In a novel with a 30-year history, the evolution of the main character is worth examining. In 1974, I began writing the story of how a young man named Wheeler Burden from contemporary San Francisco woke up in a strange land, Vienna 1897. At that time, Wheeler was 33 years old, just the age of the author. And at that time also, the plot line was very simple: Wheeler had very little back-story, most of it based on the author's life. Over time, details began to emerge. He grew up on a prune and almond farm in northern California, as I had done, and traveled east to Boston for his last two years of high school, also as I had done. Like me, Wheeler had a strong interest in mythology and depth psychology, including much study of Sigmund Freud.
In the late '70s, I developed a friendship with a college classmate named Doug Messenger. Doug told great stories about his personal life: he had been a baseball pitcher, was a compulsive conversationalist with a passion for Victor Hugo, and had dropped out of college to follow a music career as a guitarist. Doug told a charming story of calling the famous newscaster Chet Huntley one night after The Huntley-Brinkley Report and having a long conversation. In a second iteration of my novel I appropriated many of Doug's stories and attached them to Wheeler to give him some much-needed sparkle. "I'm going to make you famous," I told Doug back then, and for years he would ask when we ran into each other, "What's going on with my Vienna story?"
Then, in the late '80s, while headmastering in Santa Barbara, I befriended another great real-life character, David Crosby. I attached some Crosbyesque details to Wheeler, and suddenly, in the 1988 draft, he appeared at Woodstock and Altamont with the Stones, grew a Wild Bill Hickok moustache and hair, and sang before thousands. When, however, Wheeler walked off the stage and away from public appearances for the rest of his life, it was an act entirely his own.
By the 1988 draft, Wheeler Burden was 47 and pretty much fully formed, with a unique mind and will and some biographical details all his own: son of a famous dead war hero, student of a legendary old teacher, tutee of a beautiful Radcliffe student named Joan Quigley, author of his teacher's famous memoir Fin de Siecle. I could set him on his journey through 1897 Vienna, where he would meet a number of influential and famous people and encounter the love of his life, a beautiful and talented American woman named Weezie Putnam. Like any character in a complex novel, Wheeler Burden is a mixture of made-up characteristics and those borrowed from real life. However it is, the author has greatly enjoyed living with Wheeler Burden over the years, and now sharing him with the world.