Saturday, 22 June 2013

GUEST BLOG - Characters on the Preservation - Jack Skillingstead

In the June 2006 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction my story "Life On The Preservation" appeared in print for the first time. It was more Big Idea SF than I was accustomed to writing. Alien forces have devastated the Earth and simultaneously erected domes over various representative environments, preserving those environments and their inhabitants in time loops. One such Preservation Dome stands over the city of Seattle. Inside, the population is clueless about their new status as museum pieces for alien tourists. Meanwhile, Kylie, a teenage girl surviving in the blasted ruins of civilization outside the dome, penetrates into the city on a mission of destruction. She means to destroy the museum and release the trapped souls. Once inside, though, she is seduced by the illusion of a pre-apocalyptic world.

I had taken Kylie's point of view to tell the story -- the point of view of a teenage girl raised by "old men" in the ruins of civilization. This background remained largely undeveloped, as I concentrated on the quirky love story between Kylie and a boy she meets inside the Seattle Preservation. I got away with it because the story was all forward motion painted in the received language of science fictional imagery. The story performed well, making a couple of Year's Best anthologies and even attracting a whiff of Hollywood interest.

A couple of years later when I decided to expand this premise into a novel I discovered that in order to make the story larger I first had to make it smaller. By "smaller" I mean more personal. Big Ideas without a personal context are Big Bores. Also, the difference between a six-thousand-word short story and a ninety-five-thousand word novel are vast -- and not simply in terms of word count.

"Life On The Preservation" wouldn't be my first novel. I had written six or seven by the time I started LOTP. The last of those, "Harbinger," would eventually wind up published by Fairwood, an independent specialty press. The writing of "Harbinger" had been a liberating experience, but I wasn't sure I wanted anymore of my intensely personal exercises in public view.

John D. MacDonald once wrote that you will find a piece of yourself in everyone you meet. That was exactly right. He was talking about writers, observation, and the creation of believable characters. When I read that -- I think it was part of the introduction to King's "Nightshift" collection -- a connection sparked in my brain. Like Strasberg-trained "method" actors, writers must find the emotional jigsaw piece in their own heart and fit it to the empty shape inside their character's. It takes something private out of you and puts it on public display, which can be uncomfortable. I was a long time arriving at this approach to writing, but when it finally started working, the puppet people inhabiting my short stories became enlivened. Finally, I wasn't just making up shit about people who didn't exist. Instead, I was lending vital parts of myself to the intense endeavor of energizing new life on the printed page.

Many, many factors must come together to make a novel work on even a rudimentary level, but none of them mean anything unless your characters exhale the breathe of life. In my short stories, which began to sell almost immediately, my characters were exhaling all over the place. "Tortured lonely guy," as my wife likes to call him, made routine and occasionally memorable appearances. But he was conspicuously absent in my short story about alien Preservation Domes.

Partly I chose LOTP as my next novel-length project because I thought I could tell the story as a straight up science fiction adventure in which I would not be required to lend out pieces of my jigsaw heart. Instead my characters would be "archetypes" or some such bullshit, called to forward action in service of a plot designed to steamroll over readers and drag their flattened bodies to the end of the narrative. "Preservation" would be kind of like Independence Day, full of spectacle and characters who performed without getting too deep -- a quick read, a beach book. In other words, I thought I could tell this story without giving up too much of myself.

Ah, well.

Even adventure-type story engines grind to a halt without the magic of living characters. At least, they do for me. I wrote several versions of LOTP. They stood like massive roller-coasters, de-energized and inert, intricate structures of looping, plunging track, with empty cars frozen against the sunset. At the end of two years I took a deep breath and started from scratch. It was that or give up the whole thing.

In the short story version of LOTP, the only point of view character is Kylie, the teenage girl from outside. I knew her well enough for six thousand words, but now, as my writing process discovered her life and history, she required a bigger piece of me. Finally, I was willing to surrender it, and I learned Kylie was a victim who fought to define herself as something other than that. She was also a romantic who needed to believe in the kind of love she had seen in the movies. Kylie longed for the things she couldn't have, because those things didn't exist anymore -- except on the Preservation.

In the short story Kylie meets a fairly clueless young man and falls in love with him in a clueless movie way. It wasn't really a love story; it was about how Kylie needed the illusion of the Preservation to be real. I kind of thought the book would run in a similar direction, but it didn't.

In the novel, instead of a clueless boy, she meets Ian Palmer, a young man of the troubled variety. Ian has only one friend, works a job ten floors beneath his abilities, is an outlier by temperament, with father issues and a paranoid streak. He is estranged, lonely and angry, and he believes, or used to believe, in the transformative power of his outlaw art. In short, he is 'tortured lonely guy."

Writing the first half of this novel was exhausting. But when these two characters met, about midway through "Life On The Preservation," they handed me back the puzzle pieces of my heart and filled their own empty spaces with each other. What a joy and relief that was. 

Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead was released on the 6th of June 2013 by Solaris and is available at the book vendor of your choice.

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