I’ve never even held a cigarette, let alone smoked one. It’s not because I think smokers are a filthy subset of humans that deserve to be vilified for their choice. I don’t. Instead, I’m just plain scared. I watched someone I loved very much die from the effects of passive smoking. She, like me, never smoked a cigarette herself, but her father smoked constantly and it killed her in the end. As a warning, it worked like a trick on me.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I have another manuscript on which I have been working off and on now for the last seven years. I’m revisiting it now for the umpteenth time because it looks likely to become my second published novel. As I started reading it over again, I ran hot and cold – not totally convinced it was salvageable. That was until I got to the point where a certain character shows up, a character who is by far my favourite of any of the fictional people I’ve given life to. I’m not one to usually go blowing my own trumpet, but man, I just love this guy. He’s cheeky and funny with a beautiful soul and I think I adore him too much to let him gather dust in my bottom drawer. He needs to be read.
There is one problem, though: he smokes.
Back in those beautiful, carefree days when I thought it unlikely that anyone else would ever read this story – let alone publish it – I created him without really caring about the implications of a teenage character with a penchant for rollies. In fact, you might even be wondering why it matters if he likes a puff. The kicker is, it’s a story aimed (surprise, surprise) at a YA market. And children’s and YA occupies some murky territory when it comes to ethics. It’s not cool anymore to write a storybook about a cheery frog who likes the odd durry. Even if you make it super clear it’s not the cigs that make him happy. Let’s be clear, kiddies: SMOKING WILL KILL YOU. Even if you are a jolly frog.
So why create a character who smokes?
Well, in reality, there are teenagers who smoke. And I believe it is a writer’s job to engage with and reflect reality. In many ways the fact that my beloved character (let’s call him Ole’ Smokey) indulges in the odd cigarette is a neat shorthand for describing an aspect of his character. He’s the kid who wags, the one with the one-liners that crack up a class and leave teachers red-faced, of course he smokes. Oh dear, I came dangerously close there to saying that he’s ‘cool’ therefore he smokes. Again, kids: IT’S HARD TO BE COOL WHEN YOU’RE DEAD.
It’s more subtle than that. Ole Smokey is complex. Despite his hijinks, he’s a people pleaser and the people he wants to please are his peers. The fact that he smokes actually shows a fault line, he wants people to think he’s a particular type of teenager. He doesn’t really even like cigarettes, he has a coughing fit every time, but he wants to be seen as mad, bad and dangerous to know. At it’s core, this story is about the yearning for acceptance, so the fact that Ole’ Smokey smokes because he cares about what others will think of him is crucial.
I read John Green’s brilliant The Fault in Our Stars recently, only to discover that Green has a genius solution to this particular problem. His character, Augustus, likes a cigarette as well. He just never lights them. Which makes it a genius idea that has been done before and which I can absolutely not pilfer.
By writing a character who smokes, am I perhaps perpetuating the ideology that makes kids like Ole’ Smokey light up in the first place? This theory assumes that my readers are passive, monkey-see, monkey-do creatures. It sells them short. It denies them the scope to engage with the context.
Perhaps that’s where the answer to this conundrum lies: in the context. But I’m not convinced that parents, teachers and librarians will see it that way…
A truly surreal thing has happened. My kind publishers have sent me a copy of my book, literally fresh off the press. It was an event which I have imagined many times over, often swiftly followed by a warning to myself not to get too attached to the idea. Getting a book published can be horrifyingly difficult, something I know too well after a brief stint as a publishing assistant. It was my job to sift through the unsolicited manuscripts, read synopses and more often than not, write rejection letters. In some ways it was one of the most valuable experiences of my life thus far. It taught me what not to include in a pitch, if nothing else. Having a novel published has always been my ultimate goal, but I have worked very hard to keep my expectations in check.
So a few days ago two copies of my book arrived and I held it in my hands and saw words on the pages that I had written. Truly surreal. Now that it is in print it will start a new journey all on its own which I will no longer have any control over. People will read it and the characters – which up until this point have only existed in my head – will enter those people’s imaginations. I have a very precise picture in my head of what these characters look and sound like, but my style of writing tends to be a touch sparse and I haven’t included all these details in the book. How weird to think that for others these characters may look and sound completely different.
And what will people think of it? I’ve written about this before, but I tend to imagine my stories being read by fat men smoking cigars. They read my work and laugh before setting it alight and shouting ‘What rot!’. (They are bald, wear grey suits and have panoramic views of New York from their offices – if you’re interested.) I’m not sure if any fat cigar smoking men have read my work and if they have, I’m pretty sure they’re probably a lot gentler than I give them credit for. I’m not sure it’s possible for anyone to be quite as critical of my work as I am.
Still, inevitable rejection by someone, somewhere is the reality of any creative pursuit. As many a NRL player and/or rapper has said ‘There always gonna be haters’ (sic). Some people are going to hate my novel. Maybe even people I know. The flip side of this, of course, is that some people are going to love it. And it’s these people that I’ve written it for, not cigar smoking men in New York. (Pretty sure this mental image of mine was born out of Wayne’s World. Isn’t there a TV executive in a grey suit who nearly destroys Wayne and Garth’s artistic vision? Wayne’s World is an much overlooked meditation on the tension between artistic integrity and comercial success. True fact.)
Cigar smoking men aside* on July 24th The Sky So Heavy will be released. And that, for the moment, is more than enough.
It looks as though The Sky So Heavy will be released at the end of July. I have relinquished it for good and it’s strange to think that I won’t be working on it anymore, it has felt like a member of my family for the past four years. I won’t see it again until it is an actual book in my hands, by which time it will be far too late to make any changes. In the meantime I am in a strange land where I must decide which story to turn to next. I have a half-finished manuscript that I have been tinkering with off and on for the past seven (eek!) years. I feel it has so many faults and weak parts and needs so much work that I don’t know if it’s worth spending my little scraps of writing time on. But I’m not sure I can give up on it.
In the meantime I will try and tap into my main source of inspiration, music. I was listening to Aimee Mann’s Bachelor No.2 this morning and was reminded of how Paul Thomas Anderson used it as his inspiration for his film, Magnolia. It will probably sound terribly naive, but I’m not aware of many other writers who have used singular albums or songs as the reference point for a story. (Do let me know in the comments if you know of any.) For me The Sky So Heavy grew, to a large extent, out of Radiohead’s The Gloaming. The mental image of a gloaming – a sort of murky twilight – combined with the words ‘Your alarm bells, they should be ringing’ was incredibly powerful to me. Now as the prospect of the dreaded ‘second book’ looms, I find myself feeling around for something new with enough potency to get the ball rolling.
A few weeks ago I heard The Smashing Pumpkins’ iconic track 1979 on the radio for the first time in ages. There is something effervescent about that tingling guitar riff (Is that what it’s called? If I’m going to write about this stuff I should find out.) and those opening lines ‘Shakedown, 1979/ Cool kids never have the time’. I am toying with a story set in the mid nineties and have a sketched out a character who listens to Pumpkins obsessively on her Discman. So we will see where that goes. I have found in the past, and I’m sure I’ve blogged about it before, that sometimes the key to understanding a character, for me, is getting a grip on what kind of music they would listen to, and then listen to it over and over again while I write. It’s not neccesarily music that I would chose to listen to, either. If that manuscript that I mentioned earlier on ever sees publication, you will find in it a character called Kate who I didn’t know well enough until I figured out that she would have listened to a lot of Lana Del Ray.
While all of that is going on, I will keep listening to The National’s new album, Trouble Will Find Me. It feels more adult than young adult, though. So you never know, a genre change may eventuate…