The Big Idea: Jesse Bullington
Posted on March 25, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 7 Comments
In some ways, writing a novel is as much about giving your characters space to introduce themselves — especially to you, their author — as it is giving them a plot so they will have something to do. In The Enterprise of Death, author Jesse Bullington had a particular character which he had been trying to bring into the light for some time. It turns out that what he needed was time — and a time — in which to do it.
Although my book The Enterprise of Death deals with issues of race, the outsider/insider, gender, sexuality, abuse and, well, Big Ideas, it didn’t spring from anything as easily defined and instantly recognizable as the altering of a historical event or a unique plot hook. Rather, I had an idea of this character lurking somewhere in the back of my head for the better part of a decade, and writing this novel was all about coaxing her from the shadows out to where I could see her properly and tell her story.
Obviously characters don’t start off independent of their creators; writers create characters, and for me, at least, the process of writing involves a lot of frustration and false starts and lip gnawing rather than some divine channeling of the ancient muse wherein I take up the gilded laptop and simply let the Art flow through me. Writing is hard. Yet for all that I’ve found that characters really do write themselves, once you get a feeling for who they are and what they want—if you’re doing it right, at any rate.
So over time I developed a character I wanted to explore. Fine and good, but what’s the Big Idea?
What I’m shambling toward is that sometimes it takes a great deal of preliminary thinking and scribbling and character developing before you even know what your story will be, and what sort of Big Ideas will be found therein. For me, the Big Idea is rarely the plot itself, and that’s certainly true here—the plot involves an apprentice trying to thwart her corrupt master, making friends and enemies along the way. I try to do interesting things with that barebones synopsis, but even still the Big Idea isn’t the plot—it’s what happens beside it, beneath it, on top of it. What it took me a lot of hours to figure out, even as the central character grew and changed from how I’d originally conceived her, was what exactly the hell I was doing beyond exploring this particular character.
When I hit on it, it was painfully obvious. My Big Idea was to use my central character, an African lesbian slave-cum-necromancer, to enter into early Renaissance Europe as the quintessential Other and see if the Western world of half a millennia ago was really so different from our own. I’m definitely not saying that my character was my Big Idea (a gay black protagonist? Hold onto your butts!) because characters, if you’re writing them well, shouldn’t just be an embodiment of an idea, even a big one—they should be people, with strengths and weaknesses and everything else that goes with being an intelligent being.
Even talking about her in this fashion makes me vaguely uncomfortable, because like the rest of us she’s more than her sexuality or her sex or her ethnicity; she’s herself, period. Yet all of that is a part of us, even if it doesn’t define us, and that’s where the Big Idea came in—how would who she was, and where and when she was, impact the rough plot I had in mind? More importantly, how would the world and its denizens impact her?
It’s easy to dismiss pre-modern Europe as backwards. To the minds of some contemporary readers, if the early years of the Renaissance weren’t the Dark Ages, then they were at least a twilight epoch—a gloaming before someone flipped the cultural light switch of the Enlightenment. You know, the Enlightenment? That era of unapologetic and violent sexism, racism, classism, religious intolerance, war, and political turmoil that we’re taught in school was the single, shining moment when humanity raised itself up from its barbaric roots and became the sort of poorly defined amalgamation of ideas you’d invite to your parents’ house for dinner?
Anyway, let’s move past how silly it is to think of history as neatly compartmentalized periods stacked on top of another instead of a continuous societal evolution (acknowledging as we do that the aforementioned problematic elements of the Enlightenment are also found in the Renaissance, the Medieval period, and, unfortunately, the modern age). Examining the specific era and place of early 16th century Western Europe using an outsider protagonist struck me as interesting because it would allow me to explore a host of different themes and preconceptions instead of focusing on a single Big Idea.
The novel opens with the handover of Granada from Moorish control to Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain, when centuries of comparative religious and racial tolerance and coexistence came to an end, and when witch fever truly began to catch on in Europe—contrary to popular opinion, it was the Renaissance and not the Medieval period that brought us the large scale persecution of accused witches. The victims of the Inquisition and other witch hunts were countless women, ethnic minorities, religious groups, GLBT individuals, and other “undesirables,” and even in my version of history where witchcraft is real these acts of terror, torture, and murder are indefensible. For all the differences of details, the issue of women and other marginalized peoples being discriminated against, targeted for violence, and becoming victims of contemporary witch hunts is just as topical now as it was during the Renaissance, and so having a character who embodies several of these targeted elements while still having her own unique agency struck me as an interesting way of engaging with the issues.
Yet the above may give an inaccurately bleak view of the time—there is a tendency to think of all of pre-modern Europe as being wholly intolerant to non-white, non-male, non-heteronormative individuals, which isn’t quite true. The Religious Right in America, for example, is fond of alleging that modern society’s supposed acceptance of homosexuality is a recent development that signals the decline of morality, but this is simply wrong, and displays a lack of familiarity with the historical record. The Medieval church (as in, the seed that all western Christian denominations grew out of) performed civil union ceremonies for same sex couples that were virtually identical to the marriage ceremonies for straight couples. Granted, local authorities of some regions treated homosexuality as a crime, sometimes even one punishable by death, but other regions were decidedly comfortable with two men becoming “brothered” and sharing property, inheritance, and a bed.
People have always been gay, and just as there have always been people who do find the sexuality of others dangerous or alarming, there have also been countless people who were accepting of homosexuality. Same for racial differences, religious differences, gender differences, and everything else—a simple truth of history is that there have always assholes, yes, and a great many of them, but there have also always been open-minded individuals who look past perceived differences to find a common ground.
This novel is about both kinds of people, and about the Other who goes amongst them. It’s also about necromancy and war and love and sex and art and adventure and monstrous horrors and abuse and the undead and alchemy and Ray Harryhausen-style animated skeletons and growing up. I wish we lived in a time where it wasn’t a Big Idea that someone different from the majority deserved respect and the right to be left alone, but as much as the book deals with differences between the modern world and the early 16th century, when you look at the history, it’s the similarities that really catch you off guard.
The Enterprise of Death: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog.
Well this sounds fascinating. I’m sold.
Also: John – this Big Idea feature is truly brilliant. What I get out of the author talking about the work is so much more enlightening and intriguing than a back flap blurb.
I was sold on the black, lesbian, necromancer part, but the rest of that would’ve hooked me as well.
Do you share any of the resources you used for your research in your blog? I ask because I remember a textbook arguing that homosexuality is a modern concept*, originating in the 19th century, and I’ve always thought that was an odd notion but hadn’t found anything concrete with which to dispute it. But then again, I’ve only ever had a cursory look at medieval history.
Thank you both very much, and of course my thanks to John for hosting me–a thing of beauty, is the Big Idea.
@ Speckofawesome–I don’t actually have a resource list on my website, though that’s a very good idea and one I may well put into practice. I do, however, include a thorough bibliography in the back of the novels themselves. In terms of how, or even if, people defined sexuality, it’s a tough nut to crack, in part because so much of the primary sources come filtered through the Victorians and other prudish historians who were inclined to whitewash and romanticize the history to fit with their sensibilities. Then there’s the issue of whether or not people of any given era or region viewed hetero/homosexuality as an either/or proposition or simply allowed for same sex coupling as a part of “normal” sexuality, period–even if x group did not have a conception of homosexuality, that’s not to say same sex coupling never occurred in their society, or that it was frowned on or viewed as abnormal when it did. In many circumstances same sex relations were viewed as perfectly natural, although they may not have been defined by the people of the time as homosexual, perhaps because said society did not view homosexuality as a threat to heterosexuality or Christian values and so there was no need to create a binary. In fact, talking about sexuality in the novel proved interesting, as most of the vocabulary we use now was coined well after the fact–I allowed myself an anachronistic word choice here or there, which seemed fair since it’s not written in French, German, or any of the other languages the characters would actually be speaking, but for the most part tried to use the language of the time. If that makes sense at all–I’m recovering from a beastly cold, so apologies if this comes across as muddled.
In terms of texts I consulted in researching this novel, I would recommend two specific works that tackle very different aspects of the topic: John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe and Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present–both are as well-written as they are informative. Thanks again for taking an interest!
So, this is totally on my list now :) I adore Big Idea posts, even when the works in question don’t tag my “must read now” reflex, getting to sort of “eavesdrop” on writers’ thought processes is fascinating.
This was already on my (overly long) to read list apparently, somewhere in the second half. Which means I would have gotten around to reading it eventually, someday, maybe … This Big Idea really peaked my interest however, so now I have moved it up a few spots and it will be part of the next batch of books I order. I’m looking forward to it!
Aksjfhsdkfjshdfhg I went to high school with him! What an awesome trip to see his name here on Whatever!
(No, Jesse, I am not using my real first name, don’t rack your brain, heh.)
I enjoyed his Brothers Grossbart book so I might have to check this out.