The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it. -- The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
I may have said this before but it's always worth repeating: here's a hearty thank you to Lisabet for the opportunity to write a little piece for her excellent blog.
This time, Lisabet has asked me to write a bit about the how my newest novel, Finger's Breadth, came to be.
In a nutshell, Finger's Breadth is ... well, maybe too weird for a nutshell (perhaps even too much for a coconut shell) but I'll give it a shot. Basically, it's a near-future gay erotic horror/thriller with a hefty dose of social commentary. Less-than-basically, it's a series of characters dealing with "the cutter:" the nickname given to a mysterious figure drugging random men and amputating the first digit of their little finger.
I told you it was weird.
In many ways I see Finger's Breadth as a thematic sequel to my previous novel, Me2. In that book I had a lot of fun playing with the idea of identity. Less-than-basically that because of peer pressure, mass-produced lifestyles and fantasies, we are all becoming more or less interchangeable.
I say "thematic sequel" because after writing Me2 I was itching to challenge myself with a new project – one that allowed me to explore human nature again. With Finger's Breadth, I tried to reach down even deeper and get even dirtier with how we relate to one another: socially, sexually, you name it.
The seeds that would eventually sprout become Finger's Breadth came from a wide variety of sources – or threads that would become the quilt if you don't like plant metaphors – but, botany or fabric, they have more in common than you might think. One of them came from my fascination good versus evil. Yeah, yeah, I know: lots of people have done – and will do – the exact same thing. But I've always been frustrated at how cowardly a lot of authors have been on the subject -- cowardly, because very few people seem to be willing to honestly look at the question.
I did a bit of that in an old story of mine, called "Counting," where a man has the shocking revelation that his lover, who he'd always thought of as a revolutionary hero, was simply someone who enjoyed killing – and, though intelligence or circumstance, was simply killing for the 'right' side.
The world is simply not full of people who wring their hands together and cackle manically. Most of the time the either don't think about their actions, justify them in some way, or take a twisted form of pride in being that kind of person. What complicates the situation even more is how each of these states can slip and slide – often in the space of a few minutes.
For example, I've always wanted to do a book – maybe my next one – about a man who accidentally hurts another person. But instead of living with the guilt he goes out of his way to prove to himself, and the rest of the world, that the person harmed deserved it in some way. What would make the book fun to write would be putting the poor fellow, and the reader, through an emotional and spiritual roller coaster: with each revelation the unfortunate victim going from lily-white innocent to dark-hearted monster to troubled-soul to disturbed-psycho.
With Finger's Breadth I played a lot with that: where no one is really good or evil, black or white, victim or victimizer. People have their own reasons for what they do, and often the "purity" of their thinking does that very same slip and slide across their emotional landscape.
Another thread -- or kernel -- came from peer pressure. Alas, that term has been thrown around far too much ... so much that it's lost a lot of its power. Overused or not, though, we all are governed by the need to conform. Sometimes that conformity is obvious, but other times its so subtle we may not even be aware of it. In its darkest manifestation the end result is "just following orders" but there are many other disturbing shades of it. With Finger's Breadth I wanted to really explore the power of conformity – even pushing it to the point where, as the number of amputations rises, men would begin to self-amputate to fit in. Like I said, I told you it was weird.
But there are other manifestations of peer pressure – and as I wrote the book I discovered more and more places in the characters' lives (as well as our own) where it tugs and pushes and pulls us around. I'm not going to chat about those – read the book, damnit – but let me just say that, as with Me2, it took me a few months to get over writing Finger's Breadth ... and it has altered how I look at the world, and more importantly the people, around me.
The final thread (or kernel) -- or at least the final one I want to chat with you about today -- that came into writing the novel is that sexuality, gay or straight or bi, is not always a bright world with an orgasmically shiny sun high in the sky – but rather there's a very strange dimension to the human sex drive. Barebacking, in particular, was a jumping off point for Finger's Breadth but it wasn't the only sexual behavior that inspired me. For those who don't know, "barebacking" – or at least one form of it – is for people, particularly gay men, to participate in unprotected sex. The reasons for it are extremely varied but two types kept nagging at me: when it was done as a thrill-seeking behavior – Russian Roulette with HIV – and when it was done as a sexual rite-of-passage. The last one nicely dovetails with the whole peer pressure thing again: that people would willingly infect themselves to fit in.
Even though these jumping-off points for the book seem a bit dark – and I'm the first to admit I didn't write Finger's Breadth to be a shiny, happy novel – I also want to say that many of the characters in the book found at the end of it that they'd had their eyes opened. Yes, often that awakening is a harsh one – like having a painful peak behind the curtain of how we all act and react together as social animals – but in most cases they leave the book seeing everything a bit clearer.
A part of writing this book is that I also wanted to leave the reader with a moment of clarity. Maybe I'm being pretentious in that I want to change how people look at the world, but I tell myself that – success or failure – it's still worthwhile to try.
But a larger part of Finger's Breadth came not because of any mission but because – like with everything I write – I though the idea would be lots of fun to explore, the novel loads of fun to write. And, guess what, I did have a fantastic time writing the book – and I can only hope that anyone else, moment of clarity or not, will enjoy it as well.