Saturday, April 16, 2016

Getting Inside a Character’s Head


My character Eli Levin is a prodigiously gifted pianist born with a complicated and frightening congenital heart condition. My character Niall Logan, aspiring singer-songwriter, is tormented by bipolar disorder.

As a person who has enjoyed good health for my entire long life, trying to understand what these two young men had to endure was not easy. If I want my reader to care about a character, I have to make them real to myself first in order to give them a voice which will then bring them to life for the reader. I write what’s generally considered “literary fiction.” That doesn’t mean I consider myself on a par with the great classic novelists of the past. It means that my stories are primarily in-depth character studies which follow a protagonist through the challenges life hands them.

In Eli’s Heart, my character Eli Levin was inspired by a real life musician, the late great pianist Samuel Sanders. I had a friendship with Sam one summer when I was fifteen and he had just turned sixteen. I was awed by his enormous talent, didn’t truly understand his excruciating health problems, and lost touch with him after we had corresponded for a few months. I met a young pianist some thirty years later who was studying with him at Juilliard. Since the only time Sam had discussed his heart condition with me was to tell me almost casually that he wasn’t expected to live past the age of thirty, I was happy to learn he was still with us in his mid-forties.

When the fine made-for-television movie Something the Lord Made appeared on HBO in the early part of this century, seeing it helped me understand better what Sam’s condition – Tetralogy of Fallot – entailed. I had been told by his student that he was accompanying the iconic violinist Itzhak Perlman, but when I looked Sam up on the Internet I was even more in awe of the magnificence of his career and the sacrifices he had made. Rather than dying at thirty, Sam lived to the age of nearly 62, burdened and struggling with his heart condition for most of that time.

Niall Logan, one of the protagonists in my work in progress Jamie’s Children, is completely a creation of my imagination. I chose to give him, instead of a life-long physical difficulty, an illness of the mind that he would have to learn to live with in order to have a productive and fulfilling life in his chosen field of music. I began researching Niall’s illness a year and a half ago, and it took a good year before I felt I had some sense of what people with bipolar disorder experience.

While a person with a physical disability is usually viewed sympathetically, one with a mental illness is even today considered very differently. Niall’s girlfriend Bonnie has parents who encourage her to leave him. Her father warns: “Don’t let him pull you down his rabbit hole!” Fortunately for Niall, Bonnie perseveres and her love and that of his family are important to Niall learning to live with his disease but to try to not allow it to define him. The challenges include societal confusion about mental illness. We like to think we’ve come a long way … and probably that is true … but we have much further to go. Niall has a difficult time accepting his illness, which is not unusual and is completely understandable. Nobody likes to admit that he’s crazy. But until he does, and seeks help, he is wandering in a world of confusion.

Without the assistance of medically knowledgeable people I would never have been able to attempt to write about either of these conditions. Research on the internet, books which were recommended to me (especially about bipolar disorder), reading online blogs written by both people who suffered both these conditions and those who love them, were all important. For both books, I had medical people who were very generous with their time and expertise to help me write believably about Eli’s awful heart condition, and Niall’s frightening journey.

Recently I spoke to a friend who suffers from a chronic and sometimes severe condition who mentioned people take their good health for granted. I used to. No more. I am very, very grateful for it. What I hope people take away from Jamie’s Children is a better understanding of bipolar disorder. And a realization that the person with BPD has to endure something most of us can never really understand.

Eli's Heart is available on Amazon in paperback and e-book.
Jamie's Children is scheduled for release this summer.
Please visit my website: to learn more.