Maryanne Stahl is a talented writer and teacher of fiction and poetry with two novels (FORGIVE THE MOON and THE OPPOSITE SHORE) and a chapbook of poetry and flash fiction (ELECTRIC URGENCY) to her credit. Her writing is filled with a lovely Southern grace I’ve seldom found anywhere else so I was thrilled when she agreed to join me for my little experiment.
BREATHE: I am a big fan of The Opposite Shore, your second novel. In the acknowledgments, you say it was inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Shakespeare was actually a master at playing with the symbolism of names and their meanings. Do you often look for symbolic names for your characters?
MAS: First, thank you. This is a fun topic.
Yes, I am very interested in what names mean and suggest, though that’s only one element to naming characters, for me. The way a name sounds or the associations it evokes are other considerations. And sometimes a character will just kind of develop a name and I won’t really know why. There have also been times I have named characters in light-hearted hommage to people I know–friends, family–just for fun. Each story, each character is different. But yes, the names in The Opposite Shore were all quite deliberate.
BREATHE: I love that you named the sailboat after Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. How important do you think the names of inanimate objects are as opposed to the names of characters?
MAS: In the case of the Ariel, the name is pretty important. It’s a nod to the character in the play, of course, and also seemed to fit a beautiful, sometimes temperamental vessel that “flies” over the sea. I wanted the boat to be a kind of character. She plays a fairly significant role in the lives of the other characters.
BREATHE: Is the selection of a character’s name a difficult process for you? How do you go about it?
MAS: It depends. I don’t have a consistent process (in anything I do). In the case of TOS, it was fun. I knew from the beginning I wanted to make reference to the play. So in addition to Ariel there was Miranda, Rose for Prospero, Cannibal for Caliban; William Campbell is a combined nod to William Shakespeare and Joseph Campbell.
BREATHE: Do you feel a character’s name affects the way you write him or her?
MAS: Yes…and I think names affect the way people relate to people in life. (Despite what Shakespeare said about a rose by any other name. )
When I use a friend’s name, usually for a minor character, I am always reminded of the person as I write that character. Not that the character resembles the namesake in any way; usually that is not the case. That’s why I use friends’ names only for very minor characters.
BREATHE: Are there any names you will never use for a character? Why or why not?
MAS: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think so. I mean there may be some I would never use, but I am not aware of them.
I don’t mind ordinary character names. Sometimes a character just has a name, and it isn’t one I like or that means anything particularly relevant, or is interesting in any way . It just is. Currently I am working (<–I say that loosely) on a novel set in Savannah and Italy in which the main character's name is Jane Bernardi, meant to embody her hybrid, Italian/American heritage.
To read an excerpt from THE OPPOSITE SHORE click here: Maryanne Stahl’s THE OPPOSITE SHORE.