Friday, June 10, 2011

Julia Skayakovak

Over the years I have written many characters with whom I have fallen in love. On the whole my writing tends to revolve around one woman and one man, with supporting characters. My women tend to be strong, capable, obstinate characters who resort to Machiavellian tools to achieve their agendas. My men tend to be somewhat capable survivors who are often in over their heads, but game. The conflicts that arise between these two personalities is one I have seen very little of, particularly where the woman is not sentimental and where the man is not ideological. My characters, as I’ve said, reflect facets of my personality, but they are never ‘me.’ They do not react as I would react, they do not approach problems as I would approach them, and they do not see the world as I see it. Nevertheless, I still love them.

For two decades I was possessed with this particular character whom I wrote into three separate books. The first book was never finished. The second I did finish, but it was awful and it has been lost now. The third book was the one I’ve mentioned already, Act of God.

The character at its inception possessed a number of questionable, young motivations which no respecting person my present age would have: beauty, murderous sadism, phenomenal amounts of ability ... the trope that would now be called a ‘Mary Sue.’ My inspiration had not been comics, but rather a desire to somehow make the notorious Carlos the Jackal into a woman character. It seems almost silly to write the words ‘international assassin’ in today’s world – terrorist would be more up-to-date – but that was the conception I originally had, lo about 1980.

Early on I settled on the name ‘Julia’ for its lyrical qualities and its associations with the conqueror Julius Caesar. Her last name was a composite of ‘skaya,’ the Czech word for ‘town,’ emphasizing her urban and thus modern characteristics; and ‘kovak,’ which has an imprecise meaning regarding stealth and capability. I could not know that Alan Moore was making the similar association (I assume) when he named his Rorschach character Walter Kovacs. I did not think that meant I needed to change the name of my character.
Being the terrible writer that I was in the 80’s, I wasn’t able to do her character justice in words. I could picture her in my head and how she ought to behave, but I couldn’t do better than to present the shallow outer shape. I did get an interesting break, however, that gave me a wider perception of what the character offered.

In mid ’86 I was at a job interview for an analyst’s position. I was fresh from working for the government as a statistical clerk and I hadn’t entered university yet. Before the job interview began I found myself in a conversation with another applicant. He went first. Then, after my interview, which didn’t go so well, I ran into him in the coffee shop downstairs and we continued our conversation. He told me his name was ‘Bob.’ I identified myself as a writer, and in answer to his query I told him about the book I was struggling with, which included Julia. I confessed that I wished I’d had more information about what went on behind closed doors with international intrigue, whereupon he explained that he could help with that.

We took a short walk to another building where he kept a small office for his own use. I realized quickly that he was obviously more likely to get the analyst’s job than I was. Once we were in his office, he locked us inside and began to explain that he had worked for C.S.I.S. for a number of years. That’s the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. After a little digging into his files, he produced a box which was full – coincidentally – of documents related to the movements of Carlos the Jackal from the mid 1970s and into the 80s. It was material that had been printed on a teletype machine ... old dot-matrix printing and so on. The pages made oblique descriptions of Carlos in Bulgaria, Carlos in Brazil, Carlos in Spain and so on. Now and then there were descriptions I did not understand that ‘Bob’ explained for me. Bombs had a tendency to go off in places Carlos had been seen in just a few hours prior.

I was engrossed, obviously. I was a bit worried, too. But after several hours of talking and reading, Bob closed the box, swore me to secrecy and let me out of the office. I never saw him again. I did not go looking to see him again.

I have always throught of that as a very odd moment in my life. Now and then I’ve had to convince myself that it really happened. Were the documents real, or were they some faked thing that Bob happened to have with him the day we met. Was C.S.I.S. watching me? Are they still watching me? I guess you have to decide how paranoid you’re going to be. I tend to believe that somehow the whole thing was a coincidental run-in between my writing and Bob’s unique conspiracy-fueled paranoia. I tend not to believe the documents were real. My subsequent investigations these last many years have convinced me that a lot of what I read that day was complete bullshit.

It was, all the same, terrific fuel for my creativity. If I had ever considered giving up on Julia prior to that meeting, afterwards I had to write something, eventually, that would suit the character. And as I’ve said, I eventually did.

Julia is not someone I would ever want to know personally. She did remain a terrorist and an assassin, but I washed the sadism out of her in favor for indifference, and replaced my original conceptions of her ideology with a sense of intense retribution. Not revenge in the ordinary sense, for wrongs done her, but the cold certainty that certain people’s lives should be brought to a literal end.

I suppose she deserves resurrection, and that will mean having to rewrite and restore the original book. It’s only been in the last two weeks I’ve realized I have to do that.


  1. I had a stumbling block similarly. I've yet to evolve them because I identified them as a Mary Sue time and time again as I tried to write and rewrite a story I had in mind. After a while, other projects took precedence.

  2. There are three simple ways to avoid a Mary Sue.

    1) Invest into the character an obsession or flaw that causes the character to do things not in his or her own interest.

    2) Have the character fail at something, or have the character be forced to make a sacrifice.

    3) Write the character in a way that the reader truly, deeply wants the character to be brilliant and successful ... in which case, they won't care.