Friday, February 05, 2010

Barack/Barad the Lesser

I got an email from a kind fan recently. Let's call him V. He said nice things about the series, and then he asked me a question. It was about the character Barad the Lesser from The Other Lands (Acacia, Book 2), a character who appears to be mentioned once in the first book - but only in passing - as Barack the Lesser.

Part of V's question was worded like this:

"I wondered when exactly you'd been working on the novel and how much Obama was on the national radar when you chose to name a character after him. I wondered if he was still a junior senator in Illinois, kind of a minor politician you were fond of and wanted to tip your cap to, or whether he was already gaining enough steam that you could imagine his becoming President... Maybe it was a coincidence that you used the name in the first novel, during the writing of which Obama might not have been very well known, but then you felt the need to change it now?"

And here's how I responded:

Great question. The funny thing is, you're the first person to ask it! I'm sure some others must have noticed, but none of mentioned it to me directly yet. Thanks for the careful reading, and I'm happy to answer.

So, it's like this... Yes, the character named Barack the Lesser in the first book became Barad the Lesser in the second. No, I didn't explain that anywhere in the text. Yes, Barack Obama is probably to blame for it, but no, the first name choice wasn't any direct homage or endorsement of him. I'm not a big fan of that sort of thing, and don't do it intentionally in my fiction. It's just one of those strange situations where life surprises you and throws chinks into your work.

I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but let's go back in time. First, note that the first book came out in 2007. Before the election. The text of the book was accepted and put into production a year before that, in 2006. And the book itself was written in 2004 and 2005. All of that is just to say that I wrote the thing before Barack Obama was president, and I wrote quite a bit of it before he was even a national political figure.

But I said he was to blame, right? Yes, I think that at some point when I was writing the book Obama made a speech, maybe at a Democratic convention in 2005 or something like that. I recall liking the speech, but moreover the name Barack seemed perfect for this minor character I had in mind. In the first book he's only a name mentioned once - literally
once on page 259 of The War With The Mein. That makes him a tiny character, and at that point Obama was a relatively unknown wannabee from Chicago. Nobody involved in the book's production even noticed or thought about the name. Not my early readers. Not my agent, not my editor or the copyeditor.

Fast forward a couple years... When I began writing
The Other Lands Obama was still a crazy long shot for the presidency. I'm sure I began it before he was even a candidate. But you know what happened with that... With my writing, I became more and more drawn to making Barack the Lesser a point of view character in the second book. I'd never thought of him as connected to Obama by anything other than the fact that I'd casually pinched his name, but still, I started to write more about him. You know how that went...

I honestly didn't think a thing about it until I delivered the book to my editor, in the winter of 2008. At that point - though even he had read much of the book earlier than that - he went, "Ah... wait a minute. You can't call this Barack anymore. Nobody is going to be able to read that without thinking of Obama." He was right, of course. Obama owns the name for all intents and purposes. My minor character had been named after a man that had suddenly become one of the most famous men on earth!

It was quite strange to face that. On one hand, my character felt to me like he inhabited that name. He was his own thing. On the other hand, I was fully involved in following the election. I was even an Obama supporter. But it didn't really occur to me until my editor pointed it out that I had a problem with that particular name.

So I changed it. I made it Barad so that it was close to the original, so that it felt similar to me but was still different. And that was that. Now, it's easy for me to think of him as Barad - and he's got nothing to do with Obama - at least not that I'm overtly aware of.

That's the story. Nothing like this had happened before with my previous novels. I doubt it ever will again. Thanks for the question. If you stick around for the third book you'll get to see what happens with Bara... With BARAD the Lesser. He's got a role in all the craziness, right up to the end!

And that's it. Now, dear reader, what do you think? Should I amend the name in future editions of The War With the Mein? (It is only a single word in the text, after all.) Or should it stay the way it is, a weird moment of real history intruding on an imagined world?



Blogger Kate Nepveu said...

It jumped out at me when I first read _Acacia_, and so I definitely noticed the name shift.

But I can't answer whether you should change it.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Neth said...

I say leave it for history. It's a nice little story for anyone who notices.

I read Acacia a month or so before it was actually released, so it was before Barack was a candidate and don't remember making the connection (though I remember that speach at the DM convention years ago and thinking that he'd be President one day - I just thought it'd be a bit longer).

When reading The Other Lands I never made the connection of a name change - though it had been over two years since I first read Acacia, so I don't thing that's surprise.

2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't read Acacia till autumn '09, so it definitely did jump out... and I'm glad you've mentioned the name change, or when I got to The Other Lands I'd be wondering whether it was meant to be the same person or whether it was some kind of Hannibal/Hasdrubal affair.

If he only appeared in the one book, I'd say leave it, but since you've changed it in the next one then (unfortunately) it might be better to change it in this one too...

3:05 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

"Leave it for history..."

I like that. Here's hoping history cares...

No matter what I do, it's still going to be left for history, really. Doubleday printed a lot of mass market paperbacks of Acacia, so I reckon they'll be copies of the original version of the book for sale for quite a while to come. So I guess this only matters if the books are lucky enough to have a long commercial life, and have later reprintings. I hope that's the case, of course, but we'll see...

I'll definitely be carrying on with Barad in the next book. Certainly, the easiest "fix" is to just change it in future versions of Book 1. The upside is that this'll be one small way the first editions of the book will stand out!

5:28 PM  
Blogger dan said...

I just finished reading Acacia over the weekend, and I will say that the name Barack stood out as I read it (though now I can't really remember the context of it). I liked seeing it, and at the time I remember thinking that something along the lines of what you describe must have happened.

On the other hand, I haven't yet read The Other Lands, and if I hadn't just read this blog post, I'm not sure I would've noticed the change or even put together that Barack and Barad were the same person.

I agree with Neth up above, it's a great little anecdote about being a writer.

12:06 PM  

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