Another of my literary heroes was Kurt Vonnegut. His Slaughterhouse Five is another of those books I go back to again and again. Don and I read and talked a lot about Vonnegut, because he was so damn funny, one – and Lord, Don loved to laugh: didn’t matter if it was induced by something printed on the page or chemically, he loved to laugh – and Kurt was smart, and he got away with things no one else would even try. I mean, those drawings? And that narrative voice, which is always and immediately recognizable? You know you’re reading Vonnegut. It’s like watching Tom Cruise act: You always know who the player is, never get lost in the character, the story. Except Vonnegut got away with it. And he regularly broke the one inviolate rule of science fiction writing: you only get one deus ex machina per story, or book, only one miraculous intervention to save the day, or your authorial ass. That’s why Don’s, and mine, and later Tom Franklin’s – someone who would have really liked Don Eric Davis – science fiction was so bad. We couldn’t do Vonnegut. It was bad because we couldn’t get away with more than one deus ex machina and pretty much always needed more than one. Worked out fine for Tommy, as you know, certainly should know.
Worked out in a different, but very important way for me, too. See, a deus ex machina is only really necessary when a writer has written themself into a corner, and has no other way out, plot wise, but for some otherwise inexplicable appearance, occurrence, or Murder She Wrote detail that no one saw coming, or even entirely believes afterwards. You shouldn’t need that, of course, shouldn’t run the risk of your reader asking, “Is that really possible?” (Another of the ways to commit that sin of inviting the reader to stop reading: it’s a paradoxical example of art’s inability to imitate life. We’ve all had instances where we were certain there had to be a “god in the machine” to account for some fantastic occurrence, haven’t we? We might call it dumb luck, divine providence, or fate, but they’re all the same. And they’re all pretty much, “You had to be there, see it, to believe it,” too.) You’re allowed one, in science fiction, they say, but you shouldn’t need one, unless you’re Vonnegut. And there’s a way to avoid that dependency, I think.
Trust. If you can reach a level of trust in your story or your characters, they won’t lead you into those corners. Sounds vague, I know, but stick with me. Trust, versus faith, is most easily achieved through familiarity. In the task of writing that means knowing what your story is about – whether through cue cards or story-boards (I use what I call a map) – and/or knowing your characters well enough that they’ll actually take on a life and start acting on their own. I swear it really happens. It’s one of the most delightful moments in writing, when that happens. (Cartoonist J.D. Crowe in his new book, Half-Thunk Thoughts, calls it being in the zone.)
I can illustrate what I mean by that, I think. When I was first working on Jackie Robinson, first interviewing those old ballplayers, many of them were more than a little reticent in the face of a tape recorder or a steno pad. They had absolutely no experience with that formal a process. (You should have seen them when the book came out and people asked for their autographs!) But they had great stories. I just had to figure out a way to get them. Then I read the old sports writer Red Barber’s autobiography. In it he talked about encountering the same sort of difficulty early in his career, until he learned an interviewing technique from an even older sports writer, Red Granger. He said you don’t have to record what’s being said, don’t have to put any kind of artificial obstacle between you and your subject. You don’t want to, in fact. You’ll get a better, more genuine interview if you don’t. Instead, he said, pay attention to your subject, their mannerisms, idiosyncrasies, phrasing, rhythm, tone, emphasis, ticks, pauses, gestures, everything, and then after the interview is over, you recreate the character of the subject and the words will just fall out onto the page. Yeah, I didn’t believe it at first either, but it really and truly worked. Took some sweat to let go of that doubt, but it worked. That’s what happened, I think, when Twilight turned into a novel versus the nonfiction book it started out as. The story wanted to go in a different direction and little Willie Dixon showed up on the porch roof of his Michigan Avenue home. And it served me ever so well when Suzanne Hudson and I were working on Murder Creek a decade later. And I think it has served me well with other fictional characters since.
And then Suzanne led me to an understanding of why it worked, even if she had no idea that’s what she was doing. (Like most everything about her, “understanding”, with Suzanne, has to be processed through a different prism, though it’s so worth the effort.) Out of the blue (which might be as good description for that prism as there is) one day she said, “There’s an article in the latest New Yorker you must read.” So I did. It was called “The Possibilian” (I think you can still find it on-line, April, 2011, as I recall), about this crazy genius neuroscientist David Eagleman. I went from the article to his books, and one of them, Incognito, talks about how we only realize and use less than ten percent of what our brains are capable of, on a conscious level, at least. Below that level, though, there are reams and reams of programming operating in the background, taking care of functionality we are mostly oblivious to. In the book he gives example after example. It’s a really fun read. The point is, if you think of your brain as a muscle, with almost limitless functionality, you can exercise some of that potential. To me, that’s the same thing Red Granger was illustrating for Red Barber a century ago. And what I vaguely called “trusting” your characters and story has a scientific explanation.
And that, Hudson, the article, the book, Vonnegut (he was a final judge for an international short story contest Suzanne won forty years ago) is maybe the only deus ex machina I’ll ever need. She calls it “flocking”. I’ll explain, soon as I find the necessary prism.