Many years ago, when I still lived in Miami, Florida, I wrote a short story which was both a coming-of-age tale and also a look at an older man who must re-examine his youthful choices after a tragic incident kills his high school “crush.”
As Reunion’s summary reads on the back cover and on its Amazon Kindle Product Description page:
It is June 1983.
Jim Garraty is a senior at South Miami Senior High. He’s a staff writer for the school paper, a college-bound scholar who plans to become a historian and author of books on military history. He’s well-liked by his peers and teachers, and his future looks bright.
But as commencement draws near for the Class of 1983, Jim must deal with unfinished business. The girl he loves from afar is also graduating, and rumor has it that she is going away for the summer before starting college in the fall. Worse still, Marty doesn’t know how deeply Jim’s feelings for her are – unless he tells her. But when an opportunity arises on the last day of classes at South Miami High, Jim hesitates…and the window of opportunity closes.
Now, 15 years later, James Garraty is an up-and-coming history professor whose literary career is on the rise. Respected by his fellow faculty professors and recipient of popular and critical acclaim, Jim seems to have it all.
Except for one thing. True love.
Although the current version of Reunion was written in 1998 – I wrote it sometime after South Miami High’s Class of 1983 held its 15year reunion, a shindig I did not attend for assorted reasons that I have chronicled elsewhere – I started it 12 years earlier as a class assignment for my creative writing class (CRW 2001) at Miami-Dade Community College – South Campus.
Now, that story told a radically different story – the main character was named Jim Garraty, and it was set in South Miami High in both versions, but it did not have a “frame story” set in Present Day because what I had was merely a scene that focused on atmosphere and concrete detail, and its plot was tightly contained to my characters’ experiences on the last day of their senior year before commencement.
(It was also my first attempt to write a story in which sex and other adult themes were part of the plot. The whole story centered on the main character’s steamy dream about a young, attractive teacher he had a crush on. It wasn’t pornographic, and I decided to interrupt it with the sound of an “end-of-period” bell ringing before “it got good,” but it did involve fantasy nudity, so….)
Today I want to explain a little bit more about the writing process behind Reunion and some of the non-literary elements that went into the making of the short story.
Q.: How – or why – did you choose your characters’ names? Did you go through a phone book and choose names at random, or did you name Jim, Marty, and Mark after people you know?
A.: Jim Garraty – or as Stephen King would put it, my I-guy – was, in every iteration of the story (from a CRW-2001 assignment to finished product), Jim Garraty. I’m not sure why I chose James/Jim/Jimmy as his first name; I just knew that I didn’t want to name the character after myself. I didn’t want anyone to think that the story was a roman à clef, which is a French term for a novel based on real people and real situations, with only the names changed to protect the identities of the people described in it. (Roman à clef, literally translated, means “novel with a key.”)
I think – I’m not sure – that I chose “Jim” for my I-guy because I’m a Star Trek fan. James T. Kirk (or simply “Jim”) is my favorite Captain of the franchise, so that’s why I chose that name for the story’s protagonist.
As for his last name…Years ago, I bought and read The Bachman Books, an anthology of novels written by Stephen King using the pen name “Richard Bachman.” It contains The Long Walk, a dystopian story set in a fascist dictatorship set up in a near-future America.
King/Bachman gave the protagonist the name “Garraty,” and even though The Long Walk is not one of my favorite reads, I liked the character’s last name. So, I pinched that from the Master of Horror himself.
As for Mark Prieto…I named Jim’s best friend and confidante after my own best friend of my “tweens.” We became friends in 1975 and hung out regularly for about two years till Mom got the notion – ill-conceived, I think – to sell our home in Westchester and buy a townhouse in the Fontainebleau area in the summer of 1977. After that, we talked on the phone or he would ride out to visit me on his bike until he, too, moved away from the old neighborhood.
His divorced mother remarried, so she sold her house – which had been two houses away from our former residence – and moved to New England with her new hubby, Mark, and her younger daughter Leslie. Mark later moved back to Miami to be with his dad for a while, attended Coral Park Senior High for a year, then relocated once again to Michigan, where his mom, stepdad, and sister now lived. We exchanged a couple of letters during the 1981-82 school year, but for some reason, he stopped writing. I have not seen or heard any news from him since.
Martina Elizabeth Reynaud (“Marty”) – I wanted to give my female lead a unique name and identity, so I named her after a famous tennis player, Martina Navratilova. “Elizabeth” I cribbed from my friend Betsy, whose formal name is…well, Elizabeth. The last name, “Reynaud,” I plucked out of thin air, although World War II buffs will say I was inspired by a certain French prime minister, who, per Wikipedia, “was Prime Minister during the German defeat of France in May and June 1940; he persistently refused to support an armistice with Germany and resigned on 16 June.” That’s an interesting theory, but it just isn’t so. I could have given Marty one of those stuffy-sounding compound names that some British families use, something like “Martina Stafford-Mills,” but I thought that was too stereotypical, so I went for a more exotic Anglo-French vibe instead.
Q.: You already told us how and why Billy Joel’s Scenes from an Italian Restaurant influenced Reunion: A Story‘s structure and emotional undertones. Was music always an integral part of the story, both within the characters’ world and your writing environment?
A.: I no longer have my original CRW-2001 “dream sequence,” so I can’t honestly say that music was always part of the story from the start. But as far as the present version of Reunion, music is almost like a fourth main character as well as the wellspring for creative inspiration.
For instance, when I came up with the idea of the dream sequence in which Jim and Marty dance together, I wanted to quote a few lines from the song the band (which I suppose could have been the Four Tops or even The Platters) plays in the imaginary ballroom.
In my original draft, the song I chose was another Billy Joel song, This Night, which was from an album that came out around the time in which Reunion is set: An Innocent Man.
Now, I’ve always thought that This Night is perfect as the song to accompany Jim and Marty as they dance in that magical ballroom of the imagination. It fits the theme of the story…and I listened to it on my stereo as I wrote that part of Reunion.
Unfortunately, I was told that if I ever wanted to publish the story in any format or venue – even as a free read on a website – I’d have to get permission from Billy’s music publishing company and pay for the rights to use several stanzas from This Night.
If I had had the means – then or even now – I would have gone that route. But…alas, I didn’t and still don’t. So I reluctantly went back to my original Word file and changed the song to something I made up while I listened to this:
So, for legal reasons, I had to draft a poem that sort of fits the Michel Legrand melody. The resulting “song” is not the best bit of writing I’ve ever done, and it mars the dream sequence for me, personally. In my imagination, Jim and Marty will forever be dancing to This Night. But sometimes you just must work with what you have, and that’s what I did.
I also like to listen to music when I write. Quite often, I tend to think of my stories in cinematic terms, so I often try to imagine what the score would sound like if they would ever be adapted into feature films. I did this when I wrote a 40-page “novel” for my ninth-grade English class back in 1980; I did it again when I worked on Reunion in the summer of 1998.
When I wrote the passages describing Jim’s “reunion” in Miami as an adult and his journey through the halls of South Miami High on that last day of school, I listened to two then-current soundtracks as my “temp track” for the “score.” One was James Horner’s Titanic, and the other was John Williams’ Saving Private Ryan.
Specifically, I listened to two basic themes.
When I was crafting the 1998-set frame story, I mostly listened to this:
And when I wrote the passages in which Jim wanders around the halls in the 1983 main story, I listened to this:
Finally, when I was making some last-minute edits to the CreateSpace and Kindle versions for publication, I again turned to Maestro Williams’ music for inspiration.