Ecclesiastes 9:11-12: I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.
My new book Banner Over Me opens with this verse from Ecclesiastes, and I don’t think there’s a more fitting phrase to summarize the tone of the story. You don’t have to be religious to understand its meaning: bad things unexpectedly happen to innocent people. I italicize the word ‘innocent’ because that term is overabundantly used, but here innocent refers to the MC (main character) and our relationship with them in the stories we read and watch. We usually root for our MC, and if something bad happens to them, we get angry, especially if they didn’t deserve it.
I probably have 10-15 stories outlined and in the early brainstorming phases. Each of them has their own diverse cast and voice, but almost all follow the basic message that Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 says: some uncontrollable thing changes MC’s life and then they react to it. Sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s bad. Like, really bad. Ok, for the first three books I’m writing it’s all bad, but out of that bad comes a plethora of good. You just have to trek through the muck and the mire to get there.
The stories we love and talk about certainly have changed over the years. We used to obsess over Happy Days and fret about the family dynamics in The Brady Bunch. Today, we can’t wait to see who dies next in Game of Thrones and we fantasize about lawless worlds overrun by zombies or apocalyptic nations where we can shoot and destroy anything we like. People used to freak out if someone died on their favorite show. Now, they freak out when no one does and declare that one of the ‘slow & boring’ episodes. We watch a lot of gritty and brutal stuff. Have our tastes changed that much over the years? Short answer: Not really. TV and movies are finally catching up to what books have been doing for centuries.
I could get into a long argument about censorship and language, but that’s not really what I’m getting at here. Sure, we’ve come a long way since “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” but what is it about these brutal, in your face stories that have us so interested lately, and has me so fascinated? What it boils down to is two things: our consumption of media and technology, and our changed view of The American Dream.
WWII is considered America’s great war. It was a time where men were hanging themselves if they were declared unfit for battle and unable to fight. Men and women who stayed home worked in factories to fund the war effort, or worked in hospitals to treat the wounded. Everyone was doing their part for the greater good, and out of that era spawned the largest generation in American History – Baby Boomers. It was also a time where the church heavily controlled the atmosphere in Hollywood, and what could or couldn’t be made.
But then the 60s and Vietnam happened. Censorship in movies and TV began to waver, and our ability to see a brutal war at home on the news became easier. There is plenty of gruesome footage from WWII, but what the Vietnam War did was show us what we didn’t want to see. News media also allowed us to follow politicians’ every move. Back in the day, people used to not care about Presidents as much as we do now. Really the only time they did was around election time, and the majority of America would vote for the same candidate. If you look at electoral maps from past elections, you’ll see how unified America was in voting. Some Presidents only lost one or two states! Now, because we consume so much news and media and gossip, we are able to accurately (and unfortunately, inaccurately) see what the world is up to. 9/11 also played a major role in storytelling. Compare pre-9/11 blockbusters to post. A lot has certainly changed.
Technology helps us uncover the truth or blankets it with lies.
But there’s only so much you can lie about. If I took a video camera right now and started filming the intersection near my house, and then let’s say there’s a car accident that happens in the next half hour, I can upload that footage, put it on the web, and show the entire world what happened. There may be a few skeptics, but the footage is undeniably, 100% authentic – Real Life. Now let’s say it’s the same situation, but this time I simply see the accident take place. I certainly could tell people what happened afterward, but I may not have had the best angle when it happened. I might have forgotten that the blue truck was actually red. I might have forgotten that it was red truck’s fault and not green car. I was actually texting during the whole thing, but I was there, man, so I know what happened. You just have to trust me.
Trust. Have fun with that in 2017.
Our incredible access to technology has allowed us to experience life in incredible new ways. We can see what other people have experienced. Where this obviously gets diluted is when we’re unable to see certain things, and the media twists them to their benefit and liking. Without getting too much into that, it boils down to the fact that our eyes can lie, but a camera cannot. A camera shows us an event. Our eyes show us an event, then our brain interprets its meaning. See how the lines can get blurred?
So what does this have to do with gritty, realistic stories? I think it’s the fact that we aren’t fooled anymore. We’re clamoring for reality. The laugh track sitcom was nice back in the day (God help those of you that still watch that nonsense) but we can tell it’s fake. We’d rather see the insane things that happen on Shameless or the off the wall shenanigans our favorite girls on Orange is the New Black are up to. MASH was nice, but I’ll take Narcos any day. FOlks, HBO and Netflix have ruined TV for me. I simply cannot watch that terribly shot, fake basic cable crap anymore (except for maybe Criminal Minds, but even that is a pretty edgy and brutal show). We don’t want episodes, we want stories! There’s always going to be a time and place for unrealistic fiction, I don’t want you to think that I’m lamenting those of us that indulge in the fantastical, Lord knows I own a ton of those movies on blu-ray. But there has definitely been a culture shift when it comes to content in movies and TV. Look at the success of the recent movie Logan. 20th Century Fox was terrified of making that movie for years, because they thought it would scare people away from being too dark and realistic. But that’s what people want! Same goes for the popularity of the Dark Knight trilogy. Things get bleak and dark but they feel real, even though everything takes place in comic book world, it feels like a world that we know and live in.
Step aside TV and movies because books have been doing this SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME! Literally, the beginning. Have you ever read the Bible, undoubtedly the most brutal book ever written? Have you ever actually read Grimm’s fairy tales? Literature has never been afraid of confronting reality’s harsh truths.
I recently wrote an argument between a young newlywed couple in my book Banner Over Me. Yes, it’s a book that has zombies in it, but it’s really a story about the love between two people and how that gets tested. Jacob is frustrated with how Aurora’s portraying her emotions lately. She seems to be shielding her true feelings and afraid of feeling grief and anger.
“What’s so appealing to you about a ticked off girl?” Aurora asks Jacob.
Jacob replies: “Because it’s real! The world is dying, Aurora. Everything sucks, and it should piss you off—pisses me off like you wouldn’t believe. If you aren’t getting angry then you’re just lying to yourself.”
When I sit down and brainstorm a new idea, and eventually come up with this dark, brutal story about the miracle of the human spirit, I sometimes wonder what in the heck I’m doing. It seems too messed up. What will people say? But then I run these three words through my mind. Because it’s real. Because sometimes people want to know it all—the good, the bad, and the terrible. They don’t care if it’s offensive, they don’t care if it’s wrong or misguided or gruesome, they just don’t want to be lied to. We see the news, we know what’s happening, so show us a story about someone getting out of that, out of all that death and destruction. Show us the survivors.
Here’s another excerpt from Banner Over Me to give you an idea:
My bat is soaking in soapy water in the utility sink. Socks, underwear, and shirts are in the sink upstairs. Once the bat is done our jeans will go in next. They’re the only pants Jacob and I have so getting them cleaned is essential. Jared S left behind a nice collection of soaps and detergent. The one thing he didn’t leave behind was clothes our size. Jared S was a big fellow.
The bloodstained bat reminds me how far I’ve come since the early days of the plague. The first time I killed a remnant was one of the worst days of my life.
Jacob and I were sleeping in a large barn on the outskirts of my old subdivision. Most of the houses had been burned down by people trying to push away the remnants. A thick haze had settled above the town, covering the sky. Sometime in the night, I heard a crash. I grabbed my flashlight, hands shaking and struggling to turn it on, and stood up to check it out. The flashlight beam darted around the room, searching every nook and corner. And that’s when I saw him.
Jacob and I had done our due diligence before dark, locking every door in the barn with heavy metal chains. What we forgot to do was check the integrity of the walls. One of the side panels was broken, allowing a remnant farmer to sneak in.
The farmer growled at me, showcasing his yellow and red teeth. I screamed and dropped the flashlight. Jacob woke up.
“Hit him in the head, Rory!” he yelled at me.
I looked down and noticed my bat was close to my feet. I picked it up and swung at the farmer, striking his temple. He fell down and I hit him again in the stomach. The blow made him bite into his gums, ripping through his lower lip.
“He’s down,” I said and turned back to Jacob.
“No, he’s not he’s still moving,” he said.
“Jacob, let’s go. While he’s down, let’s go.”
“And leave him for someone else?”
I knew the farmer wasn’t finished, but I didn’t want to hit him anymore. I hated the way it felt, physically and emotionally.
I tried to hand the bat to Jacob. “Here, you do it,” I said. “You take him out.”
“No, it has to be—”
“I know you’re strong, but there may come a time when you have to do this again. You have to be ready!”
The farmer licked the blood around his lips with a tongue as black as coal. He swallowed and his eyes lit up with satisfaction.
“I don’t want to,” I pleaded with him.
“I don’t want you to either.”
“You need you to, ok. You need to know that you can if I’m not around anymore.”
Thinking of losing Jacob made my heart ache. After everything that had happened to us, I never imagined the possibility that he could die. It was unthinkable to me, but he was right. What if he was no longer around to do the killing? What if I was on my own?
I looked over at the farmer. Even if I severed his arms and legs he’d still find a way to survive. It had to be done. I needed to kill him.
My next swing struck the farmer in the nose, breaking it to the side. I started to cry when I swung again and hit him in the eye. A cracking sound rang out and his eye socket became a blackened pit. For some reason, I thought of Thanksgiving dinner when Dad let me pull apart the wishbone. A little snap! and I’d wish for new shoes or toys or happily ever after, the end, roll credits.
The farmer was silent. He was gone.
I collapsed onto the hay covered floor. Salty tears trickled past my mouth. Jacob held me and told me he was proud of me. Proud; like something a parent says to their child after they’ve been accepted into college. I had just killed someone. Yes, they had been turned into a monster, but it felt wrong.
The next day, Jacob found an ax and attached it to my bat. One good swing was all I needed to kill them now. It may have made it easier, but I felt remorse after every death.
Except for yesterday.
Yesterday I had fun when I did it. And I was smiling too, wasn’t I? What’s happening to me? What happened to the girl in the barn who couldn’t hurt a fly?
Kinda brutal eh? But that’s the world Aurora and Jacob live in. As I begin to finish up my second novel and move on to the third, I easily get caught up in doubting my work. Not the quality of it, but the content. Will I offend people? Will people typecast me as a dark writer? Will people close the book halfway through because it’s too much? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care, because when it comes to writing or art or life, you can’t cater to some people. You can’t let some people have their say.
Our culture is constantly changing, and I hope I can keep up with the curve. I’m terrified for America’s youth. Our overprotective world isn’t allowing them to grow like children used to be able to. All of this worries me, so I write harsh stories to show them that even when the worst happens it’s possible to come out ahead. If there’s one word I would use to describe my writing, it wouldn’t be dark or gritty or brutal or real. It would be perseverance, because no matter what, you can make it through.
Blake looked over and noticed that her stylish LA Gear shoes were a lot muddier than they used to be. Maybe, that’s how all the kids in Middle looked now. A lot muddier. But underneath all that mud were the same shoes, the same kids, just with a few more scuffs than before.