SK Dyment on Crafting Characters in Steel Animals, a Smart, Hilarious New Book of Queer Magic Realism
Jackie is a quiet loner who happens to secretly be a badass bank robber. Vespa is a artist who rides motorbikes and obsessively plans her revenge on an ex-partner. Together, they find love and a heap of trouble when Jackie hatches a scheme that has them crossing swords with a corrupt construction mogul.
Such is the wonderfully weird world built by writer and artist SK Dyment in Steel Animals (Inanna Publications). An outrageous, hilarious, and surprising tale of love, revenge, and redemption spun through a lens of queer magic realism, Steel Animals is unique and refreshing, and deftly mines the political, economic, and social themes beneath its humour and action.
We're excited to welcome SK to Open Book today to talk about how they wrote the character of Jackie, as part of our In Character series.
They tell us about the irony of writing a safecracker who other people open up to, the role of Post-Its in their approach to crafting dialogue, and how they would cast Steel Animals' characters in a film version of the book.
Tell us about the main character in your new book.
The main character in my new book is a bit of a conduit for the stories of the rest of the characters, which unfold and weave together as they disclose their private stories to Jackie one at a time. Jackie is a safecracker, and so it is funny and ironic that people trust her wherever she goes and tell her personal things. She also is an individual who had a very lonely start as a child often wandering the streets on her own, observing human behaviour and later determining how to finesse the pillaging of automatic bank machines. Like many people, she is a typical underestimated brilliance, and so the potential to identify with her "odd" decisions derive from this factor. She is also not morally perfectly formed, and is later to encounter an important secondary character who challenges and exceeds the usual definition of right and wrong. Because it playfully addresses contemporary moral questions, the book has definitely some very heavy themes within it and a lot of hidden messages including the use of an encrypted code, but I use a fast-paced satirical comedic "send-up" to address these themes. Therefor her life choices are somewhat symbolic of larger things, and while she ultimately experiences regret for an act of revenge she engineers, she also epitomizes the redemption tale as she tackles true criminals with her friends.
What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?
Yes, crafting dialogue is the key to a lively book. Something deliberate that I implemented was to note on Post-Its actors or presenters I liked which I thought could play the roles. I always thought of that book as being the preparation for a movie, and so I've had a screenplay going in the background. Also what came naturally was to "actively" listen when I was doing other work in cafes or crowded bars and imagine the characters from my book in various conversations through the voices of strangers. I think all writers do this.
How clearly do you see your characters' physical appearances while writing, and how relevant are their appearances to your writing process?
A clear idea of the character's visual appearance was essential to me from the beginning. I actually sketched them out at various stages, and I knew I wanted to make them distinct enough with physical traits that my readership would find them compelling. I tried however to walk a bit of a vague line in description, so while there is self-identified young black male in the book, with a sister who references herself as white and they discuss this and their contrasting experiences, other characters have only black hair mentioned and more emphasis on dress descriptions and so on. It is vague in this way so that it is entirely possible to potentially read the main character as a PoC, although she does not directly reference this in her intimate dialogue, and significant as well is an early reference to her being "gender ambivalent" and therefor possibly also struggling with trans or questioning issues in her personal life.
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What actor would you most love to cast to play your most recent main character?
This is a great question. There are so many talented people in Toronto and so many interesting characters in the book. Of course I can think of a few specific actors who would do wonderful versions of the characters, but I'd rather say I envision a yet unknown actor rising up among the faces of the many talented people in the twenty to thirty-five year age range of actors and finding the script speaks to them the day I finally circulate the screenplay version of Steel Animals.
SK Dyment is a writer and visual artist with a love of political cartooning. SK likes take to the stage at open mic events to perform poetry, short prose and stand-up work and they have written several plays which were produced at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre. Their illustrations were most recently published in Ursula Pflug’s flash fiction novel, Motion Sickness, which was longlisted for the ReLit Award. Their humour and cartooning work has appeared in a number of magazines including, Peace Magazine, This Magazine, Open Road Magazine, Healthsharing, Herizons, Kinesis, The Activist Magazine, Kick It Over Magazine, and Fireweed. Steel Animals is their debut novel.