Was my character really me?
July 5, 2021
When I was writing the story of Barbara, I was absolutely unaware that a similar destiny was going to befall me.
Who are your characters?
Sometimes people ask me this, in the sheer disbelief that I may or may not be my main female character/s.
Thus far I have been called by the name of my three strongest characters: Barbara, Pia, and Tattee.
How much does an author reveal about themselves when building the main characters?
And now, years later, I want to disclose that close and intimate relationship between a writer and their main character.
In 2000 I published a novel in Croatia called Requiem for Barbara. People who know me well – my family and close friends, were all convinced that it was a loose memoir about my life. A life that I was in fact living in another continent and feeling all the struggles as a foreigner and young unknown writer, building their life from scratch.
It is an elegy, a sad story about a young female writer who struggles as a single mother in Sydney without having any kind of help or any family. And after the heavy burden of trying and unfavourable circumstances, she breaks and ultimately falls terminally ill.
When I was writing the story, I was absolutely unaware (as I don’t have supernatural abilities that can open a window into my own future) that a similar destiny was going to befall me. Barbara was a neurotic, artistic woman who utterly adored her daughter. She led a very hermetic life where she never let other people participate in various ways and took no advice or emotional support or physical presence.
When people used to tell me I was Barbara, that they could recognize me in every word of her or every deed or emotion, I would just shrug my shoulders saying “No, I am not Barbara. She is just a character who happens to be a sensitive writer locked in her own world.”
I had not yet translated this novel into English as I was visited by other characters that later on people would strongly associate with me and my ways of living and interacting with the world around me. Then Barbara became trapped and locked between the covers of the novel and now and then some new reader would ask me if I was Barbara, asking if it were a story about me and my life in Sydney.
I would always deny it, for Barbara was just a fictional character. Time had passed, and I received an email from a publisher in Belgrade, Serbia, and he expressed great interest in publishing Requiem for Barbara in Serbia. But before I agreed, I wanted to read it once again because since I had written it more than 22 years ago. I had never read it again.
I don’t tend to read my books once they have been published unless I translate them myself and have to go through the whole story again. Upon reading the book and making the decision for the new publication, I took time to think deeply about this character whose name I had been called by for almost two decades – Barbara Millich.
When it came out in Serbian (last year) people read it again, in a different language. My old friends re-read it, my mother re-read it, and she cried a river of tears because, in her words, she knew I was Barbara. Many of my friends asked the same questions “Why don’t you translate Barbara into English”. So, I did.
The first person to read my manuscript was my 27-year-old daughter Althea. She is always the first to edit the manuscript. She would read me sentences from the book, looking sternly into my eyes, or would loudly repeat sentences, and I would ask her “what!”
Basically, she, the only person who knows who I really am, confirmed loudly that the character of Barbara Millich was the author herself, her mother, whilst Lora, was no one other than her – my daughter Althea. It was a story about us, thought back then I did not know that; it turns out, that I built my life and reality on this story.
I never figured I was able to look into the future and deliver almost the exact same story. There is no answer to it, but my mother and my daughter were two key souls who finally made me admit that were some of my own qualities and traits in the character of Barbara Millich.