Backstage

“One day,” Schell said, pressing forward. “The three of us are breaking up the caulk that formed on the coils, compensator excess, green and hard, and the boiler starts to make weird sounds. Deep sounds, nothing like we’d ever heard before.”

I started scribbling in highschool. Pre-internet meant the best schools could offer on the tech front was the “computer room” which consisted of a row of word-processors, all hooked to an unreliable dot-matrix printer. #technology
I was fortunate though, as having a parent who worked in finance (as a PA to a hospital bigwig) I was exposed to the rudimentary basics of workplace computers, back in a time when they were seem as great composition tools, but nothing more.

And I just began typing.
And, almost without exception, and regardless of what other trauma was occurring alongside, every single universe I’ve constructed in my head has half a dozen individuals, brought together by circumstance, who become faced with obstacles and challenges, both externally and between themselves, who try and live a life of somewhat normalcy.

Which, at least in my opinion, is what we all try to do in this reality.
Am I wrong here? I mean, my parents recently had a minor car wreck. They’re fine, but the car’s being examined to see if it can be salvaged. There’s nothing wrong with it (Japanese workmanship) but with the age of the car and the cost to fix it, the insurance company might pull the rug out just because they can. Great. But there was no way to foresee what would happen, when another car decided to forgo my parent’s right-of-way and T-bone their Honda at 40 mph. Sometimes life creates its own stories. And sometimes you have to make your own.

The first thing I ever wrote was a Thundercats re-hash. The show was syndicated, and I caught re-runs, thought ‘Wow! This is really good, but awful.’ Great concept, but weighted with eighties moralising. So, I re-did it, dropped the corny parts, changed the whole “cat-people” idea, and had my own little universe. It was like The Sims, before The Sims. It will never see the light of day, and it is rudimentary, and extremely limited for the time, but surprisingly effective in perking my interest in scribbling fiction.

The first full-length thing I wrote was roughly based on an Elaine Lee graphic novel. About vampires. It predated the renaissance, a la Buffy, and held a closer resemblance to eighties heist movies, complete with a Thelma & Louise style escapade. What I liked the most about the story was Lee’s admission that the five main women in the story are all based upon her. And that’s one of the most underrated things about growing older; the chance to reinvent yourself, but also to retroactively write about yourself in a different age, race or sex than who you currently are. I took this idea, ran with it and didn’t stop until I’d run off 120 pages of escapism and soul-searching. All set in the American Badlands, full of biker gangs, and other shady characters. Alongside this rebellious anarchy, I set up a Mafia-esque Committee, which leaned heavily on the White Wolf roleplaying game ‘Vampire: The Masquerade.’ It would later have a short running TV show of its own, tragically euthanized on the brink of resurrection when its leading man was killed in a motorbike accident (true story, look it up on imdb). Then Buffy dropped and the rest was history.

The most memorable scene from the whole manuscript was the night the five spend in a bathhouse, on the outskirts of Albuquerque. Paying off the owner, my characters have the run of the place, and they go about washing everything they can (the jacuzzi becomes an impromptu washing machine, including detergent!), including themselves, and not just of the physical dirt. It was a chance for the problems, the “quest” if you will, to be put on hold, if only for one night. The responsibility of the narrative gets tossed, and everyone gets a chance to decompress. Such scenes included the only male vampire, and younger brother of the defacto lead, picking his up sister and throwing her into the main pool, as well as everyone messing around with the inflatable floats. I pulled memories from my days in a local swimming team for those scenes, when you just mess around, because you can. It ended with everyone sat down one end of the pool, in a quasi-sauna, talking about anything, the conversation becoming a ‘Do you remember when…’ affair, all for the benefit of the new girl, who was the reader’s guide into this violent, bizarre, but unusually tender world.

The X-Men had to feature prominently here. I’d started reading in highschool, but by senior year I had several subscriptions on the go. With Forbidden Planet the only main access to the single issue storylines (I don’t think USA has an equivalent to Forbidden Planet, enlighten me if you do, America). X-Men, Deadpool, Silver Sable and the Wild Pack. These were interesting characters, all with concepts firmly rooted in difference, non-conformity and second chances. I don’t know how many different types of X-Men stories I’ve written. Let’s just say: A lot. From highschool, to college, to my current workplace, I’ve written stories and scenarios based on people that I’ve known, and many I still work with today. These are not direct copies, but I’ve seen how these people walk, talk, etc… and utilised that into the character design. So if I wrote: “Adam had brown hair,”, I know what the hair looks like, it’s spiky and brown and wild, like Matthew who works down in endoscopy. No one else would see that but me, but that visual marker, gives me a clue as to how I want Adam to think and act, with many of those traits originating from Matthew.

We all do this, right?
I became hooked on ‘Third Watch’ while I was in nursing school. And these days ‘Chicago Fire’ offers similar interest, though not to the same level of grit and drama. Though being a New York show in one of the most populated cities on earth, and incorporating 9/11 into your storylines doesn’t happen all the time (thankfully!). Doc’s storyline still resonates with me to this day. Doc, an EMS, suffered a lot during 9/11, and stricken with PTSD, when he finds out that the city plans to close down firehouses, including the one where the cast are stationed, he suffers a breakdown, pulls a gun and holds the whole firehouse hostage. It’s tragic, and very adult in a profession where burnout is common, for a show to acknowledge what many of the NYC medical services were going through at the time (and continue to go through today, sadly, with the 9/11 related deaths occurring every year).
So, I wrote about friends that I worked with, including myself, in ensemble pieces. Doing everything from roughnecking, to ambulance work. Different names, faces, backstories, but similar characters. The moody introvert, the mother-of-two, the rookie, the man who’s been there twenty years. All different nationalities.
And, I also wrote science fiction tales. I read a couple of the Grimspace novels by Ann Aguirre, the Sirantha Jax led stories about love and consequence, with a snark that was refreshing in a genre that often took itself too seriously. My own submission to this was an abstract I still don’t have a name for, almost five years after I started it. it’s nowhere close to readable, and I pick it up and put it down every six months. Based on three or four close friends I constructed a tale of people being liberated from several different situations, all to work to crew something big, a third party has discovered somewhere. How, why and what the consequences are, I haven’t a clue. But that’s not the point. The point is the interaction between the characters. I’m not the lead though. It’s not my style, even in reality to be at the top of the pyramid. I’m happier being the navigator, bonkers and stubborn and enduring a strip of green skin from temple to temple (it’s a navigator ‘thing’). My BFF at the time was handed the role as helmswoman, rescued from a group of skyjockeys*, who held her in a frost hole.
*The term skyjockey was coined by me, back in 2011. I think it predates Ridley Scott using the phrase on the guys that flew the first ship in the Alien movie, even though they’re now called Engineers. It’s very confusing.

And this attitude as standing to the side of the main character is prevalent in everything I write, and to a degree my own attitude to society. I’d happily be a rook to someone else’s queen. Not in the spotlight, but important. have you ever lost a rook early in a chess game? Good luck trying to stabilise the back eight, minus one of those bad boys.

But what I like most about this universe is that’s mine, and only mine. And that freedom allows me to write ideas, and stories that have more feeling sometimes than anything else I currently have in production.
So why don’t I write that, then? I hear you ask. Because I don’t think the overall story is there. Just as we in reality don’t have an arc to our lives. We just muddle along as best we can.
I’m siphoning off any magic I can from this little pool of creativity, and mixing it into my actual work. Which, without it, can seem dry and literary corporate at times.
What Schell is talking about, in the excerpt published at the start of this, is, despite her appearance as an authority figure to the main cast, she herself was indentured. And while she was working with friends, the boiler in question ruptured, similar to the rig blowing out in ‘Deepwater Horizon’, (see the movie, but have tissues) leaving her with her own scars, two gnarled, puckered rents, slashing down from her shoulder, blasting her spine. But because it’s Sci-Fi she recovers. She says this in a natural hot spring, where some of the characters have gone and the intimacy and sense of belonging is there because Schell wants the others to know she’s part of their family too. She has her own scars, and it would be false of her to be perpetually stern and cold towards them, if they didn’t understand her rationale behind it, and the fact that she can relate to their plight, more than they’re aware.

These small scenes in stories, regardless of medium, always seem to resonate more with me than any set piece. From Brimstone’s workshop in ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’, to the parlour in ‘Little Women’, to the beauty parlour scenes in ‘Steel Magnolias’, or the quiet of the church at night in ‘Saving Private Ryan’, those tiny steps, away from the main story, which allows the characters and the audience a chance to breath, relax, take stock of the situation and gather what they need for the next big event are the ones I love the most. Just like a theatre company is an impromptu family at the end of the performance run. For anyone who works behind the curtain, it’s a special place for all involved. This is why I write about it, regardless of the story, it’s a tiny bit of magic, that we the audience can savour, as much as the characters. It’s what fiction, and family, aspire to be.

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