Researching a novel can be challenging and frustrating, even when you’re looking further into a subject that already fascinates you. But there are times when you are fossicking through the mullock heap and you discover a Yowah nut, and inside that a precious opal. (This metaphor has been brought to you by The Thousand Smiles of Nicholas Goring, third and final novel in the Butterfly Hunter series, on which I am currently working.)
Writing A Threefold Cord was a surprisingly serendipitous experience in this regard. As some of you will already know, it features three actors as the main characters, who evolve from friends to a twosome-and-friend, to a threesome. The story takes place over about a year. This meant that I had to take into account the various bits of television, film and theatre work they’d each be involved in throughout. They all had rather busy years, I have to admit, and many working actors would be envious of such a schedule, but I wanted to convey a sense of these young-ish men each coming into his own, so to speak, and starting to be recognised for his individual talents.
Some of the mini-stories in which they act, either jointly or separately, I made up myself. That was fun! (To be honest, if I thought I’d be any use at all at writing a medieval murder mystery, I’d have a go a novelised episode of The Justice of Godbolt.) For other mini-stories, I drew on actual plays or novels that would be more or less familiar to readers. I chose each mini-story as carefully as I could, so that its tale and its characters would inform the main story in different ways.
At this point of the main story, I wanted to throw an early challenge at the threesome. Even as they are realising that they’re evolving from a twosome who have a friend-with-benefits into a committed threesome, they are faced with the fact that one of the original twosome has to be away from home for about six weeks, because he is starring in a play in another city. How is his absence going to effect this tentative, precariously balanced relationship?
Well, that’s the big question that I won’t answer here. The question I had to answer at the time, though, was what the play would be.
The actor involved is Grae, who is the point-of-view character. While he doesn’t think of himself as anything much more than a hard worker, he is considered by others to be a particularly gifted actor. So I wanted to find something that would be particularly challenging; something he’d love to get his teeth into; something that other people would consider as risky without an actor of his calibre. He’s gay, though he’s a discreet and private person. So I thought that some kind of queer subject matter would be irresistible to him. I also wanted it to be a one-man play, to emphasise the fact that at this key juncture he is not only separated from his lovers, but isolated in a distant city.
‘Right!’ I thought. ‘Where do I start?’ I couldn’t even think, off the top of my head, of any one-man plays, let alone any that fit the other criteria. So naturally my first step was to boot up Wikipedia. I did a search for one-man plays, and within the first few results I discovered I am My Own Wife, a play by Doug Wright that I hadn’t even heard of before. A quick skim of the material, and I realised I’d found that opal.
The play tells the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender person who was born Lothar Berfelde in East Berlin in 1928. Having long been abused and threatened by her father, teenage Charlotte’s eventual response was to kill him. She was detained for a short while as a juvenile delinquent. Once free, Charlotte began work as a second-hand goods dealer and became an antiquarian, developing her own museum collection of everyday items. She survived both the Nazi and the Communist regimes, despite living openly as a transgender person who loved men, known for always wearing a black dress and pearls. Charlotte died in 2002 at the age of 74.
She is not an unproblematic person to like, having expressed opinions about gays and lesbians that are rather offensive. It also seems she was a Stasi informant, or at least they tried to use her as such – but then that was their modus operandi, and apparently at least one in three ‘ordinary’ people were compromised in similar ways. The very fact that Charlotte stubbornly survived 74 years as her own self is remarkable, and perhaps it’s inevitable that in our eyes she can seem rather cross-grained.
Doug Wright wrote the play based on his own research and on his interviews with Charlotte; the play often dramatises his research and writing process. The title comes from Charlotte’s answer to her family when Lothar was asked when he’d marry: there was no need for Lothar to marry, because ‘I am my own wife.’ The play premiered in 2003, and won the Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Lead Actor in a Play in 2004, as well as earning Wright the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
While it is a one-man play, the actor is required to present not only the character of Charlotte, but also over thirty other characters, including Doug Wright himself. All with only one costume change…
Honestly, I couldn’t have made any of that up! Not Charlotte herself, bless her, nor the play. A one-man play with over thirty characters…? Inconceivable!
So of course this was exactly the play I was looking for. What an irresistible challenge for Grae to take up, and what a recommendation of his talents! He got to explore aspects of someone who firmly embodied a queer identity – and not only that, Charlotte’s rather self-contained persona emphasised his own isolation.
Meanwhile, his two lovers Ben and Chris remain in London playing Edward and Gaveston in Marlowe’s Edward II. Not only were they together, but they were playing an ardent pair of lovers, and there was barely even a mention of Edward’s Isabella.
And this all led to other serendipities within the novel as well, such as the Charlotte-related present Ben and Chris give Grae to remember them by when he leaves London, and then me having fun imagining a Charlotte-inspired photo shoot for Grae, and then having Ben choosing one of those photos as expressing something true about how he feels for Grae, and…
It was serendipity of the most marvellous kind! Thank you, Charlotte, and thank you, Doug. My novel would be dimensionally poorer without you.