My short story “Red Road” will be appearing in the next issue of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, which should be out around the end of the month. I’ve been asked to put together a little “behind the scenes” essay about how I wrote the story. Here’s the illustration for the story followed by my essay:
As we were departing Lunacon, my friend John Joseph Adams recommended a book to me, but cautioned me that the book contained talking animals, as if that might put me off. I replied automatically, “No, that’s cool. I like talking animals.” Later I thought back on that and realized that, hey, yeah, I do like talking animals, and yet I’d never published a story that contained any talking animals. I started thinking it might be fun to write a story about some talking animals, but only if I could come up with some new angle — something sufficiently skewed and offbeat.
A few days later I remembered a conversation I’d had years ago with some of the other students at James Gunn’s writing workshop at the University of Kansas. In that conversation I’d made a joke along the lines of, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if someone wrote an animal quest fantasy in which … ?” Remembering that, I suddenly thought, “Hey, that’s not bad.” I had just come off a white-hot streak of writing successes, and I was in the mood for a challenge, such as taking a joke situation and trying to develop it into a narrative that contained as much emotional depth and thematic significance as I could manage.
One other inspirational moment I remember: I had read a news article about a left-wing intellectual type who had recently been knighted in the UK. All this guy’s left-wing intellectual friends had chided him for accepting the honor and had pointed out that monarchy and titles and all that were basically against everything that this guy stood for, and the guy was kind of like, “Yeah, I know, I know. But come on, I’m a knight now. How cool is that? How could I say no?” I kept thinking about that, and kept wondering what I might do in that situation, since I could easily sympathize with both sides.
I had a blast writing this story. It was enormous fun to be able to go back and write my own old-school fantasy complete with heroes and monsters and talking animals and a quest, just like the kind I read so many of when I was a kid, and I felt inspired to sneak in an unusually high number of sly allusions and little in-jokes. My interest in politics and culture tends to show through no matter what I write, so I think the story also contains a lot of hidden depth. I also think I managed to bump my sentence-level writing up a notch with this piece.
I wrote the story during a summer in which I was living in a small apartment in South Central L.A. It was too hot for me to go out much during the day and too dangerous for me to venture out much at night, so I spent day after day alone in that apartment and got completely absorbed (probably too much so) in the fictional reality of the story. The moment at which I became really excited about the piece and knew for sure that I was going to go ahead and write it all down was when I dreamt up the sequence in which Francis battles the owl. But when it came time to write that scene, I just didn’t know how Francis could possibly stand a chance. I paced around and around, swinging an imaginary sword. In the corner of the room, looming over me, I pictured a gigantic and sinister owl (the sweltering heat probably contributed to the near-hallucinatory intensity of this vision), and I would stare up at that monstrous owl and think, “Crap, how the hell am I going to kill this bleeping thing?”
I was really happy with how that part turned out. In fact, after I wrote that scene I couldn’t restrain myself from sending out a bulletin to all my Facebook friends announcing, “I just wrote the best sword-wielding mouse versus owl fight scene you’ll read all year!” Writing isn’t all fun and games though, of course. For whatever reason I had a hell of a time describing the throne room. I worked for an entire day — eight hours or so — on that one stupid little paragraph, though that time included many hours spent online perusing photos of various real-world throne rooms. I also found it challenging to work out exactly how the climactic scene was going to go down (even though that scene was something I’d planned from the beginning and was in fact the genesis of the whole piece). I spent several days wrestling with the logistics of the thing until I finally hit upon the image of a spooky, mist-shrouded landscape, which instantly felt right and which immediately solved a lot of my problems.
I had a great deal of fun writing this story, and I really felt as though I were living through the events as I was writing them. I hope that some of that same experience comes through for people when they read it.