Suffering: Sure, it’s a pain in the ass, but does it make for good art? And more to the point, if you make your characters suffer (which is objectively at least more comfortable than having yourself suffer), will their struggles help to perfect their stories? Perhaps it’s not the only way to tell a tale, but it’s an interesting way to tell it, no?
These are some of the questions Anthony Huso’s been rolling around in his head on the occasion of the release of his debut fantasy novel The Last Page. And after considerable thought on the nature of suffering, angst and depression, he’s come to some conclusions. And as luck would have it, here he is to report on what he’s discovered.
So here’s what happens.
One day you wake up and realize, crap. I think I’m having a nervous breakdown. Somehow, my world just exploded, and I’m watching the remnants float down like burning pages.
It’s bad form to wallow in misery but most of us have been there, on that day when we didn’t know if we were going make it. And –- surprise — tomorrow wasn’t a big improvement. Nor was the tomorrow after that. It’s not that we want to wallow. But it takes time to adjust after calamity.
Coincidentally, it takes time to write a book.
John [not Scalzi] first showed me Vonnegut’s words: “You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”
Exclusionary assertions aside there’s truth enough there that you can excavate it with a spoon. Angst is a reliable minter of art.
Angst also sells because we relate to it.
In the past couple of decades we’ve witnessed a brand of anxiety that only the internet could unearth. The sort that stuffs the whole of humanity into a runaway train and sends it down the track at breakneck. This is the thrill ride of 2012, meteor, super volcano, mega tsunami, disaster-porn that carries an acknowledged titillation value. Look at this. It would make a great B-movie.
Maybe we’re making movies like this because as our knowledge of the universe expands, so does our ability to catalog erenow inscrutable catastrophic threats to our existence. Quite naturally, the notion of extinction gets reactions from creatures easily smashed or burned by rocks falling out the sky. So we make and watch disaster movies and think, wow.
Now, we probably don’t go to bed worried that the end is just around the corner. I hope not. But there is — I think — a heuristic dread lining our collective psyche. In other words, we do actually think about it from time to time.
In The Last Page I wanted to bring some of that fringe hysteria into the plot while keeping it analogously anchored. Understand that my goal was for the characters to not be fretting constantly about some esoteric doomsday scenario. Rather it’s background noise, which I think makes it far more uncertain and believable. Think of it as a subconscious horror, a fly sucking fluid from the corner of your sleeping eye.
You’re probably getting the sense that the world where The Last Page takes place is fairly dark. Indeed, I would call it brutal. It is a place that exacts its toll indiscriminately from every character within its bounds.
Let’s begin with Caliph Howl, the first character to appear in the book. When he assumes control of his backwater country, the political landscape does not pause for him to get his footing. He sees his own values compromised by degrees. He feels the sting of being lampooned by the press and the pain of repeated betrayal.
But to make this fantasy, and to make it fantastic, I needed to pile considerably more and far weirder pressures on top of him, so that he could really struggle.
This role is filled by Sena Iilool (though she would say she never intended for things to go the way they did). Being Caliph’s college obsession, she is for him the harbinger of things fantastic. While Caliph is embroiled in pragmatic affairs: paperwork, meetings and espionage — Sena is up to her earlobes in hexes, fables and the occult. Their relationship might be summarized as the empirical vs. the theoretical. This results in a slow-moving fracture across both of their realities. Eventually all preconceptions shatter and the accompanying bottoms fall out.
To clarify Caliph and Sena’s dynamic within the story: whenever you have a boy-meets-girl-thing it’s natural to ask, as Fred Savage once did, whether this is a kissing book.
I admit the story to have torture, revenge, chases, escapes, true [dysfunctional] love, miracles…
But The Last Page isn’t a light-hearted romp. Caliph and Sena are cautious rivals, best friends and bitter enemies depending on the chapter. Their relationship is not easy to define because, if it was, the book (and its companion Black Bottle out 2011) would be a much diminished tale. And the grim struggles and fine lines between obsession and love, fidelity and cowardice, of rationalizing the accomplishment of good things through dark means, I think, would be significantly undermined.
Sometimes plots evolve out of big ideas like: what if this crazy dude parked his spacecraft at the edge of a singularity and murdered his crew; then turned them into zombies and fitted chrome pantyhose eggs over their faces? That would be cool!
And other times, plots evolve from the characters themselves. Plot = struggle.
Sure I’m offering zeppelins, sex, gun fights, Lovecraftian god-things and a haunted building outside of town. That’s scratching the surface. And I hope it is entertaining. Under the hood, however, I have to confess a secret hope that I’ve also delivered a story that resonates with what happens under real pressure, real heartache, when everything goes suddenly very wrong.
Calamity! What do you do now? That’s the big idea. Rather than slaying the personification with a weapon and taking its treasure home, I think real people are just hoping to survive, even before they try to start making sense of what happened.
And that’s the true part.
One day my world blew up. I was shell shocked. But I was lucky. I found my keyboard. I wrote this story.