When Vicki Stewart read a best-selling book written by her longtime friend Haywood Smith, she was fuming.
A character in the novel “The Red Hat Club” was a thinly veiled model of herself, Stewart claimed, with more than 30 similarities between the character “SuSu” and the real Vicki Stewart, including intimate details of her life dating back to childhood. But “SuSu” was far from a flattering character; in the author’s own words, she was a “fictional slut.”
In December 2003, Stewart fired off a terse e-mail to her former friend: “How do you avoid losing friends and lawsuits?”
Today, nearly six years later, a jury could decide whether Smith loses the lawsuit brought against her by Stewart, who claims defamation and invasion of privacy as a result of the novel. A Hall County State Court jury is expected to hear closing arguments this morning before receiving instructions on the law from Judge Charles Wynne and beginning deliberations.
According to testimony in the seventh day of the civil trial Tuesday, Smith replied to Stewart’s angry e-mail by writing, “the book is a work of fiction. Even if I draw inspiration from some real events, they are filtered through a completely fictional character.”
During his cross-examination of the author, plaintiff’s attorney Jeffrey Horst pointed out that Smith’s e-mailed reply said nothing about Stewart having given her permission to base a character on portions of her life, as the author has claimed.
“No, it doesn’t,” Smith agreed.
The attorney also brought out an e-mail that the author wrote to a fellow writer, which said in part, “The friend whose life was the bare-bones basis for the fictional slut SuSu just read the book and threatened libel.”
In a July 2005 deposition in the case, Smith was asked whether SuSu was based on a real person.
“It was inspired by Vicki’s life,” Smith said.
Lawyers for Stewart are seeking to show that because of so many similarities between their client and the SuSu character, readers would have a hard time separating fact from fiction. Stewart’s bridge club friends testified in the trial that they did not know her to be sexually promiscuous or to have a drinking problem, unflattering traits depicted in the novel by the SuSu character.
But the friends also testified that the novel didn’t make them think less of Stewart.
The trial’s final witness was an associate dean and professor of English from the University of Georgia who testified that modeling fictional characters after real people was commonplace in literature.
Dean Hugh Ruppersburg cited Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night” and “The Great Gatsby” and Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” as but a few examples of authors basing their characters on real people.
“It’s very common for writers to draw on historical, cultural facts from the world they live in and place them in novels to make them seem as real as possible,” the professor said.
Ruppersburg, a paid expert witness for the defense, said “from the first sentence, the first paragraph of (“The Red Hat Club”), it presented itself to me as a work of fiction.”
Asked whether it might be difficult for readers to separate the real Vicki Stewart from the SuSu of the novel, the professor said that shouldn’t be the reader’s job.
“The reader’s job is to decide whether he or she believes that individual character behaves like a credible human being,” Ruppersburg said.
During his cross-examination of the professor, Horst showed the witness an essay Smith wrote entitled “Creating Memorable Characters.”
Smith wrote, “Borrow from life, then embellish it all you want (disguising the people you use sufficiently to avoid problems, of course).”