Creative work is its own reward. One of the major differences between creative work and ‘work’ is that, over time, you come to expect a satisfaction not just from the finished product, but from the process of creation itself.
My fix—the reward I crave on a daily basis, staring at the blank screen for two years to write a book—is laughter. I have to find the humor in a situation or character or I’ll never finish the book, no matter how good or important I otherwise think it is. I just won’t be able to drag myself to the desk day after day if I can’t locate that absurd, satirical core somewhere inside. I grew up with Hitchcock. I think the first thriller I ever saw was Charade, which was really a comedy masquerading as a thriller and I still love the mixing of humor and adventure.
The thing that makes fiction particularly tough these days is that our real-life world is already so absurd that it’s hard to exaggerate—and exaggeration is the heart of storytelling.
But, there’s always a way…
In my thriller, Mindbenders, which will be out soon, my main character is a refugee of the Cold War—literally. Max Renn is a Soviet genetic experiment, the product of three generations of psychics bred by the Soviet state to produce a mindreader superspy. He hears every thought of every person for three blocks around, whether he wants to or not (mostly, he doesn’t). He can stop your heart, give you cancer, make public your deepest secrets or make you forget who you are with a nod of his head. We meet him twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, living in the Everglades and trying to stay the hell away from people—but of course (since it’s a thriller), his best friend is shot dead on page one, paragraph one and he’s forced to seek out the rotten conspiracy behind it all.
Not exactly laugh-a-minute stuff. So where’s the humor? All over the place, actually. The story is told by Greg Hirsh, a PTSD Iraq vet who’s forced to travel with Renn—and Greg is a source of all sorts of real humor. Real humor, which is to say, not forced lame jokes but the kind of incongruous reactions you’d have if someone was really reading your mind and sharing other people’s thoughts with you. Of course, to Greg, none of this is the least bit funny but that’s the ‘There-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I’ aspect of storytelling, catharsis and humor being just two sides of the same coin.
And then there are my villains. At first, I was assuming I’d find some enemy nation’s mindreader to oppose Renn, but, from the first, that just seemed contrived and old-fashioned. I found a better alternative by wondering: If I was unscrupulous and discovered the world had a pool of mindreaders out of work after the end of the Cold War, how could I make the most mischief out of it?
As soon as I did that, the door opened. I found not only my villains, but an etched-glass refracted window on some of the most ridiculous aspects of our daily life. For instance:
You bought an SUV for $60,000. It drives like a truck and gets half the gas mileage of a car and gas is past $3.50 a gallon. The only advantage the thing offers is going off-road and you never go off-road. So why buy it, at twice the profit margin of a car? Well, did it ever occur to you that maybe you were influenced? Maybe it wasn’t just marketing or a slick salesperson. Maybe there were other voices inside your head, compelling you to make a purchase that gave you a headache a week later.
Or let’s go a step darker: Politicians get elected, which means they are at the mercy of voters, right? Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? Meanwhile, if you’ve read the headlines lately, you know that large numbers of politicians have been voting all kinds of laws and tax breaks that hugely benefit a very few people at the very painful expense of the rest of us. Laws and tax breaks that are widely opposed in opinion polls by a sizeable majority of those voters. Sure, maybe the politicians are getting paid off for those votes, but what good will that do them if they’re booted out next November? If democracy is the rule of the majority, how can you have a democracy where the majority is routinely getting screwed?
Well, what if someone was out there influencing the voters? What if you as a politican knew that the voters would be influenced on Election Day to vote against their own best interests over and over again—you could get away with murder, couldn’t you? Literally and figuratively.
This all starts out with me just having fun, riffing away with ‘What if’s’—the problem is, it sure does fit what’s going on, doesn’t it? It sure starts to sound just like real life. The etched glass becomes a mirror…a funhouse mirror, with a reflection that makes you want to laugh and cry all at once.