about percy james
After I wrote Sweetgirl I was fortunate to have some people read it and be interested enough to ask a few follow-up questions—the most common being how much of the story is autobiographical. The answer to that is simple: none. Sweetgirl is fiction and by definition made-up, but readers, a generally smart and persistent bunch, were curious about any seeds of truth sprinkled at the root of the invention. Like where, for instance, did the character Percy James come from?
The first part of my answer is that we grew up together in northern Michigan. She was the quiet girl who sat beside me in class, the one that drove a pickup and knew how to fish. She was pretty, but more comfortable in a hoodie and jeans then she ever would be in a dress. She was smart and she was tough and she knew how to throw a punch if it came to it. She had problems at home, but she didn’t complain or even realize that something as pointless as complaining was allowed.
She wasn’t just the girl that sat beside me in class, though. Percy is also a composite of my earliest girlfriends. She was the one I danced with during “Stairway to Heaven”—the last song of every late eighties Petoskey Middle School dance—and I can still remember the way she dropped her head to my shoulder when Robert Plant came to the part about the bustle in the hedgerow. In high school we went to the same field parties and one summer night we talked a little longer than usual. We stood by the bonfire drinking beer and watching smoke drift above the clearing—which was supposed to be a fairway until the developers pulled out and left nothing but a big slash through the jack pines. That was the night I fell in love with Percy, and for a little while she might have even loved me back.
I grew up with Percy, but there were parts of her I didn’t know at all. My parents had a difficult marriage and divorce, but they were well-to-do and educated. They had connections in the community, my dad was a well-known probate judge, and I always had the resources Percy lacked. I’m conscious of that space between us and the parts of her experience that I couldn’t understand directly were filled in, I think, by the archetypal family stories I was raised on.
My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a Polish immigrant with the rough equivalent of a fifth grade education. He and his family survived two years in Siberia as POWs of Joseph Stalin—a fact that all our “tribulations” were directly or implicitly compared to as children. I remember complaining of a headache as a teenager, only to have my mom remind me that prisoners in Siberia were sometimes executed if they’d grown too sick to work.
My grandfather was a teenager when he was prodded from bed by the sharp edge of a Russian bayonet. His home and everything the family owned was taken without explanation or apology and all his stories about the war and his imprisonment—the ones he was willing to tell—dealt with depravation and the harsh logistics of survival. And I think those stories are very much a part of Sweetgirl. I think a good bit of Percy’s resilience and fight, the way she deals with what she doesn’t have, what’s been taken from her, can be traced all the way back to the Kolodziejs of the Tarnopol Province in Poland.
But Percy is also her mother’s daughter. Carletta is from Charleston and calls Percy her “rebel daughter” because she “talks southern.” Percy claims she doesn’t have an accent, that she doesn’t “sound like anything,” but the truth is she’s got some Johnston County in her too.
I taught English for eight years at Johnston County Community College in Smithfield, North Carolina and I believe I got to know the people there about as well as I could for a commuter from Durham. I read my students’ papers, which were often personal in nature, met with them in my office, and bummed their cigarettes in the campus’s ever-diminishing designated smoking areas. (And this in the land of big tobacco.)
Because my wife is a lawyer I was often consulted for free legal advice. I played some pickup basketball with students between classes, listened to their band’s demos, and reacted with the appropriate horror when they told me about their family’s deportation, their year in the state penitentiary, or the time they were shot while delivering pizzas.
Once I had a teenage mother, we’ll call her Tabitha, who came to her scheduled conference while in labor. She had already checked into the hospital, but when they told her to take a short walk around the grounds she decided to come to our meeting instead.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m only at five centimeters.”
“I am worried,” I said. “I am very worried.”
“That’s your right,” she said. “But I busted my ass all semester for this A and I’m not going to lose it over an absence.”
“You are very clearly present,” I said. “And you have more than earned your A.”
“So that’s it?” she said.
“You’re giving birth,” I said. “In my book that calls for an abbreviated meeting.”
“Let me see that A,” she said.
I tilted my computer screen toward her, entered an A for the conference and highlighted it with my cursor. She smiled and hoisted herself up from the chair.
“Good enough,” she said.
“Thank God,” I said. “Can I help you to the car? Or get one of the nursing students? I think they’ve got some wheelchairs down there.”
“Naw,” she said. “I don’t need a wheelchair. I just need to get my ass to the hospital. I need to hurry up and have this baby.”
She thanked me and walked off, and looking back I think that’s exactly how Percy would have handled the same situation. Percy, like Tabitha, would stop at nothing to get her A, but there’s more to Percy’s Johnston County connection than that incident. There’s also the essays.
I read and commented on thousands of papers, some of which dealt with things like physical and sexual abuse, poverty, racism, violence, and drug addiction. There are scenes from those essays I will never forget for their horror and severity, and while Percy’s experience is entirely her own, while nothing in the novel comes directly from my students, the way they sought to order and make meaning of their experience was hugely influential on Percy’s character. I remain amazed at how my student’s writing so often sought to understand and bring light to devastating circumstances—how goddamn tough and hopeful those kids could be. I always told my students they reminded me of home and I think those two separate but similar places come together in Percy, particularly in her hard-earned optimism.
In the end, I guess Percy comes from several different places all at once. She’s from places you can pinpoint on a map, exact locations with latitudes and longitudes, places you could call in an air strike for if you wanted—but she’s also from other, murkier areas in the far-flung swamps of the subconscious. Like all of us, she isn’t any one thing. Complexities and gray areas are what make characters real and that’s why it’s always easier to lie and say that we made them up.