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FAINT GLOW

Fascine: The Story I Didn't Write

Individuals I barely know approach me all the time with "a surefire concept for a bestseller(!)", then just stand there expectantly as if I'm supposed to burst into happy tears, hug them and yell "Oh, thank God!" The thing is, they have no intention of writing a book themselves--too much work, are you kiddin'?--so they want ME to write it and then we'll split the profits!!! Fifty-fifty!!!!! Basically, what they're expecting me to do is pay them for an idea. As if I'm incapable of coming up with any of my own.

One of the many things these well-meaning would-be co-authors of mine always fail to grasp is that a writer of serious fiction (meaning few to no spies, movie stars, billionaires, terrorists, shirtless pirates or anybody in Los Angeles people its pages) doesn't work this way. Because my characters are of primary importance and bring with them all plot, all action necessary. If a literary novelist's characters don't engage her or she decides she detests them or can't fathom their motives, she's not going to put in the hours and hours and days and weeks and months and years to write a bloody damn book, no matter if its proposed Hitler-cloned-by-Yemeni-jihadists, former-Navy-Seal-with-beautiful-Mossad-agent-struggling-to-prevent-resulting-destruction-of-Western-Civilization plot does indeed sound like a possible paperback success.

I'm sorry. There's just not enough money to pay me to write this. Just not enough, and I'm broke and my career isn't bringing me any income what with a publisher whose name I won't mention still failing to pay me my royalties. But I'd rather sit and type out the entire Manhattan phone book, I'm sorry. Plus Yellow Pages.

How to put this without seeming arrogant...? Hmm. Okay, let's try this approach. There is ballet, and then there's Dancing With The Stars, right? See where I'm going with this? There's Harry Potter or Frodo the hobbit, and then there's every piece of cheap-ass imitation fantasy ever rushed into print to cash in on their trailblazing authors' original efforts at personal excellence, their inexplicable attempts to yank something out of their own deepest hearts and make it live. J. K. Rowling was famously broke when she wrote the first Potter book, but had she been aiming for bestseller status over personal excellence, it would've featured torture and sex and been a whole lot more GAME OF THRONES-y. (And I'm NOT knocking THRONES, okay?) What a lot of people don't know is that Rowling actually illustrated Potter with her own artwork. It mattered to her. The publisher didn't use it, but it was very good and she took time with it because it MATTERED. So I guess what I'm saying here is that I don't want any ideas that don't belong to me, thank you all the same. My own may not be all that great, but they're mine and I've pulled them out of my heart by their roots. That's why I work so hard to give them life. That's why I'm a novelist, and you are a...um...idea person. And I'm not knocking Idea People: Steve Jobs of Apple, who died too young just a few days ago, wasn't a scientist or engineer or designer or even an artist, but he knew what a computer should do and how it should look and how its owner should feel about it. Idea Person Extraordinaire. But I'm not one, although I'd probably be richer if I were...

I have no notion where my characters come from or which region of my neurosis-infested psychology they bubble up from, but they're where my ideas begin. People start to take shape in my head, and I watch them and overhear them talking, and if they become interesting enough to me, I begin to write down their doings. They do unexpected stuff that surprises me. Behave badly, tell lies, cheat on spouses or suddenly drop dead. I watch it all, follow it all, and that's where my plot comes from, for good or ill. I'm not Idea Person enough to know how to manipulate characters in the service of a compelling plot, or even how to want to transform myself into such. Seems too much like work. Boring. Lazy by nature, not to mention possibly voyeuristic, I'm way more inclined to just keep peeking in at some nebbishy little character as he stumbles through his life and goes about his business. Sometimes a novel results. Sometimes not.

When I was in my twenties, I walked around for about six months with a story in my head about an impresario-type of person, a man in his forties who discovers an unknown New Orleans teenager and makes her over into a mega-celebrity fashion model who he renames Fascine (no last name, of course). I can't begin to tell you where the name came from but it sounded dangerously cool to me, redolent of both "fascism" and "fascinating", and I'd include a guide for its proper pronunciation: "fash-SHEEN". --Oh, and she'd be dark and thin, Italian? Spanish? But stylishly Eurotrashy, possibly the love child of nobility, the quarry of paparazzi, her sort-of Brooklynish accent impossible to place. Whereas this Svengali manager/agent of hers does all the talking, all the reinvention and repackaging of her. Her real background remains a secret to all but him. The trouble, eventually, is that he begins to believe his own publicity. He forgets what she really is, who she once was, what's in her. She's just a goodhearted, ordinary Yat girl who loves beer and fried food just exactly like the rest of her overweight, loud, happy family. All she's ever wanted to do is get married to the boy down the block and have babies. That's her dream. Being Fascine is gravy, but she can't be distracted for long by mere gravy if what she really craves is a drumstick. So the final page ends with the panicky agent/manager noticing for the first time the implications of the shape and width of her hips and thighs, the promise of her sure devolution into, in his words, "a fucking peasant". --Because he's met her momma and seen the future, and it sure ain't pretty.

Thank God I was never able to write any of this down. This is the kind of shit I come up with whenever I begin with an Idea.

But maybe it could achieve significance if I just took the time now to read into it several underlying themes of character creation, conformity to an invented plot, manipulation, then relate them to what I've already said about how I write...? But naaaaaaahhh....

Too much like work.

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