This week, Joan­na Her­shon, the author of A Dual Inher­i­tance (now in paper­back!) and The Ger­man Bride blogs for The Post­script on meet­ing a man who embod­ied her imag­i­nary char­ac­ter. The Post­script series is a spe­cial peek behind the scenes” of a book. It’s a juicy lit­tle extra some­thing to add to a book clubs dis­cus­sion and a read­er’s under­stand­ing of how the book came togeth­er. 

To host” Joan­na at your next book club meet­ing, request her through JBC Live Chat

I’ve come to call A Dual Inher­i­tance my own crack­pot anthro­pol­o­gy project”. Not only does the nov­el fea­ture the field of anthro­pol­o­gy and sev­er­al relat­ed themes, but also my research main­ly con­sist­ed of long, digres­sive and almost con­sis­tent­ly fas­ci­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tions with a diverse array of peo­ple. 
Because I was begin­ning the sto­ry in the ear­ly 1960’s in and around Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts, I set out to talk with fam­i­ly and friends who lived there around that time. One of my dear­est friends (I call her my fairy god­moth­er) attend­ed Rad­cliffe in the late 1950’s and I spent a love­ly day inter­view­ing her. I spent much of the time try­ing to get a sense of her dai­ly life — where she spent her Sat­ur­day nights, her rou­tines, etc. The con­ver­sa­tion flowed eas­i­ly and, embold­ened, I asked her if I could run a poten­tial char­ac­ter by her. I’d cre­at­ed the basics of Hugh Ship­ley from my imag­i­na­tion– he wasn’t based on any­one in par­tic­u­lar– and so I’d want­ed to get a sense if he seemed believ­able. I described my char­ac­ter the way I would describe a friend, and — ner­vous­ly — I asked if he sound­ed authen­tic, like some­one she might have known. 

She looked stunned. You need to meet Bob­by Gard­ner,” she said. 

Yet anoth­er rea­son to add to the list of why I call her my fairy godmother. 

When I began look­ing for infor­ma­tion about this mys­te­ri­ous Bob­by,” I didn’t have to look very hard. Robert Gard­ner is a cel­e­brat­ed anthro­pol­o­gist and film­mak­er and was the Direc­tor of the Film Study Cen­ter at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty from 1957 to 1997. I ordered all of his books, and ordered and screened sev­er­al of his films includ­ing the sem­i­nal Dead Birds. I couldn’t get over their visu­al lan­guage — so sen­si­tive and lush. I tried to envi­sion the film shoots, espe­cial­ly the old­er ones. What was it like, I won­dered, to trav­el to remote locales such as New Guinea over fifty years ago? What went on behind the scenes? 

After our mutu­al friend intro­duced us over the phone, I took a trip to meet him. I was ner­vous, but I needn’t have been. He was as unas­sum­ing as he was com­pelling. Meet­ing Robert Gard­ner was like meet­ing my imag­ined char­ac­ter but minus the rather dark side of the char­ac­ter (as far as I know the actu­al per­son­al life of Robert Gard­ner shares noth­ing in com­mon with Hugh Ship­ley). But the aes­thet­ic inter­ests, the eth­i­cal con­cerns, the dis­par­i­ty between the ideals of his illus­tri­ous fam­i­ly and the burn­ing desire to under­stand a wide range of peo­ple — all of these issues and more might have sprung from my imag­i­na­tion, but once I met Mr. Gard­ner, he brought it all to life. He deep­ened my under­stand­ing of every aspect of my bur­geon­ing character. 

Had I not met Robert Gard­ner or learned about his films and talked with him on a spring day in Mass­a­chu­setts, I would have writ­ten the char­ac­ter of Hugh Ship­ley but he would have been miss­ing a crit­i­cal part of him­self. And so would I. 

To learn more about Robert Gard­ner, vis­it his web­site: http://​www​.robert​gard​ner​.net

To read more from Joan­na, read her Vis­it­ing Scribe posts here. 

Joan­na Her­shon is the author of the nov­els Swim­ming, The Out­side of August, The Ger­man Bride, and A Dual Inher­i­tance. Her writ­ing has appeared in Gran­ta, The New York Times, One Sto­ry, Vir­ginia Quar­ter­ly Review, and two lit­er­ary antholo­gies, Brook­lyn Was Mine and Freud’s Blind Spot. She is an adjunct assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Cre­ative Writ­ing Depart­ment at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and lives in Brook­lyn with her hus­band, the painter Derek Buck­n­er, their twin sons, and their daughter.