What’s in a name, anyway? This question came up for me again a few days ago, when Clea and I were making preparations for my visit here. At one point she said something like, “it’s a good thing the protagonist of your book is named Kitty, ‘cause she’ll feel right at home on my blog.”
And I laughed, of course, because it was funny and because Clea has the sort of witty energy that’s difficult to resist when she wants you to smile. But at the same time, I thought about what she’d said. Kitty. At this point, I’m having a tough time remembering where that even came from. And her last name: Pangborn? That I remember: I pulled it right out of the air. But I envisioned this young socialite thrust onto hard times. And she’s born a Katherine: Katherine right down to her matched luggage and her hand-stitched towels. And then the world changes -- the stock market crashes, her father kills himself, The Depression sweeps the country -- and she reluctantly emerges as “Kitty:” someone who puts up with a diminutive because she must. (Sorry, Clea: nothing at all to do with cats!)
Now here’s a secret, something I haven’t told anyone else. A secret about Dexter Theroux, the main male character in Death Was the Other Woman. No one has asked me why I settled him with “Dexter.” And it’s a pretty good question: one especially apt for this venue.
So why Dexter? Why not David or Michael or John -- one of those good old saint names that pull so much use. Was something more off-beat called for? Then Percival might have had the same effect. Or Archibald could have served. But the truth is this: at the very moment that the book that would become Death Was the Other Woman was pouring itself into my brain, I was dogsitting my friend Pam’s canine companion. And this dog was a rakish old gentleman: an Australian Shepherd-cross-something-wirey. He had seen his share of summers, this old guy, his coat was thin in spots and his joints could be a bit sore in the morning, but there was something ineffably cool about him. You really got that, if he was a music lover, he’d listen to jazz. And not just any jazz, either. But the kind of cool jazz popularized by Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. Something that calls for wearing a beret and a slouchy, stripey shirt.
We’d go for walks and he’d be very self-possessed. My own dog, Jett, would be bouncing around, trying to get him to play, and he would play with her, a little indulgently. But there was never any question but that he was thinking his own thoughts and preparing to do his own business. He was courteous to Jett, you understand -- even if that courtesy was sometimes tinged with an aloof superiority that he came by very honestly -- but it was clear that he was focusing on larger issues. And this dog -- of course, and you’ve guessed it by now -- this dog was named Dex.
So, I don’t know, I’m sitting in my studio writing away and Dex has taken up residence somewhere near my feet. (His mom is a writer, so I guess it made sense to him to station himself near the woman making all the sharp clacking sounds on the keyed plastic thing.)
While he’s there, snoring softly, this character waltzes into my manuscript. I recognized him as soon as he walked in. He is tall and good-looking in a 1930s movie star kind of way. But he’s damaged and if you look closely, you can see it in his eyes. And though he’s damaged and even self-medicating, there is a core of moral strength that is sometimes difficult to see. What’s not difficult to see: he’s done some living in those shoes.
The character I was creating is not now a Southerner, but when I first saw him, I thought he was. And because I was writing him, he needed a name right now. When I’m working, my characters must have names in the first instant. The names don’t always stick, and sometimes they go through quite a few changes before I’m done, but this one has stuck just as it came out of my brain that day, with the borrowed dog snoring gently near my feet: Dexter J. Theroux, which seemed to me to be a good name for a damaged Bourbon-sucking Southerner.
After a while, though, I realized that for Dexter to have sustained the kind of damage I required, he probably could not have been an American. The United States got into WW I quite late in the game and I wanted this character to have suffered in the trenches for years. In the end I made him Canadian, which was not a big stretch. In the first place -- and arguably -- Canadian soldiers saw the very worst of that war. The powers that be used the Canadian boys as disposable fighting commodities: you could put them into difficult positions (along with Australians and maybe the Scots) because it didn’t matter as much whether you got them out.
And there were a lot of Canadians living in California in those years. Like, an almost unthinkable number. It was not at all outside of the realm of possibility for Dex to be a Canuck. I did not give him a Quebecois heritage, but I’ve left it open enough that it’s a possibility, especially given the name.
Now Dex -- the original Dex, he of the snores and the scratchy, wirey coat -- passed onto the rainbow bridge in the summer of 2006, just as I was riding the book that would become Death Was the Other Woman to the finish line.
The loss of him left a hole in the world in the place where he used to be and it left a void at the side of the writer whose clacking he heard most often. He does not live on in my novel. That would be silly. A man shouldn’t be a dog. But a bit of him? Maybe a bit of him. The spirit of a too-cool-for-school Dexter, who’s seen enough of life, you can’t impress him anymore, that Dexter lives on in my book, and in her heart.