Jonathan Roven is Lost is a story I am proud of. It concerns a subject that I have rarely seen written about, namely how a gay couple manages when one of them develops Alzheimer’s Disease. I’m also proud of the journey this story has taken.
Originally, it was just 900 words long, with a different ending. It was written as a flash fiction story (stories under 1,000-words long) to a prompt of Losing Your Lover. So often do I find a left-field response to subjects. It was first published on the Gay Flash Fiction website. Unfortunately, it has been deleted from that site since then, but other stories of mine are still available there. The original version can be found here. As always, I had that rush of excitement whenever I have something published, the excitement of knowing I am communicating with people I’ll never meet. Then something strange happened.
The site’s editor emailed me because he had received a complaint. An American lawyer, called Jonathan Roven, had demanded that my story be taken down or changed. It seemed the real-life Jonathan Roven didn’t like having a fictional character named after him or sharing his name, or he didn’t like my character called Jonathan Roven, or all three.
The editor wasn’t happy; he argued that there are probably lots of real-life Mr Darcys out there, and they aren’t writing to Jane Austen’s estate, demanding her character’s name is changed.
I did a Google search on fictional characters with real people’s names, and I also looked up Jonathan Roven. The first page of links was all to the same American lawyer, except for a link to my story, which was surprising and interesting.
My other Google search returned some interesting results. I’ve included the links below. Under American law, it seems, calling a fictional character by the same name as a real person alone is not libel. Jonathan Roven would have had to prove that the fictional character was based on him, with more similarities than just names, and that the fictional character had harmed his character and/or reputation. In my story, the fictional character is a 60-year-old gay man with Alzheimer’s Disease; I don’t even name his profession. Also, in America, winning a libel case where you say a fictional character libelled you seems to be very difficult. Now, I’m a nurse and not a lawyer, and this is just what I learnt from an online search.
When I first created the character, he was to have been called Jonathan Raven, but I made a typo and called him Jonathan Roven, which I liked the sound of, so it stayed. I’m British, and the Gay Flash Fiction website isn’t run for profit; it’s much more a labour of love. Neither of us could afford to fight a court case, so we quickly agreed to change the title character’s name. Therefore, we changed it to Jonathan Raven is Lost, well in the version on the Gay Flash Fiction website anyway.
But it left a sour taste in my mouth and created an unpleasant memory. What had so upset the man that he wanted my story changed or removed? Was it because the character who shared his name was gay and/or had Alzheimer’s Disease (and I’m not sure which one it would be), or was it because he’d lost the top billing of having all his results on the first page of a Google search?
I’ve since posted the original version of the story, under its original title, on my old blog and on the GA website, where it can still be read, and I’ve heard nothing from the real Jonathan Roven. In these locations, I have no intention of changing the title or the story or the character’s name.
When I was selecting stories for my published collection Case Studies in Modern Life, I naturally chose Jonathan Roven is Lost. It is such a good example of my writing, but it is also about a subject I feel strongly about. Many of the patients I nurse in my job have Alzheimer’s Disease, and I have seen what it does to lives and relationships. Like many of the stories in this collection, I workshopped it at my Writer’s Group. I received amazing feedback, and people advised me to open the story up because there was more to tell. I returned to it and started to re-shape it.
The rewrites took the story from 800 to 11,000-words long, and as I rewrote it, so much more of the story came out. I introduced new characters; the narrator’s best friend, their neighbour, Jonathan’s sister, and his social worker, plus a nurse called Lilly. So much of the plot expanded, and I found there was so much more to tell. Other writers talk about stories and characters taking on “a life of their own”. I’ve never really experienced that. I’m a great planner of stories, and I always know where my stories are going. As I re-wrote this story, I found myself thinking about it more and more, planning it out in my mind. I found there was so much more to write, so much more of these characters’ stories to tell.
I am also proud that I was able to write a story about Alzheimer’s Disease from an original perspective and also realistically look at how to manage if your partner does develop it. This story isn’t a road map for how to manage life with a partner with Alzheimer’s Disease, but it does provide advice from my experience.
I also have Steve, one of the other members of my writer’s group, Newham Writers Workshop, to thank for his suggestion about a change to the story’s ending. His suggestion created a much more poignant ending to the story, highlighting the emotional cost Jonathan Roven’s Alzheimer’s Disease has taken on his partner.
This story was originally written as a flash fiction story about losing a lover but in an unusual way. Since then, it has grown into much more. It is now about two men’s tragic journey and is very typical of the subjects I write about.
The inspiration for this story occurred back in the late 1990s. I was working in my first District Nursing job and looking after an elderly couple. She had severe dementia, and he was her main carer, but he was also her second husband. Due to her dementia, she had forgotten his name and called him by the name of her first husband. The pain on his face every time she did this was heart breaking. I have never forgotten his expression, though he carried on caring for her.
“Libel in general is when somebody claims that a statement of fact made about him or her harmed his or his character”
Edited by Drew Payne