March 29, 2011

Behind the Book: The small things

Behind the Book by
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While researching Ravens I got the chance to ride on patrol with a Brunswick, Georgia, cop. I’ll call him Officer Jack. He took me driving around and around the slow-baking city. Nothing was stirring.

Like the sad jowly cop in Ravens, Jack had been a detective before his own eagerness had tripped him up. He’d fallen far, and wound up as a corporal on this traffic beat. Many times he’d thought of getting back on that ladder again — re-applying for sergeant or detective — but all that was too much hassle, and besides, he couldn’t bear the the boredom of a desk job. He wanted to be out on the streets, working with people.

We took Rt. 17 north and then the I-95 Spur west. One strip mall after another. Ace Hardware, Wendy’s, Cap’n D’s Seafood, Empire Title Pawn. Now and then came fleeting pockets of deep antique beauty. Trailers shrouded in grey moss, clustering around an oak tree. A rolling seascape of kudzu.

A million years ago, this had been my home town.

Jack, knowing I was writing a thriller, tried to tell me thrilling stories from his detective days. But thrillingness wasn’t what I wanted from him. I wanted some essential generous detail to bestow upon my character. Although I had no idea what that might be.

We fell silent. There were no drug deals going down that day, no murders, no knife-fights, nothing — not so much as a broken taillight. Just the hot summer streets for hour after hour. Officer Jack kept apologizing. Finally, Dispatch sent us to an elementary school in the ghetto. School was in summer recess, but the old women working in the office told us they’d heard strange noises. We investigated. Tramped through the lonely gym, the cafeteria. The A/C was scarcely working and the place was an inferno. Passing one classroom, we spotted two little girls clambering out of a window. One was chubby, and got stuck, and Jack nabbed her. The other one got away.

Jack brought the chubby one back to the office and sat her down. Naturally she started to bawl.  This moon-faced white cop and his creepy companion (me): we must have been terrifying. Jack tried to get her to confess what she’d been up to. Why would any child ever try to break into school?

She said something about a ‘picture’ — but she was bawling so hard we couldn’t understand her.

Then a strange thing happened. Her partner in crime showed up. The girl had made a clean escape, but she came back to face the music because, I suppose, she knew it was wrong to leave your friend.

She sat down and folded her arms and stared at us with enormous eyes. She was tiny and beautiful, and perhaps eight years old. She was a ghetto child. She wouldn’t say a word. Tears were flowing from her eyes but she didn’t blink and she held her silence.

But Jack kept patiently, gently pressing her, and finally she turned away and let it out. She said she had brought her friend into school to see a picture.

"What picture?" Jack asked.

"Picture I made."

Jack asked if we could look at this picture. So she took us back to that classroom, and hung up on the wall was a watercolor of a school bus. It was stunning. The bus had the soft underside of a living creature. I told her how much I liked it, and Jack said she should listen to me because I was from New York and knew everything about art.

He was beaming.

He was so taken by these amazing girls.

And I had what I wanted. I wrote the scene into Ravens. It’s not thrilling; it’s just a moment of rest, an aside from the tension.

But it has its own quietly beating heart and I think it gives life to my Brunswick cop. It might even make my readers love him. And I know if I can get you to love my characters — well, that’s really the whole deal. That’s all I’ve ever looked for.

Screenwriter George Dawes Green is the author of Ravens. His first novel in 14 years, it tells the story of a family of lottery winners whose newfound weath endangers their lives.

Author photo (c) Nick Cardillichio.

George Dawes Green

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By George Dawes Green
Grand Central
ISBN 9780446538961

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