Playing Favorites by Kathe Koja
Some of the keenest pleasures in fiction come from meeting the characters who seem to be moving sideways between the world constructed for them on the page by the writer and the more lasting, more ephemeral world of the readers’ continued imagination. And so many times—for me, anyway—these are the mercurial ones, the tricksters, the hotheads, the ones who seem to maintain their balance by keeping others off-balance all the time, grounded like the stars in their own heaven of being; they’re the ones for whom the mask is a natural habitat, and they wear it so very well.
I’m reading a great deal of theatrical stuff these days, novels and plays and scripts, as I continue to work on bringing Under the Poppy to the stage (and things are going very well in that venture, thank you to everyone who’s asked; more details on the actual booked dates when I can share them!), and the ones who lure me in and keep me happy are the ones like Gaveston in “Edward II”; Mercutio in—well, you know where Mercutio hails from; “Twelfth Night”‘s Feste; Prior Walter in “Angels in America”; wordplay as swordplay, a kind of high cunning of the heart; Prior is the hero of the two joined plays in which he appears, but the others no, or not defined as such, but they’re the ones we remember, and the ones we miss when, like Mercutio and Gaveston, they pass from the playing space before the show ends; they pretty much take the party with them when they go.
The character of Istvan in Under the Poppy seems to emanate from that same tribe and anteroom: I saw him as that kind of man, even as a boy, sprung fully-formed onto the road he savors, his trajectory his own, his face a handsome, mobile, mocking mask, behind which all sorts of pains, passions, grudges and joys bloom and roil … I have no favorite among the Under the Poppy characters; like our mothers always told us, they love us all the same, and if I really don’t love all of the people in the book (several of them are amazingly hard to take, even on their best behavior), I do try to understand each one and feel for them all; otherwise I’d run the risk of making out of authorial calculation (i.e., dead cardboard) what should be real live fictional bones and flesh. But I do admit to being pleased that Istvan’s is the last voice we hear—in a very characteristic mode!—as the story comes to an end, and I hope other readers will feel the same.