A Character’s Inspiration

An excerpt from Paul Dimond’s in-depth interview with Jorie from Jorie Loves a Story: Conversations with the Bookish, June 8, 2017.

Q: It’s an interesting premise in the Belle of Two Arbors — where you've put an incredibly strong heroine at the center of everything that is happening both on the local, state and national level and of the world during the timeline of her life. What inspired Belle’s character and is she rooted in living history by someone who actually lived?

A: Belle is not based on any one historic character.  Yes, she shares some traits with Emily Dickinson, but she is a much different person.  Much larger in stature, Belle lumbers on land but is a big fish born to swim long distances in the deep waters of the Great Lake; and she welcomes hitting tennis balls hard on the court even if slow afoot.  Perhaps Belle suffers more from bellows that won’t work in front of an audience than Emily and from greater private fears that can’t stomach publishing even one poem.  Yet, Belle also escapes the shelter of her two arbors only a handful of times.  Although never married and childless like Emily, Belle has two great romances and helps raise Pip and three more children from the next generation.  She also benefits from her closer friendships, regular meetings and more frequent correspondence with her three great poet friends than Dickinson with her one occasional “preceptor,” Wentworth Higginson.  Belle is also from a much different time and era, with the right of women to vote secured in 1920 and women participating in the Olympics in tennis and swimming.  

Despite her father wanting only a man — i.e., his son Pip — to take over the family stove works, Belle early on spies on the plant’s workings from afar and sneaks in to her father’s study when he’s away to pore over the books and records up close.  She also learns how to persuade her stubborn Papa to make needed changes and improvements, including in the name of the company when he moves the plant from Glen Arbor to Empire and thereafter in hiring David’s keen eye to oversee operations and in producing Pip’s inventions in order to remain competitive.  Belle also adopts David’s Ojibwe stories of the sacred Sleeping Bear and the Great Waters and learns to work with the aging lumberman who traded in his sawmills for planting new forests and orchards to host tourists visiting rather than clear-cutting their incomparable north coast.  

Not much for the tedium of textbook learning or the chauvinism of many on the all-male faculties at Michigan, Belle instead hones her poetry skills with the likes of Frost and supports her brother’s stargazing and inventing despite his loss of hearing.  She also learns how to partner with allies within the University to challenge the academic pedants who stand in the way of making Michigan not only great but also open to all comers with the necessary gumption, grit, wit and imagination.

In my drafting, writing, and revising scenes, acts, plot and characters, I used the following tests:  For Belle (and the other fictional characters), insofar as they influence real persons, events, and places, these changes must all read as authentic; and where they try but fail to change history, it’s because I did not believe they could alter the outcome. For the real-life characters such as Frost, Roethke and Auden and real historic events and places, they must also read as authentic, including in their interactions with fictional characters, events and places.  The fact that so many readers ask if Belle is a real person and an actual historical figure suggests this historical novel meet these tests.