsical world of fantasy and characters I had created in my head (with help from J.K. Rowling, of course). Movies do not allot enough time to tell the entire story in detail like a book does. Although the Harry Potter movies are surprisingly close to what I had imagined when reading the book, there is still a bit of magic missing when watching the movies.

    • Jami Jordan says:

      I wish I had your patience to read through a fictional book. Many people can read fiction. But I can’t. My sister is like you also. She goes through a box of books like they were a box of Oreos or something. I never had a natural love for reading when I was coming up. So, I guess I find a hard time seeing myself reading anything that I am not either learning from or have to read such as a school book.

  26. Jami Jordan says:

    I found myself doing this same thing for the story The Form of Words. I imagined the mute business man who was obsessed with numbers was a short stocky fellow with a temper. I also thought the main character was a blond. I wondered if the author pictured their character the same way. I’ve never been to a book reading before, so I guess this answers that question.