May 01, 2016
Vivienne Pink -- the name of the main character in my novel Death Valley -- is not a name I gave her. It is her name, and I had to discover it. Vivienne Pink, war photographer, was at work taking pictures behind a sandstorm. I needed to listen with a kind of third ear to hear other characters saying her name.
Vivienne is a personal first name, a name she uses professionally, publically. Vivi is the intimate name her husband Johnny Coma calls her. Vivi is what their housemate Val Gold calls her when he wants to irk her, because he knows it is Johnny’s name for her. She says, "Don’t call me Vivi." He calls her Vivi.
Once upon a time I was walking in midtown Manhattan. I saw the name Thomas Pink on a store sign. Men’s fine shirts. I felt at home with that surname, Pink. As if I knew somebody by that last name, although I didn’t. The paradox: for a fictional name to feel right, it has to feel like you could know that person already, be at home with them.
Spelling, the bugbear of writers, is actually the intimate truth of our names. We guffaw and we rail when our names are misspelled. Spelling someone’s name accurately is a moral act. You have paid attention. Death Valley’s Vivienne Pink is never Vivian. Never Vivien. Never Vivianne. Or Violet, Vanessa, Veronica, Vera, Varushka.
The photographer Vivienne in my book has four vowels, four consonants. Three beats to her name. I love the look of her name in print. Four pairs. Two V’s, two I’s, two N’s, two E’s. Her name is a mountain peak next to a stretch of low-lying land. Letters are physical objects to me. They are graphic art lines, curves.
Johnny Coma, Vivienne’s husband, is always Johnny. Not Jon. Rarely John. Never Jack. His birth name was Jonathon. Not Jonathan. Vivienne calls him Jojo, J. When she says J, it is private. Late in the book, Andy -- a soldier Vivienne meets and photographs -- refers to Johnny as J. Andy (who is never Andrew) has crossed a line. You never call someone by the name their most intimate partner calls them. Vivienne is shocked, furious. A man outside of Vivienne-and-Johnny is referring to Johnny as J, the initial only she uses. Andy, by doing this, is flexing power, jealousy, moving the plot along. The intimacy coo becomes a bludgeon in an intruder’s mouth.
Johnny Coma: I was walking in Barcelona down Carrer Canuda. I like to collect noir novels in languages I read and speak and do not read and speak. A used bookstore appeared in the close stone wall. Inside, I scooped up some noir in Catalan, black sans serif type on yellow covers. I noted that the managing editor of the noir series was called Xavier Coma. I can’t say why, but I knew the name Coma was going to be the last name of a character.
Coma, Johnny Coma. Of course. He is that writer who lives in downtown Toronto, that quiet sneaky novelist. I can hear him talking right now, in my inner ear. He is saying, Hey Vivi, how be you stay home from those conflict zones for a while? And she is saying, Jojo, how be you stop hocking me about my work already? V and J, living a life in naming.
Our Contest: Win a Free, Signed Copy of Death Valley
One of my favourite fictional names is Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s classic novel, The Moviegoer. And in Don DeLillo’s novel Great Jones Street, what name could be more perfect for the narrator immersed in the paranoia and sludge of rock stardom than Bucky Wunderlick?
What do you think is the best fictional name? How about the worst? Submit your entries in either category (or both) using the comments below. Be sure to specify which category your submission belongs in, and only the first entry of any name will be eligible. You may, however, submit more than once.
Entries close Tuesday, May 10, at 11:59 p.m. I (Susan Perly) will select a winner from each category to receive a free, signed copy of my new novel, Death Valley, launching May 12.
Can't wait to read your entries!