With such obvious exceptions as adaptations, reinterpretations, or parables, one does not set out to tell a story that already has been told. This, of course, is especially true if the story has been told innumerable times, innumerable ways and over many years; if it is “one we all know,” so to speak. Or so this is what I would have said—indeed what I thought—up until a few short years ago. And notwithstanding this now disproved personal conviction, it is exactly what I inadvertently did while writing my first novel: I wrote a story you already know. I wrote a book I myself have read dozens of times. But it’s not my fault, dammit. It’s not like I had any choice. Allow me a short digression, and then I’ll make my point as concisely as possible, with perhaps a few ramblings and odd sidebars thrown in for no respectable reason.
As I’ve said, I did not set out to write a book telling a familiar tale. In fact, I didn’t set out to write a book at all. Oh, mind you I’d long wanted to—long made furtive starts and passing plans—but this thing that turned into the novel Three A.M.? That was just a short story. It was not until a few days after I started typing it out that I realized that at already 20,000 words and counting it was growing into a rather long short story. Soon after that I realized “Well… hey… looks like we got ourselves a novel here.” That was exciting. It really was. And a lot of other things that came after that were, too. But I’ll keep this step back brief and leave it there for now, the broad strokes of the novel’s “origin story” laying down sufficient color for me to return to my assertions above.
The fact is, I’ve come to realize, that there are only a few stories people really give a good goddamn about. Let me redefine that confining frame a bit: there are only a few themes people care about, and try as an author (or wandering minstrel or dancing shaman or anyone else with a story or two to tell) might to think up something truly new, he or she will fail. At least fail in finding the new theme, if not in telling a fine story. Beyond love and hate, victory or defeat, loss or gain or revelation and a few other sweeping terms (dozens, I’m sure, if we mine deep enough, but finite still!) what have we? We have but ways to tell of these constant themes; stories are little more than polishing a re-imagining of that which we have long sought to glean.
From the minutiae made epic by careful observation—take, for example, John Muir detailing every move of a Douglas squirrel in his seminal book The Mountains of California, a squirrel which he manages to make captivating!—to the epics which have lived with humanity for thousands of years—I’ll invoke The Odyssey as it’s low-hanging fruit—we read of struggle and perseverance leading to victory. From Aesop to Shakespeare we read of characters veritably choking on their own bitterness (think the “grapeless” Fox and Iago). And lovers, star-crossed or clear-eyed and everything in between, number too many in humanity’s collective literary canon for me to bother plucking an example, but I doubt you’ll be long in remembering various examples with common threads of yearning, lust, loss, etc.
And then, in my first novel, my wholly original piece of creativity, dreamed up solely in my head and written out by these same two hands now typing away, we find… well, let’s see:
• The Hero, in this case one who tries to “Refuse the Call” (indeed, almost the anti-hero)
• The Siren, who draws him in
• The Guide, who gives the hero wisdom and direction; moral validation
• Villain(s)… of course
• And finally: The Hero as Redeemer… Out of the Void… Departure… etc.
And on it goes. On I went. But, like I said, it’s not my fault: I didn’t know that every story told or yet to come is but one more crack at peeling back the wraps that bind the universal themes; the unending struggle to both reflect on and live life in the same instant. After all, isn’t that the only reason we need stories? To make sense of that which we cannot objectively view while passing through it? Humor, drama, satire, etc.—these are all but lenses to focus the mind. We search for myriad lenses and hapless folks like me seek to provide a new one now and then, but always it is merely a new lens, never a new thing focalized, really. (Implicit within these assertions is the idea that diversion, such as by comedy, is not at all without merit and is in fact at times necessary.)
It took the reading of countless books over the years to prepare me to write one (or two or three), but it took reading the work of just one man to both humble and embolden me all at once and ready me to approach each character, each twist and turn—every page, to boil it down—with a sense of excitement tempered by the knowledge that what lies beneath the story, what lurks between each word of dialogue, what frames the story and what motivates one to undertake its creation, is as vital as the visible flesh spread out atop. In a word: “Why.”
Very likely many of you are nodding now even before I write that man’s name: Joseph Campbell. If you are familiar with his fantastic and edifying oeuvre, you will know well how liberally I have used his own terms, or at least his language. I do not feel I am doing him any disservice in conscripting his work thus, for he spent his life not seeking to create new, original material, exactly (the many books, speeches and articles he produced duly noted) but rather Campbell sought—and succeeded admirably—in showing us just how universal our stories are; how from all corners of the world and down through the generations we have produced similar tales trying to tackle the selfsame themes.
Oh there were others, of course, who did much to inspire my young mind. Others on whose shoulders I shall forever stand (or perhaps over whose shoulders I will ever be trying to catch a glimpse of whatever it was they saw that let them write the things I read). Henry Miller freed my teenage mind. Faulkner stirred my mid-twenty something soul. Rand frustrated the hell out of me—god, I wanted to slap her—but showed me what great writing can do, even if you disagree so often with what the words are saying. But as wonderful as all these writers were, ultimately they are just playing the same game, albeit playing with exquisite finesse. It was Joseph Campbell who made it clear to me that we’re all doing the same: all playing the same game, all telling the same stories, all seeking the same answers, be we writers or bankers or biologists, et al. There are plural answers to be sought, yes, but they are far from infinite. Perhaps that’s why the “same story” can remain so vital despite the fact that we keep hearing it told in different ways.
Credit for selected terms and a few ideas and a lot of inspiration due to:
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces Novato, CA: New World Library 2008. (Originally published by Pantheon Books 1949.)
And with a nod to my man in the mountains:
Muir, John. The Mountains of California Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press 1977 ed.
About Three A.M.
Three A.M.Tor Books, March 27, 2012
Hardcover and eBook, 304 pages
Fifteen years of sunless gray.
Fifteen years of mist. So thick the streets fade off into nothing. So thick the past is hazy at best. The line between right and wrong has long been blurred, especially for Thomas Vale.
Long gone are the days when new beginnings seemed possible—when he was a new recruit, off to a new start fresh in the army. He had hoped to never look back. Not like there was much to see, anyway.
First came the sickness, followed by the orders: herd the healthy into the city, shoot the infected. The gates closed and the bridges came down… followed by the mist.
Fifteen miserable years of the darkest nights and angry, awful gray days.
Thomas Vale can hardly fathom why he keeps waking up in the morning. For a few more days spent stumbling along? Another night drinking alone? Another hour keeping the shadows at bay….
But when Rebecca Ayers walks into his life, the answers come fast. Too fast.
Steven John and his wife, an elementary school teacher, live in Los Angeles by way of Washington D.C. and New York, respectively. He splits his time between many things, most of which involve words. Three A.M. is his first novel.
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