Why has my writing changed from my first book to the present? I must say, I was daunted for a moment, as my brain has recently been spinning because of all the political hoopla being made about the word “change.” As a writer, I am quite aware of the power words have to influence change in human beings. Such documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Communist Manifesto, the Civil Rights Act, and others demonstrate how words can cause change that is very observable in our daily lives. Hell, the saying on my family crest in jolly old England reads, “Sans Changer,” or, “Without Change.” Change? Who needs it? The only Truths are these realities: birth, death, and change. (Notice I left out taxes).
However, fiction writers must exist in a kind of netherworld of hope when it comes to their words. As a writer who considers himself a “politically active” fiction creator, I believe it the duty of the artist to at least make an attempt to get the reader to think about problems that human beings face on a daily basis, although the drama element in his or her writing must be present to add the “fictional” feel to it, whether that be mystery, suspense, horror, comedy, or any other entertaining genre that’s out there for the active imagination. As a writer, I believe I have changed most as one who has gone from the “Gee, I just love how I said that” stage of writing, to the “I wonder what’s going to happen next?” stage of writing.
When I wrote my first professional piece, it was non-fiction, and it was elaborately planned, and it was internationally published by a big publisher, AP Professional Press, a subsidiary of Harcourt-Brace. The title was The Digital Scribe: A Writer’s Guide to Electronic Media, and it was a moderate success, as these books go. In fact, I received my first “fan letter” after writing that book, from a graduate student who was “writing to you from the library in my college.” She wanted me to know that my creative writing exercises were quite stimulating to her, and that she enjoys writing for the Internet that much more because of them. That’s when I knew I must return to my first love, fiction writing. I wanted people writing to me from their personal space and not from the college library or the business where they worked.
Love, however, is often fickle. In my first fiction attempt, a horror novel set in San Diego called Lucifer’s Wedding, I was in love with my style, and I was not focusing in on character enough to create a worthy piece of fiction. Therefore, although the novel has its moments, the overall impression one gets is a writer who wants to dazzle with his plot’s twists and turns but doesn’t really want to explore the socio-political importance of character.
My next work, based on Andrei Romanovich Chikatilo, an actual serial killer who stared at me from the pages of the New York Times one morning in the 1990s, became a much more interesting piece. I did research of his crimes and behaviors, using an excellent non-fiction book called Hunting the Devil, had personal interviews with friends and immigrants from Russia, and then created my first political thriller, Russian Wolves, which won the eBook of the Year Award, 2001-2002, at the now-defunct Bookbooters.com website. I still think this is one of my best books because of its socio-political metaphor for everything that seems to have transpired during the Bush Years.
To me, this is when fiction really takes off into literary zones. The author is able to see the facts, research them, and then transform the details into a totally artistic expression of something new and exciting. I still believe that fiction authors should always do their “homework” as far as researching details goes. It doesn’t have to be as exacting and calculatingly omnipresent as a Tom Clancy or a Michael Crichton work, but the research should show that the author is well aware of the facts. In truth, with the miraculous availability of the Internet, there simply is no excuse for factual errors in fiction.
I have progressed so far in my own work ethic, as a matter of fact, that I look up seemingly minor information, even for a short story I might be working on. Therefore, books like Russian Wolves become not just fictional escapism, but they also leave the reader wanting to read more about Russia, or about the socio-political reality of the Soviet Era, or even about the police science of the Russian political system.
My third book really changed me and my outlook concerning things that are “mysterious and supernatural.” I met and talked, at length, with Dr. Martin Schorr, an abnormal psychologist who taught the subject for several years at San Diego State, about the possibility of “programmed assassination” because I had read a piece that stated Dr. Schorr believed Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, the Palestinian refugee who killed Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968, was one such Manchurian Candidate. So, I did the research, which took over three years, and the resulting book, Sins of Darkness, although totally fictional and relatively brief at a little over 200 pages, is jam-packed with all that I had learned about the underworld of terrorist programming and mind control. As a result of this research, I am convinced that we are being manipulated by private groups that are working for their own special interests and that the idea of “nation” or “country” simply no longer exists the way it did in our grandparents’ day. Some might call it “deconstructionist” or “post-modern,” but I call it “looking beneath the surface of so-called political reality.” We are not being told the truth, and we must discover it!
My most recent novel, and a book I also did a lot of research for, Iron Maiden, is an alternate history novel set during the American Civil War. Again, this book explores the destruction of our planet’s environment as foreseen in books such as Collapse by UCLA Professor Jared Diamond and in the socio-political realities of war. However, unlike my earliest work, this book shows characters who are the vehicle of my “message,” and not the other way around. Thus, the reader can realize my research through the characters’ experiences rather than from the prefabricated plot.
So many “commercial novels” these days have a “winning formula” that is superimposed on the author, and I believe this restricts the author’s ability to go deeper and wider with the work. I am not talking about literary versus commercial fiction here; I am simply talking about the necessary freedom a writer must have to create his own work. Many of my writer friends say they won’t even approach a major publisher to become the next “Stephen King” or “Dean Koontz” because they know they will be restricted to what the marketing folks “know” is the winning formula for that particular genre. In fact, in my opinion, some of the best writing of all is now coming out of the independent presses and independent movie-makers.
This change brings me to my collection of short fiction, The President’s Parasite and Other Stories. This work, an independently published and written work, contains all the stories that would not even be considered by many so-called “mainstream” publishing giants these days. Actually, I retract that statement. They will consider anything if somebody “big” in Marketing is convinced it will make some money! The big disconnect is the fact that most artists are not interested in the next “big seller.” They are most interested, however, in creating a work that will stand the test of time. What writer wants to be pressured by a publisher to churn out the tenth novel of the year because the “public demands it”? How many dead authors’ bodies are strewn about the Vast Wasteland of Profit Publishing because they couldn’t measure up to the formula success of the “big writers”?
Oh well, where was I? As my wife says, “Don’t get me started.” My collection of short fiction has been received well by readers because of its “originality.” Note that this term is not the one plastered on all those commercial collections of short fiction, where adjectives become hype, and when one reads some of the stories, one immediately gets the impression that the marketing team must have been reading a different short story collection! I had the complete freedom to create stories that fit my imagination and my creative impulse. Thus, even though my collection is difficult to put into a marketing formula, each story, I believe, shows my best effort at showing the reader the power of my imagination and the power of the written word to influence the mind of the reader. I think that’s what’s missing today. Writers like Melville, Poe, Hawthorne, Plath, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, the list goes on, never compromised their literary imaginations for a mere “buck.” Today, it seems, the business cart is running the artistic horse ragged. If I have changed, therefore, it is because I have left the mainstream and traveled to the deep whirlpools of my imagination, my free imagination, and left the polluted, commercially formulaic people to their own devices.
Thanks for letting me share! I think I won’t have a drink to celebrate. I’ll just go on to the next work of free imagination. Readers who want to obtain a free copy of my popular eBook, Online Research Made Easy, can go to our website: http://www.contempinstruct.com/English.
(photo courtesy of Jim Musgrave)
Jim Musgrave is the owner of English Majors Reviewers and Editors, LLC, in San Diego.