I was handed this article heading two days after I had a deep discussion with a friend, who was grilling me on my writing whilst we sat on a terrace at our gym over the bank holiday weekend. In the end, our discussion became quite heated, not least because of the gorgeous sunshine, but because he couldn’t prise an answer out of me that was satisfactory to him. Let me expand.
As I started writing the book series many moons ago, about five years now, the tiny details of its conception may have blurred, as those thoughts have been superseded many millions of times over by my very busy grey matter. However, what I distinctly remember is coming up with the story as a whole. There was no conscious decision-making, especially where the characters were concerned, they just seemed to develop quite naturally as complete rounded people in my mind. I can’t specifically say what was behind any of my characters, somehow they were just born, and brought into being once I started writing down this epic story that mapped itself out inside my head like a giant atlas.
So while I can’t be helpful and pinpoint one blinding eureka moment of inspiration, I can say a little bit more about the genesis of the character and what has helped me build Donny Capello into being.
Donny used to be my favourite character. It is a hard choice, but someone has superseded him in my affections now. Despite this, he still a character I love very much. He is not your typical, flawed hero. He is definitely flawed by society’s standards, as the head of the Vegas mafia, but he is also just a man. Like all of us, he is immensely human, and that is one of the key repeating themes of the book; whatever the world thinks of us, or what people expect us to be, the reality of who we really are is totally different. And as the person now writing book eight, I can tell you that before the end of the series, Donny has plenty of surprises in him to break your heart, and also make you want to kick him in the shins, very hard.
Above all, Donny is a complicated, conflicted character, but he is all the more compelling because he is aware of his emotions, and why they are in themselves flawed or unviable. Having been in positions of responsibility, I know all too well how much, despite being ‘the boss’, that role comes with invisible constraints, and those are unending, powerful and in Donny’s world, lethally important to survival. I know that feeling when you just want to do what you want, not what you have to do. And you can’t. You know you can’t. It’s a mixture of practicality and self-control, but an invisible prison all the same. For all his power, Donny Capello is not free; certainly he does not live a carefree life. I had one lady, an acupuncturist, read the book. She came in one day to my cafe, very distressed, and without asking me to give anything away, she wanted to know, if Donny died. The reason she asked was because she had a fellow acupuncturist in Australia, who had a number of mafia clients. They didn’t just come for physical treatments but for the unburdening of their conscience. Only one of them made any real progress to ‘purify his soul’ for wont of a better or more in-depth analysis. He chose to walk away from his mafia life, and sought redemption. Six months later he was dead. The life he had lived claimed him in death. It is not an easy existence to give up on. My reader, the acupuncturist, was concerned the same would befall Donny because of the kindness he shows to Mysty. I was stunned, and touched, to have a reader find such a deep connection with one of my characters, based on real life experience.
My next point may be contentious, or even hard to believe, particularly in the post-Weinstein era we now exist in, but I am a devotee to the truth so I will not sidestep the issue. I have during my life, for better or for worse, come into contact with men who, for whatever reason, have fallen ‘in love’ with me. Men who know they are not the right age to have any real chance with me, or just love how I am - I am a bit different. There is no demand made on me, there was no sexual predatory grooming, there was nothing bad in these relationships. Perhaps sometimes it was paternal and they felt a protectiveness of me - whatever the psychological motives, I have experienced a purity of emotion that is best described as devotion. It’s very special to experience this, and now challenged on it, I see that is what I had in mind for Donny as regards Mysty, for all their relationship does develop eventually when she is much older. His care of her outweighs everything else, and that selflessness is quite beautiful. It is even more poignant given what a savage, brutal character he can be in other spheres of his life.
Following on from this, I am a firm believer that everyone, absolutely everyone, has it in them to better themselves. To be a better person, to rise above, even if we've made poor choices in the past, every day we face new opportunities to make better choices. No one is all bad, just like no one is all good. As a historian, I learned very early on, nothing is black and white. None of the ‘great’ historical characters were all good news. Alexander the Great, Edward III, Duke of Wellington - when you take a closer look at what they achieved, you also find in their history mistakes, bad choices, sometimes truly awful, but history chooses to keep them on a pedestal. This is another huge topic for debate, but essentially, thanks to my historical studies at Cambridge, I have a deep appreciation of how complex life is, and how perfection is simply unrealistic. I have loved some of the feedback from readers who are confused and startled to find that they warm to Donny, despite his shadowy existence. I love the fact he challenges people on an ethical level, and hopefully gives people a little inspiration and hope for their own potential to have a positive influence on others. In a second of decision-making, one simple act of kindness, can change a person’s life for the good, forever.
My last piece of inspiration comes from a mixture of sources that have cumulatively supplied my imagination with sufficient information to come up with such dark yet appealing character. Firstly, I have met people myself who have walked on ‘the dark side of the line’ and they're nice people. You can talk to them, find them charming, interesting. They’re not all raving maniacs out to take over the world. Criminality, especially now, takes on many forms, and with cyber crime it can be very subtle, covert and low key. Criminality has, like prostitution, been around for millennia, it is part of society. Where you have rules, you’ll find someone who wants to break them. Equally, amongst those who want to break those rules, there is an element of self-regulation. In the times we live in, where you can wake up and listen to headlines telling you another person has been stabbed or shot in London in gang-related violence, this is reality, not fiction, not theory. I also know most of what takes place in criminal circles won’t ever be for public knowledge. I believe the criminal faction is not only a permanent feature of society, but also, if it is established enough, it has ‘laws’ of its own by which it functions. This is the kind of authority I have created for Donny in Vegas. In this way, he and his boys serve as a kind of law-enforcement of an unofficial kind in the city, governing over the sections of society the police won’t penetrate. The old adage, ‘honour among thieves’ can ring true, at least as far as the Capello household is concerned.
The creation of a character will always, I believe, be a little different, every single time for every writer, as one will naturally have more or less in common, little or much empathy for them. However, the key issue for a writer is to try one’s hardest to think and feel like the character, regardless of one’s opinion of them, or their ethics, to not only make them believable, but also maintain the integrity of their personality throughout the storyline. It is this powerful ability, that enabled me, a law-abiding English women, who has never been to Vegas, to create this wonderful, complex, broodily compelling character in Donny Capello. He is far from perfect, but I know I’d love to meet him in real life…