In the late 1970s, I saw a terrifying psychological thriller based on William Goldman’s book, Magic. Anthony Hopkins played a ventriloquist who thought his dummy was alive. Needless to say, this did not end well for him.
The movie has stuck with me all these years because of how perfectly it illustrated the power of an unhinged imagination. I like to think of myself as possessing a relatively hinged imagination. But sometimes I wonder…
As an author, I’ve created a fictional village where my Cajun Country Mystery series takes place. Pelican, Louisiana, was inspired by real locations – a couple of charming Cajun Country towns and the ever-bucolic Litchfield, Connecticut, where I spent many summer weekends at a nearby lake. But mostly it was inspired by St. Martinville, Louisiana. Or so I thought.
In the mid-eighties, I meandered through South Louisiana on my own as I researched a play I was working on. I wound up in St. Martinville. The town’s crown jewel is The Church of St. Martin du Tours, a lovely edifice over two hundred years old. It’s fronted by a green park that inspired the town square in my fictional village. (That’s also where Litchfield comes in, with its iconic town green and bandstand.) The square was ringed by charming historic buildings, some featuring wrought iron balconies similar to New Orleans. I remember wandering through a senior center to a back room where I discovered a stunning display of handmade Mardi Gras ball gowns worn by local girls during the town’s holiday celebrations.
Over the years, St. Martinville morphed into a sort of Cajun Brigadoon in my imagination, lively and bright. On a recent trip to Louisiana, I was determined to visit the real-life village that inspired the fictional one in my books. The church was there, still lovely. The historic buildings still ringed the square. But everything was, well… different. Faded. But was it? Or had my imagination toyed with me, creating a fantasy location that never really existed? And where was that museum I visited? Because when I mentioned it, no one knew what I was talking about.
The visit to St. Martinville disturbed me. Not because there’s anything wrong with the town – it’s a lovely place in its own right. But the trip created a disconnect between the real world and the imaginary one in my books that I so very much wanted to be real.
I’ve had years of therapy, so I’m pretty confident I can cling to sanity. But then I remember Anthony Hopkins’ tortured relationship with his dummy, which makes me contemplate how often I totally immerse myself in the fictional world of Pelican, Louisiana. And I wonder if the dividing line between a hinged and unhinged imagination is thinner than I think.
What about you, fellow authors and readers? Has a fictional world ever become a little too real for you?
Ellen Byron’s novel, Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery, was a Library Journal Debut Mystery of the Month, and nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards. Book two in the series, Body on the Bayou, was recently released to enthusiastic reviews. TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, and many network pilots; she’s written over 200 national magazine articles; her published plays include the award-winning Graceland.