Sunday, July 29, 2012

To Orphan or Not To Orphan

It’s another reading week for me.

If you don’t know what I mean by “reading week,” then you should probably refresh your memory on that point.  We’re talking about my fiction here; specifically, the on-again, off-again novel whose semi-chapters I keep inserting randomly into my blog.  (And, if you don’t care anything about that, you can move on immediately and save yourself some time.)  Last time I mentioned a reading week, I managed 3 more installments over the following 3 months, and I haven’t returned to it in the 4 months since.

Of course, I also have a 4-month old child now, so that’s probably not a coincidence.

Still, I need to get back into the groove, if I ever plan to finish.  And, excitingly (at least for me), I actually did have a useful idea—remember when I said that I was having trouble figuring out how to get from where I was to the end of this book?  Well, I had an epiphany a couple months back, but I haven’t had the opportunity to do much with it.  I need to put it into words before I completely lose it.

Of course, 4 months is a long time.  So long, in fact, that I’ve gone all the way back to the beginning of the novel to really refresh my brain about the story.  Another thing I do besides reading what I’ve written, as if I were reading someone else’s work (that’s the reading week post again), is I interview myself.  That sounds really weird, I know ... some people say talking to yourself is a sign of insanity.  It’s not, really, and that’s good, because I do this all the time.  I practice difficult conversations I need to have with other people, I explain things I’m working on to an imaginary audience, sometimes I even psychoanalyze myself.  I do this because I’m naturally a verbal person, and saying things out loud, putting abstract thoughts into actual words, makes them real for me in a way that just pondering doesn’t.

Take that second example, for instance.  I’m working on a difficult problem at work, say, and I’m not sure what’s the best way to design the solution.  So I’ll pretend I’ve already done it, and now I’m giving a presentation on it, perhaps to my co-workers.  I explain what I’ve done, and defend my choices.  If I can get all the way through the presentation without stumbling, I’ve got a pretty good design there.  But, essentially, that never happens.  What happens is, about halfway through, I’ll trail off in the middle of a sentence, because I’ve realize that what I’m about to explain is the stupidest thing ever.  And that makes me backtrack, and rearrange, and refactor, and come up with a better design.

Same goes for my writing.  By pretending I’ve already published my book, and now people want to interview me (’cause, you know, I’m a famous author at that point), I force myself to verbalize why I made this authorial choice, or what I was trying to say with this particular passage, or whatnot.  And that, in turn, brings many things that I was doing subconsciously out into the light where I can stare at them a bit and go “hey, that’s interesting,” or sometimes, “no, wait a minute ... that’s dumb.”

In a way, this is just a continuation of the reader/writer dichotomy I talked about in the reading week post.  Me the Reader is the interviewer, asking questions to try to understand the story more completely.  Then Me the Writer comes along and answers the questions, as best he can, talking about what (or who) has inspired him, why he made certain choices, etc.

One day recently, I was conducting such an interview on the way to work (I have a 40-minute commute on a good day, so it’s a perfect time for this sort of thing), and Reader Me asked what Writer Me thought was a very interesting question: why isn’t Johnny Hellebore an orphan?

Although the story of Johnny Hellebore is aimed more at an adult audience (as I explained previously), there’s certainly no denying that he is the latest in a long and venerable line that includes Peter Pan, Dorothy Gale, James Henry Trotter, Harry Potter, and the Baudelaire children ... all of whom are, in fact, orphans.  So, why not Johnny?

Of course, the simple answer would be: because he isn’t, that’s all.  In other words, Johnny might have been “born,” as a character, with parents “built in,” so to speak.  But, the truth is, he wasn’t.  I described how Johnny came to me: fully-formed, in a dream.  He was ragged and unkempt, and I knew he lived on the streets, and I sensed somehow that he was parentless, but that’s not really the same as being an orphan.  Giving Johnny parents who were alive, but absent—and more than absent: ineffectual—that was a conscious choice on my part.  Why did I do it?

Well, to a certain extent, it was just to be different.  The orphan thing’s been done.  Done very well, by authors much more talented than I.  If I tread those same boards, I have to step up my game quite a bit to compete.  Safer—and more interesting—to try some new territory.  I’m not entirely sure why I chose to have Johnny’s parents be the way they are now (probably it started with the dream I had that became the prologue), but, upon reflection, I really like it.  It reminds me of one my favorite movies: The Breakfast Club.  Remember the scene between Andrew and Allison?

Andrew: What is it?  Is it bad?

Allison: <silence>

Andrew: Real bad?

Allison: <silence>

Andrew: Parents?

Allison: <softly> Yeah ...

Andrew: <nods> What do they do to you?

Allison: <whispering> They ignore me.

To me, that’s one of the most powerful scenes in that movie, and that’s saying something.  The idea that you might have parents who would hurt you is frightening.  The idea that you might have parents who don’t care enough about you to even bother ... somehow that’s even scarier.  And, intentional or not, that’s how Johnny’s parents turned out, as I began to develop his backstory.

Johnny’s father was interested in money.  Climbing the business ladders was all he cared about, and, in the end, he resorted to extra-legal measures to achieve the level of success he was aiming for.  In those circles, being a family man was important.  It showed stability.  He could have gotten where he wanted as a bachelor, but it was easier to just go out and find a wife.

Johnny’s mother was taught that men were the key to financial security.  She didn’t particularly feel like she needed to fall in love; she just wanted to have enough money to be comfortable and didn’t particularly want to have to work for it.  Some might call her a gold-digger, and she probably wouldn’t even have objected to the characterization.  Along comes this man, and he’s obviously successful, and on his way to even bigger things; he isn’t hideous or anything, fairly quiet and non-obnoxious ... sure, why not?

And they were married, so he got what he wanted, and she was left to her own devices, which is what she wanted, and then he said now we need a child, and so she said, okay, but just one: I’m not getting fat and screwing up my back more than once, and one was all he needed, and there was Johnny.  His father only needed the fact of a child, and his mother didn’t even need that.  As an actual, physical being, they had no interest in him.

What happened to these people when they were children to make them this way?  I don’t know, although it’s an interesting question, and perhaps we’ll explore it someday.  I suspect it was pretty awful, although probably not as awful as what Johnny grew up with.  Although, remember: this was Johnny’s life from day one.  In a very real sense, he had no idea that parents were supposed to love you until he started school and met other children.  In fact, if it wasn’t for Amiira, Johnny would be a very cold person, and quite distasteful himself.  This is why Amiira keeps coming up in the story even though she’s been gone for years before the story starts.  She’s Johnny’s anchor, the one person who helped him realize that people could make connections with each other ...

Anyway, it was interesting for me to ponder all this, and I thought it might be interesting to share with you as well.  Plus now I have it written down for me to review later, in case I need to return to this topic for future reference.  And you, fair reader, will now be able to experience some déjà vu when you hear my first interview as a famous author.  You’re welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment