Tag Archives: folk life

Johnny Robinson and The Bottle Tree

Many of those who are reading this post have read The Bottle Tree and may already know the story of Johnny Robinson but I'm going to repeat it here anyway and then discuss what the post is really about.

Johnny was a young man I went to school with at Provencal School in Louisiana. I went there from Kindergarten through Second Grade and then went back to visit anytime I was in Louisiana and school was in session. 

Johnny was my first African American friend and I'm pretty sure that the friendship with him when I was young made race much less of an issue with me than it was with many of my peers.

I hadn't seen him in years but when I started writing The Bottle Tree I named one of the main characters after Johnny. Last year when the book was published I started looking for him so I could let him know what I'd done and just to reconnect.

Unfortunately, another childhood friend of mine let me know that Johnny had passed away from cancer the year before.

This trip in for the Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival, I came in early so I'd have a chance to go by and take a copy of the book to his mother. Doris Robinson.

Ms. Doris still lives in the same house where Johnny was raised and I made the trip today to visit with her for a little while. She told me all about Johnny's life since he'd graduated and about his last days. I also learned it was her birthday today. I was happy to present her a copy of The Bottle Tree and will make it a point to go back and see her when I come back "home" to Natchitoches.

Below is a picture of Ms. Doris Robinson and me, sitting on her front porch and she has her copy of The Bottle Tree in her hand. The other picture is the memorial handout from Johnny's funeral.

This comes the week after the verdict in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case and I can't help but think maybe things would have been different if Mr. Zimmerman and/or Mr. Martin would have had the chance to get to know each other in a situation like Johnny and I did.

 

Doris Robinson and Robert D. Bennett johnny robinson

The Birth of Characters

Most people who don't write tend to believe that the hardest thing about writing a book is coming up with the story, but that's really not true. I, like most writers, have tons of notes about book plots, stories, or just smidgens of ideas. Actually the hardest part is naming the characters after you come up with them. 

In most books, the names are just randomly chosen to reflect average, everyday people. One notable exception to this rule are the Harry Potter books. J.K. Rowling does a masterful job of naming things, places, and people in a way that fits them perfectly.

However, what I wanted to talk about here is the characters in books and where writers get their ideas.

I can't speak for everyone but most of my characters are based on bits and pieces of people I have known throughout my life.

In The Bottle Tree, one of the characters is named Johnny Robinson, which was the name of a black friend of mine from elementary school in Louisiana. The character himself is not a lot like Johnny, but I remember one occasion when we were kids and my great grandmother either hired Johnny's mother to help her pick peas or agreed to let her take a share if she helped pick.

Johnny and I hung out that morning and there was a little awkwardness as we engaged socially, which was rare in Central Louisiana in those days. Some of that awkwardness is shown in the book although the real Johnny was nowhere near as shy as the Johnny from the book.

I took a little different approach with No' Chance. I needed a female character who was likable yet tough, so Jennifer Johnson is an amalgamation of a few different girls/women I've known. Her name was taken from a Robert Earl Keen song, Jennifer Johnson and Me, about a man who finds a strip of those photo booth pictures that you used to be able to take for a quarter. When he finds them in his jacket pocket it immediately brings back memories of one of his loves from his teenage years.

Although I realize that the reference will be lost on many/most people, to me Jennifer's name and character brings back those reasonably carefree days when I was a teenage boy chasing girls, being grown up still a distant prospect.

Writers take characters from people they meet. If you ever have a chance to interact with a writer there's a reasonable chance that one day you or some part of you will make it into a character in a book. Several people I met recently at the Natchitoches NSU Folk Festival are in line to make their appearance once day when the right story presents itself.