Writers and actors have a long history of working together, but usually it is the writers who provide the foundation for the actors to create their art. In my case, it was the other way around. In the early stages of writing Airmail, I struggled to write the character of the old man, Mr GL Solomon. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get inside his head and he just wasn’t coming across as authentic.
And as a woman in her early 30s, I had no reference points: both of my grandfathers had passed away, and there was a distinct lack of old men in my life from whom to draw inspiration.
I couldn’t answer the question: if a reclusive old man started receiving letters from a complete stranger, and if the letters were from a young woman who lived on the other side of the world, and if that world played fast and loose with reality… how would he react? Would he be dismissive? Afraid? Angry? Compassionate? I tried all of the above, and I just couldn’t get him right.
Enter: the actor.
My actor-friend’s name is Adrian and I’d love to give you more and encourage you to go out and see ANYTHING he’s in, because he’s brilliant. But we’ve lost touch so without permission I won’t be revealing his identity, sadly.
Anyhow, Adrian was studying at NIDA at the time, and he offered to workshop the character of the old man for me. Here’s how it happened.
Step 1: I gave Adrian a brief overview of the old man. His name is GL Solomon, and nobody uses his first name. I told Adrian he could create a name if he needed to. He lives alone. He is in his late 70s. He hates cats. He also hates processed cheese, and the way the teacup rattles in the saucer when he picks it up. He loves reading fishing magazines but never goes fishing. He is driven by routine and order. Stuff like that.
Step 2: Over the next few months, I hand-wrote letters from the girl, Anouk. I stuck old NYC ticket stubs in them from the last time I’d visited, I threw in mementos like old USA pennies and used-up metro cards and branded napkins. I put each letter in an airmail envelope, stuck used USA stamps on the outside, and dropped them in Adrian’s letterbox when I knew he wasn’t home.
Step 3: Each time he got a letter Adrian, in the character of the old man, would read it. Later, he’d let me know what the old man thought of it, how he reacted, and how it impacted the way he went about his daily life and routine. His first piece of feedback was, “the old man finds it very difficult to read her handwriting,” so Anouk conveniently borrowed her landlady’s antique typewriter to continue her epistles.
Together, Adrian and I developed the wonderful, gruff, curmudgeonly old man who is GL Solomon in the book. Reading Airmail, you’ll see I’ve used a Dickensian technique of never telling you how the old man is feeling: you'll seldom read “the old man thought this” or “the old man felt that.” Instead, this comes out in his behaviour and his external environment. For example, you know something’s up when he breaks routine.
It's what actors do on the stage, of course, and in Airmail I think this works and I hope you agree. It makes a good contrast to Anouk, who barely stops telling you what she's thinking and feeling. This all happened around 2003/4, and I still think Mr GL is one of the loveliest, best drawn, most complex and restrained characters I have ever written. Probably because I didn’t write him, Adrian became him.
Thanks Adrian, wherever you are!