I could have portrayed complete strangers who collided, but I wanted to use people who knew each other. Though they would not be major figures in one another's world, there would be some slight interaction between them. I thought about an accident on an icy road in a Vermont town, but I realized that the small town I know most about is Brooklyn.
At that point, the rest of the story fell into place. My wife had just spent more than a year writing a book on birth order, and her findings affected this story as well as Montauk. At first, one story line was going to concern two sisters, one of whom was to be killed in the crash. The other's life would change in unexpected ways, not all for the bad, as a result of her sister's absence. At some point, the women became friends instead of sisters. In high school, I knew a girl who moved in with her friend's family because she didn't get on with her own parents.
Once I placed the story in Brooklyn, I had a collection of familiar characters to use: David "Shipwreck" Solomon, Eugene Sparrow, and Brian Hanrahan from Brooklyn of Dreams. They peopled the margins, and in some cases the foreground of my story. Sparrow, who is a major character in two novels I have not yet published, revealed an unknown part of his life to me in his unrequited love for Char Stein. He became a fuller, more sympathetic figure to me than he had been in our twenty years' acquaintanceship.
Again, where Sparrow was concerned, form drove the content. Since an automobile accident only lasts a few seconds, the central story needed to be about someone's investigation of the accident. Once I located the story in Brooklyn, Sparrow was the logical choice. At first, he was only going to step in to take a cold look around. But I knew something about him from having written those two novels: he had lost two sisters, one who died, and one who fled. He was a lonely man, who would eventually leave the police. It became obvious he would fall in love with Charlotte, who was sedate, smart and a bit superior to him.
I had already decided on the X when I bought a dictionary of rhetorical terms and saw the definition of "chiasmus." It is a sentence with two clauses; the second inverts the subject and object of the first. Because it is reminiscent of the structure of the story, I picked this word as the original title. I have planted a chiasmus, at a moment where it is the appropriate line of dialog, in the central story. In computer programming terms, this is an "Easter egg", an ornamental feature for the user to stumble on unsuspectingly. As I was finishing, I decided that this was a weak title. It was cold, intellectual, unknown to most people, and hard to pronounce. A more appropriate if much more common title was Someone to Lean On; it better summed up the interwoven themes of the stories, and is from one of the Rolling Stones songs on the Gimme Shelter album, which the characters are listening to throughout.
In Brooklyn of Dreams, I had experimented with "rhyming" elements in related stories; each segment of that work contains a blue plastic case, fireflies, etc. Although I didn't set out to do the same in this work, it happened very naturally, so that a monogrammed hairbrush, a middle name, a town in the Catskills, a mystical saying and many other elements turn up in common in Char's story and John's. The intention is mainly esthetic, but the resonance created also conveys the idea that all human lives are related. I have been accused, by one reader, of magical realism (which I take as a compliment) but I have almost always left myself an out, of mild coincidence or outright causation ( John may have seen the photograph Char carries of Desiree, which is "rhymed" in one of his dreams.)
A friend of mine had commented that the most interesting story in Brooklyn of Dreams was that of Brian Hanrahan, because people fucking themselves up with drugs are inherently more dramatic than people trying to figure out how to make ends meet. Brian and his friends have endless interest for me, and an issue I had to face early on was whether I was writing the same story over again. I resolved that problem when I realized that neither Char's or John's story is about drugs, though they play a role.
Someone to Lean On instead is about loss, love, families, race, and God. The last was a surprise, as I had only planned to touch on religion glancingly. Neither Char nor John believe in Him, but other characters do, and some of them are credible. Personally I don't, but I have planted another Easter egg which may lead the reader to believe otherwise. If you find it, please note that George is propping up a believer.
I had tried to work the character of Terry Jones into Brooklyn of Dreams, but she didn't fit. In the introduction to that work, I apologized for writing a story about Brooklyn which included Irish, Italian and Jewish people, but no African-Americans. I have redressed that here. The maxim, "write what you know," though frequently interpreted to mean more than it should, applies to writing about other races. I have often noticed that black people turning up in the work of white writers are stereotypes (as are women in the work of some male writers.) Because of the significant amount of baggage the races carry in their relations with one another, writers ought to be very careful that their characters of other ethnic backgrounds are not stereotypes or signs. A stereotypical character is usually based on other writers' work, which itself is derivative, so that you have the same effect as a photocopy of a photocopy. A sign is a message about the author himself, eg, "I Am Not Racist; Love Me." I anticipate two possible objections to the character of Terry Jones: either that she is a sign, or that she is a white girl in blackface, so to speak. I can only say that she is loosely modeled on a Trinidadian woman I dated twenty-five years ago, but I take responsibility for any errors of detail or failure of art.
Two other characters writers should be very careful about portraying are Holocaust survivors and Vietnam vets. I have successfully avoided the temptation so far to put a Holocaust survivor in my mature work (in an early story, written when I was a teenager, I had one saying things like "My generation's worst experiences, your generation makes to itself with a drug"). Uncle E is my first Vietnam vet, and some readers will likely say, "Of course he's crazy, suicidal, taking medication, etc." I needed Uncle E to teach John carpentry, and as a foil for some conversations about God. In 1970, it seemed quite natural that he would be a Vietnam vet, as his older half-brothers were veterans of earlier wars. Unlike Terry, he is not based on someone I knew. If I have made him stereotypical, I apologize.
It was especially challenging for me to write the two diaries in the first person, something I have avoided in fiction-writing in recent years. I hope I have succeeded in giving Char and John very different voices. I constantly had to review John's diary, looking for phrases and ideas I or Char would use, but John would not.
A note on the user interface. Any of the five segments can be reached from the top page graphic. As I did in Montauk, I have also included icons at the end of each segment which allow you to reach "contiguous" portions of the text. Thus, the central story is reachable from anywhere and gives access to every other story; from Char's journal you can reach John's diary or the central story, etc.
Links within the text will lead you out of Someone entirely, into the related Lina and Brian sections of Brooklyn of Dreams.
The sections of Someone to Lean On may be read in various sequences. One strategy would be to read the central story first, then fan out. Or read both "befores", the center, then both "afters". Or you can follow one character's entire story, then come back for the other. You can read Char's "before", the central story, then John's "after", then backtrack to pick up the other two pieces. I have tried to write two novelettes which intersect like stylized bolts of lightning. The central story can serve as the middle chapter of either.
One interesting side effect of hyperfiction sprung loose from time and linearity is that you produce some effects you didn't intend. A reader of Brooklyn of Dreams who had read Lina's story first was startled when a gun appeared so early in Brian's---an effect I never thought of, because the wielder of the gun in Brian's story is unrelated to what happened to him a year later. The stories in Brooklyn of Dreams were intended to be read in any conceivable order. I am not certain whether it would be as effective to read the "after" stories in Someone to Lean On first and then the "befores". On the one hand, the latter contain enough information to stand alone. On the other hand, they may contain so much that little is then added by the "befores."
Someone To Lean On involves a more emotional topic than most of my other work (but is similar to the Lina-Brian strand of Brooklyn of Dreams, which is recapitulated here). I hope I have avoided sentimentality. I would like to share one more insight, which struck me when I first re-read the work: John and Char would have made an interesting couple. He is the loving, simple, reliable man she needs, who will put up with her anger and insecurity. But I am glad they never got together, because then Terry Jones would have been left out in the cold. John would have been good for Char, but Terry is better for John. Anyway, Char would have been completely insulated against considering John; he is merely a carpenter.