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118 Writer Out of Carolina: Dorothy Allison David A. Fryxell/2003 From Writer’s Digest, May 2003. Originally published in Writer’s Digest. Reprinted by permission . Dorothy Allison says it’s Okay to hate your characters. “Hating them is almost as good as loving them,” says the best-selling author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller (both Plume), her own Carolina drawl honeying her words. “I was raised in the South, so I’ve got a weakness for S.O.B.s,” Allison goes on. “S.O.B.s mean the possibility of action. If all of your characters are good girls who go to church on Sunday morning, what can happen?” Her red hair seems almost to flame, and her voice takes on the fervor of the revivalist preachers of her childhood as she warms to her topic: “I want demon-seed babies!” There’s plenty to hate about Daddy Glen, the stepfather in Bastard Out of Carolina who abuses the title character. The 1992 autobiographical novel was Allison’s third book—following a 1983 collection of poetry, The Women Who Hate Me (Firebrand), and a 1988 book of short stories, Trash (Plume)— and it was her first novel. But it became a best seller, earned a National Book Award nomination and was turned into a controversial cable-TV film by Anjelica Huston. The New York Times called Bastard “as close to flawless as any reader could ask for.” Allison’s second novel, Cavedweller, published in 1998, also has a memorable villain in Clint, the wife-beating husband of rock-and-roll singer Delia Byrd. That book has recently been adapted for the stage by playwright Kate Ryan, debuting May 8 at the New York Theatre Workshop. Both novels draw heavily on Allison’s real life—especially real villains she’s known. “I’ll tell you the secret,” she says, leaning forward conspirato- DAVID A. FRYXELL / 2003 119 rially. “When you begin with a character, you want to begin by creating a villain. Remember that dirtbag who dumped you right before senior prom when you’d already bought a dress to match his tuxedo? Use that S.O.B.! Remember your indignation and hurt and copy it over into your character. Just change a few details for the lawyers. “You steal people you love and people you hate. I myself was gifted with many S.O.B.s. Redneck fools all over the place. I can take a deep breath and write a redneck fool in a heartbeat.” Much like Bone, the title character in Bastard, Allison was born in 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, to a fifteen-year-old unwed mother who’d dropped out of the seventh grade to work as a waitress. Early on, she began expressing the pain of her impoverished and abused adolescence in writing —letters, journals, poetry (“Teenagers are free verse walking around on two legs,” she says). But she burned everything she wrote until she was twenty-four. Then, living in a lesbian-feminist collective in Florida, she discovered that she didn’t have to be endangered by telling her stories. But don’t get the mistaken notion that Allison is just writing her own life story. Not everything in her novels happened that way, or happened to her. She never really broke into a Woolworth’s store, for instance, despite her vivid account of such a caper in Bastard. “I have a couple of cousins who thought it was all dead truth because they recognized some parts,” she says with a low chuckle. “It’s fun to tease people about where fiction and life intersect.” Love ’em or hate ’em, after you “steal” characters from real life, Allison says, you have to begin to fictionalize them. “The second part is to make them themselves,” she explains. “Change some essential thing—and not just for the lawyers. “It’s important to set challenges that you’re not sure you’re equal to. Take something out of the picture and put something else in: What if Aunt Dot killed somebody? Who would she kill? You begin to build a different Aunt Dot, to move away from the person you know to the person you need.” That’s the germ of Allison’s character-driven fiction. Some authors start with a plot idea, she says, and bend their characters to fit the plot; she begins with characters and grows the plot from them. “My bias,” she adds, “is I put people through...


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