From "Dadolescence" bookcover (Turnstone Press)
Honestly, it's not a memoir
In the month or so since I launched my novel Dadolescence I've had occasion to think about what I might do differently if I were writing it today, knowing what I know about reader reaction to my characters and their thoughts and actions.
One change I certainly wouldn't make would be to rewrite the novel as a serial killer story. It's tough enough when every reader assumes that the procrastinating, unrealistic, unworldly failed intellectual who narrates the story is me. I wouldn't want my friends asking where I bury all the bodies!
I should have expected this. My name is Bob Armstrong. I work at home and for 11 years I've been trying to get a novel published (I have an earlier, unpublished first novel gathering dust). My protagonist, Bill Angus, is a stay-at-home father who has been struggling for about 12 years to write a PhD thesis. We both make muffins. We both recycle and compost. He coaches soccer. I coached soccer.
So who is Bill? And where does Bob end and Bill begin?
As a novelist, you need to shape your characters out of the clay of human emotion. You need to give them fears and desires, joy and sadness, resentment and hope. And you can only really understand these feelings in the context of your own experiences. You need to develop empathy, to be sure, in order to imagine and portray the feelings of others. And depending on the kind of novel you're writing, you may need to imagine experiences vastly different from your own.
But just as an actor developing a character works through his or her own emotions in order to inhabit Chekov's or Shakespeare's characters, so must a novelist build on real emotions in order to imagine another person's life.
Dadolescence is a comedy about stay-at-home fathers and their feelings of inadequacy. For the comedy to work, the emotions and dilemmas have to ring true. So of course it has to be founded on some emotional truth in the author's life. But is it really a shocking confession to admit that I have had feelings of inadequacy? Who hasn't had such feelings? And, yes, there are a number of facts in the protagonist's life that mirror mine, but there are many other ways in which our lives are different (Bill is a spastic dancer and has a weak chin, whereas I'm a combination of Fred Astaire and Jon Hamm).
One big thing Bill and I have in common, though, is that we've learned an important life lesson. I won't tell you what exactly Bill learns in the novel, because that would be a spoiler. But I've learned that you never give your protagonist your initials.
"Dadolescence" trailer (Turnstone Press)
Bob Armstrong (Mandy Malazdrewich)
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Hear Bob Armstrong's interview with host Keran Sanders of the Weekend Morning Show from Sunday October 23 on CBC Radio One.