Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Have you met Travis?

"Fin" painting by Thornton Willis

I invested a lot of heart and mind in the invention and development of Travis Earl “Red” Warner. He was the protagonist of my first novel, Until the Dawn, and he resurfaced as a minor character about a dozen years later in Return to Freedom, the second book in the Freedom Trilogy, and loomed somewhat larger in the sequel, Visual Liberties.
It would be a lie to deny that there’s a lot of me in Travis. I think he is what I would be if I were a bit gutsier and didn’t give a damn what others thought of me.
From the start I was aware that people who knew me would think he WAS me. So I took efforts to make him different. I’m a tiny man, so I made him huge—red headed, strong as a bull and bull-headed, which I don’t think I ever have been. I made him a high school football hero in his youth, a fierce defensive lineman who would mow down his own teammates in order to tackle an opposing runner—inspired by my nephew, the artist Willie Ray Parish, who went to Ole Miss on a football scholarship. I was too small to play football, but I tried; my gridiron career ended with a knee injury in junior high school.
Travis was also an artist and an avid fisherman. The first scene I wrote for Until the Dawn had him fishing on Mary Walker Bayou where I had fished back in my high school years. Interestingly, in the first draft the novel opened with that scene, but it was moved to near the end in the final draft.
I wanted to give Travis some physical characteristic that would make him stand out, and what I came up with was his index finger was cut off at the first knuckle. Once I did that I had to imagine why the tip of his finger was cut off. Once I figured out how it happened that became a central element of the plot, which I’m not going to explain here because some people reading this may not have read the book yet. Suffice it to say it might or might not have had something to do with an alligator.
So Travis was an artist and so was I, but in describing his art I did not make it anything like my art. At least not at first. The descriptions of the paintings that first made him famous were based on early paintings by Thornton Willis who shared a studio with me when I was a senior in college and he was in his first year as a teacher in the Art Department. He later moved to New York and became quite successful as a painter. 
When Travis reappeared in Return to Freedom, he had aged and mellowed somewhat but was still an outrageous and fun-loving character, no longer so angst-ridden as in his earlier incarnation.  Over the next few years, as described in Return to Freedom and Visual Liberties, his art also evolved. He went through periods of making art that resembled my own paintings and also works by Willem de Kooning at various stages of his career—de Kooning being the painter who influenced me more than any other. Finally, toward the end of his career, Travis started making paintings based on some ideas for paintings that I dreamed up but could never successfully complete.
So there you have him, the infamous Red Warner, a favorite character who has shown up in three of my novels and who was the artist I wish I could have been.

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