Farrago’s Wainscot issue #8, Animalia, is now out, and it contains fiction by Paul Abbamondi, Daniel Braum, Becca De La Rosa, A. Ross Eckler, Rob Hunter, Marc Lowe, Matt Mullins, John Poch, and Cat Rambo. And me. With a . . . longer piece.
(We had been calling it a “novella,” but I guess, technically, it is a “novelette.” Anyway, a “longer piece.” The Old Man has decided that he’s a friend to Length, and is going to give over some space to Things Longer Than A Short Story. You’ll have to ask him about the specifics, but I believe this is the Sign of New Things, and not a one-off experiment.)
We went back and forth over the last few months about the presentation, and somewhere along the way, I wrote up an introduction to the story. As the format at FW didn’t make it easy to present the intro without being horribly intrusive to the actual story, I’m posting it here. Some of you who have been around for a while might find it fun to see that I’m still wrestling with an idea that just won’t let go. Or come out, for that matter.
The Introduction of Faith
There is some history behind this story. On my hard drive, there is a folder titled “EMPIRE CITY,” and for the last few years, I’ve been tossing fragments of stories into it. Scenes that had no connection to other scenes, scraps of overheard conversation, descriptions of architecture and art pieces, character studies: all the grist that would– eventually, I hoped–mix together enough to become a book. Over the years, I’ve dipped into the folder when I needed to write a story. “Chance Island,” “When Maps Get Old, Towns Fade” (both of which were part of the Misfit Library journal, the first one being available online), “The One That Got Away” (in the Paper Cities anthology), and the novella that has been haunting me.
Not this one. This one, you see, was an accident.
The other novella, “Instrument,” was 17,000 words that was, due to its brevity, a lesson in brutality. It got even meaner as I tried to cut it down to fit the maximum word count for a workshop; and when I tried it again a few years later as the beginning of a novel, it refused to play well. It started to sprawl.
Which is how the city got its name.
“Empire City,” as a fellow writer and heavy metal fan caught me, was a Seattle/Queensrÿche reference. Not quite the “Emerald City” nor quite “Jet City,” but somewhere in between. As the world-building continued, I realized the “empire” lay overseas, to the east, but I kept the name anyway–too fond to let go of it.
“Instrument” refused to behave, refused to hold still long enough for me to map its labyrinthine course. I came to realize the antagonist was more entertaining than the protagonist, and that wasn’t a good position to be in at the start of a novel. (Case in point: “The Nihil Nation Manifesto,” available at Mungbeing, is the rhetoric of the antagonist. As you can see, he needs a suitable opposite, or the book becomes a case study in insanity. I already have that project, thank you very much.) Obviously what I needed was more background on the protagonist, on Mistral.
So I went back to the folder and pulled out a one-liner, the barest hint of an idea. The two-second hook that caught your attention and, properly teased and tugged, could unravel into a book. I took that hint and wrote it down on the top of a blank page of my notebook and thought, Okay, here’s your backstory. This is what happened prior to “Instrument.”
Initially, I wasn’t going to actually write it. It was just going to be the Book That Never Was, that would provide Mistral some depth. Make him a little more than an empty windbag. But, after tugging at the idea for awhile, it really unraveled all over the page, and I had the bare-bones outline for RABBIT FOOT.
Excellent. I was now procrastinating on writing the novel version of “Instrument” by writing another book entirely.
There is a facet of the Organic Method (which I have come to realize is how I draft a book): you work on the project that is ready to grow. We are lazy cultivators, we organic writers, and we don’t have the calluses on our hands or the musculature in our arms necessary to make a book grow in hard scrabble. We like the rich and loamy soil, the gentle tilling, and the natural cycle of precipitation and maturation to grow our books. We go where the growing is easiest. And so I didn’t fret much that “Instrument” was going to stay in the ground longer while I cultivated RABBIT FOOT.
For the opening of RABBIT FOOT, I started to gut a short story called “Dead Man’s Hand” that had been scheduled for the third issue of the Misfit Library journal (which, alas, never came to be), and as I was pulling pieces out of the story, a friend asked why. Why was I carving a perfectly good story for the tasty bits, when the story deserved its own chance at life? I was, essentially, digging up a healthy tree in order to make seedlings for next year’s growth. So I stopped. Took a step back, and re-evaluated. “Dead Man’s Hand” became “Faith, Hidden in the Hands of the Blind.”
However, by this time, Empire City had to go.
“When his lady abandoned him, Deke left the shining lights of the Strip and wandered north and west until he reached the sea.”
Initially, referencing Las Vegas as “the Strip” was just texture, a way of establishing that we were in noir territory and that places had other names, verbal shorthand for the gutter-tongued ones. But, somewhere between the opening and the first time I mention the city by the sea, “Strip” stuck. As did “Sprawl.” As did “Sodom,” “Circle,” “Central,” and a few others. The map was starting to come into focus, each of the major cities slowly identifying themselves to me.
This world had diverged from the one you and I know, you see. On April 29th, 1945, Adolph Hitler ordered the Spear of Longinus retrieved from its special vault. The next day, instead of shooting himself, he invoked its power, and consumed by the faith that it would indeed protect him and his army from the approaching Allies, he repelled the Red Army at the edge of Berlin. The German war effort held. And, on July 16th, instead of detonating the Trinity weapon over Alamogodo, President Truman had it dropped on Berlin.
Science–our faith in the atom–testing faith of a different sort.
And in the fifty years since, Science, which managed to win the battle that summer day in Germany, has been losing the greater war. For better or ill–it is hard to say yet–the zeal for other ways to explain the universe has led to the emergence of other methodologies, other cosmologies, other manifestations of faith.
We are, after all, easily frightened and highly adaptive animals.
The folder on my hard drive, now renamed, began to collect other material: apocalyptic literature, notes about Marconi and Telsa and alternative energy sources, the Haussmann Renovations of Paris, building plans by Frank Llyod Wright and Christopher Wren, Nietzsche’s commentary on Wagner, the work of the Futurists and the Surrealists, commentary on the psychology and sociology of Mao’s rise to power (and how opportunistic it was), pages of links to steampunk-esque art as well as images of urban blight and decay, the history of Chinese imperial culture, information on World War II era military planning for the West Coast, the history of auto making in Detroit (as well as the current state of its decay throughout Michigan), the geography and dissolution of New Orleans.
There are also notes about other fictional cities: New Crobuzon, Ambergris, Viriconium, Quinsigamond. The folder sits there, waiting for me, because–to return to the metaphor of the Organic Writer–all of these elements are soil additives and fertilizer.
You have to have good seeds and clippings first. You have to know the people who will live in this world. Which brings us, in a sprawling way, back to the story of Deke and Mistral and Clio and the rest. “Faith, Hidden in the Hands of the Blind” may just be a poker story, but to really understand someone you have to play a few hands with them. You have to see how they bluff, how they react to the movement of the cards, how they deal with pressure. You have to see what happens when a bit of magic introduces itself to a game ruled by statistics and probability.
Go read the story: “Faith, Hidden In The Hands of The Blind”