Many of my characters were inspired by people I know, but only as a starting point, for my imagination would take over and complete the profile. For example, while Gordon Gilbert was modeled after someone I know, the model was no way as nasty or devious as Gilbert. And I know of no one who fathered a child and refused to support it.
While two persons I know inspired the character of Mick, no one I know transformed what flowed from illegal activity to legitimate businesses or who forged the kinds of alliances that Mick did with blacks and Latinos. Notwithstanding this, while doing research for this website, I was reminded that Joey Gallo, about whom more is written later, forged alliances with Nicky Barnes and other African-American gangsters.
In truth, the Al Forte character is like me in a number of respects: a decent, diligent attorney, but a straight arrow. And I admit that Mick possesses qualities I wish I had more of: daring, fearlessness, toughness. Finally, there’s Eli, who just may be my creative, Walter Mitty-ish side, the side of me that is wont to tell tall tales, about my teaching Chubby Checker how to do the twist or about my exploits on the basketball court. So, these three characters of Al, Mick and Eli just might be different aspects of my personality. Who knows? We may need to confer with a disciple of Freud’s.
During my law practice, I would make sure that those I dealt with knew about my “mob connections,” and I would say that if anyone did me dirty, they would have to answer to my “cousin.” Mick is the embodiment of this imaginary person.
Al Forte’s wife, Theresa, is the only character who significantly matches the person who is her model. My late wife Theresa is the model for Al’s wife Theresa. The general description of the character fits both, as they are both Chinese and share common sentiments; for example, like Al’s Theresa, my Theresa would have also gotten along famously with someone like Mick. And some of the words that the character Theresa speaks to Al (like about the limitation of being principally book smart) are direct quotes of what my Theresa would say to me. There was an initial conflict between my mother and my Theresa, but it was not the same issue described in Chapter 11. (For the record, my mother was able to resolve her issue on her own, and she and Theresa got along famously. In fact, my mother, who recently died at the age of 93, suffered from dementia and was out of it in most respects, except for the few lucid moments when she would ask about Theresa and how come I do not bring her to visit.)
Challenges with Mick’s (and Eli’s) character(s)
I faced two challenges with Mick’s character. The first had to do with how to flesh out his character.
Al Forte, the other main character, was fairly easy to describe. It was easy and straight forward to show that he is diligent, capable, hardworking and sympathetic.
Mick, on the other hand, was much more complicated and there was much to reveal about him. I did not want to overwhelm the reader and to interfere with the flow of the story by an en masse description, and the most difficult struggle I faced was how to integrate Mick’s history seamlessly.
For assistance on this front, I signed up for a half-day session at The Center for Fiction on “Show and Tell.” As luck would have it, I figured out how to accomplish what I sought the night before the session. Like my other breakthrough moments, this particular insight came while in the shower.
I had a similar challenge with how to unveil Eli’s character in Where’s … Eli? As you read both books, you will see how Mick’s and Eli’s characters get revealed in bits and pieces and will form your own judgment on how well I handled those challenges.
The second challenge with Mick was how to handle Mick’s distinctive voice and speech pattern. Here is someone with little formal education and with much disdain for it (don’t forget what Mick says about his experience with the 7th grade in Chapter 7).
Do I have Mick speak Brooklynese, have a Brooklyn accent? You know, where it’s dis, dat, dese and dose, where the “h” is silent for any word that starts with “th,” and the “t” is pronounced like either a “t” or a “d.” Another example would be “thirty-third” pronounced “doidy-doid.” For a full array of the whacky Brooklyn accent, check out the famed short story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” by Thomas Wolfe, which is written entirely in Brooklynese. (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1935/06/15/only-the-dead-know-brooklyn)
Brooklynese is a dying, or dead, language, due largely to education and TV. So, I decided that Mick would not have a Brooklyn accent but still have a peculiar way of saying certain words (like wudda, didja, doncha and the like) and with his speech peppered with lots of contractions, use of ain’t’s, and double negatives. Not to forget plenty of saltiness, in both English and Neapolitan.
To read about my own experience with Brooklynese/the Brooklyn accent click here