So excited to bring Scott Wilbanks to my readers today! I love a good time travel novel and Wilbanks’ Lemoncholy Life Of Annie Aster was a perfect summer read. And just as good is the writer’s take on characters we relate to … and characters we love.
There’s a school of thought that all novels are a variation on the hero’s journey, and that plot is nothing more than the process by which the armor she has accumulated throughout life to protect herself is stripped away to reveal heressence, so that she can achieve her true desire.
I know, way too technical, right?
The point is that the most interesting part of our hero’s journey takes place within her head. And that journey is, by its very nature, painful.
Let’s look at it from a writers point of view—more specifically, my point of view.
While it’s fair to say that LEMONCHOLY is a time-travel mystery, at its heart, it’s a story about five misfits, all of them lonely, all of them seeking a little understanding in an indifferent world.
There’s Annie—a twenty-something eccentric with a passion for Victorian clothes (that’s all she ever wears) who lives in modern day San Francisco. The fact that she’s dealing with a form of pre-leukemia is a matter that we shouldn’t take too lightly.
Elsbeth, her pen pal, is a cantankerous, old schoolmarm living in a turn-of-the-century Kansas wheat field who possesses an inventory of curse words that’ll make a sailor blush as well as a take-no-prisoners attitude.
Christian, Annie’s best friend, is a complete innocent who is burdened with a debilitating stutter, as well as a painful secret that Edmond, a sweet, charismatic charmer who has a secret of his own—drug addiction—is about to bring out into the open.
And, finally, there’s Cap’n, a street urchin living in Victorian Kansas City who becomes Annie’s comrade-in-arms when she travels back in time.
Breathing life into four of them was an absolute joy, but there was an odd person out—Christian.
Because I based him off my own experience, and I had to raise some long buried demons and rub myself raw to get him onto the page.
I hope you don’t mind if I’m blunt. Growing up gay in Texas is not for the faint of heart. I tried to encapsulate my journey early on in the novel when I wrote the following: He (Christian) loved the state of his birth, he really did. It just seemed evident to him that Texas’s rugged landscape bred equally rugged people, and having judged himself as deficient in certain qualities essential to the tall and the proud, Christian had sought sanctuary farther west.
I was twelve, I think, when I was gay bashed the first time—it happened in the parking lot of a Taco Bell—and the experience became a tipping point, taking me from an outgoing, happy boy to a withdrawn young man who tried everything in the book to become something he simply wasn’t. I became socially awkward, fearful, and even developed a bit of a stammer.
It only seemed natural, then, that I burden Christian with a stutter of his own, but I deliberately chose not to make his impairment the result of victimization. Instead, I took a cue from the history books.
Did you know that we created a generation of stutterers when we forced left-handed children to write with their right hands? It fascinated me that the suppression of a trait that has strong genetic markers could do this. And it wasn’t lost on me that 10% of the population is left-handed. That’s the same percentage attributed to the portion of the overall population that is homosexual. So, I flipped the script between left-handedness and sexuality, making Christian a stutterer because he’s so completely suppressed his in order to be a “good person,” according to the mores of an unforgiving society.
In the end, I had to peel off forty years worth of armor in order to make him authentic. And let me tell you what, I… felt… naked. But it was worth it, I think, because I could have never written the resolution chapter between Christian and Edmond, if I hadn’t.
It should be obvious, then, that I relate to Christian more than any other character in the book, and while he holds a very tender place in my heart, I love Cap’n—the street urchin who lives by dent of her wits. And the reason’s pretty simple. She’s my invention, one I created to be a cathartic response to the bullying I endured as a kid. She embodies the fearlessness I lacked, and would never shrink from bullies, giving as good as she’d get—but never with the violence I encountered. More than that, she understands what it’s like to be marginalized, and takes it upon herself to look after other misfits, despite all the obstacles life throws in her way.
So, whereas Christian is the person I was, and I love him for that, Cap’n is, in many ways, the person I wish I’d been.
And that is often the way it is in literature. When we run across ourselves in the pages, the experience can be as raw as it is powerful. But it’s the characters who do and say the things we wouldn’t dare that we love.