I was asked again the other day how I come up with the names of characters. In hindsight I wish I’d said that the right name gives me the scent of the character. Then like an old dog on the trail, I can sniff her out. Connie Flood, for instance, in Alone in the Classroom, came alive only after she stopped being Stevie (my first name for her). ‘Connie’ summoned up a beloved uncle who named his son Conran, after his father; Conran then got shortened to Connie, more typically a girl’s name. In developing the character of a beloved fictional aunt, I was seeking out someone close to me whom I had never met, an invented character who would have implicit meaning, a personal scent.
If I have the wrong name for a character, my nostrils are blocked.
Smells are so important when you get to know a person or a place. I remember how thrown I was as a teenager, hired by a neighbour to babysit her children, to enter a house that smelled completely different from my own – deodorized, unnatural, dead. I felt one-dimensional and weirdly lost, and couldn’t wait to escape. I happened to be in Toronto last week and amidst the commotion of that huge city came upon certain things that enchanted me, the cemetery and the farm in Cabbagetown. But the air was foul. Back home again in Ottawa, I breathed in the sweet air of this city full of flowers and rivers.
My 91-year-old mother breathes in the good air with such gratitude. She grew up in the Ottawa Valley, moved away at seventeen, then moved back a couple of years ago with my father to live in a retirement home just down the street. Her profound reaction to the air reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s father asking on his deathbed for water fresh drawn from the well. He tasted it and relaxed. “Yes, that’s our well-water. Now I know I am at home.”