The Big Idea: Steven R. Boyett
Here at Whatever, I’ve already gone into detail about the enthusiasm I have for Mortality Bridge, the new novel from Steven Boyett, which can be summed up thusly: Fantastic reader journey, one of the best reads of 2011, go buy now or live in regret. So it’s my pleasure to have Steve here to tell you about the book in turn, and how it represented a journey of its own for him. It a reminder that some stories you have to work for… and what work means for the writer.
STEVEN R. BOYETT:
Around 1986 I was living with a startlingly talented poet named Nancy Lambert, and she made a remark about the Greek ferryman Charon as a taxi driver in Manhattan. I thought it was just the coolest idea. A couple of years later I asked her if she was going to do anything with it and she said no and I asked if she minded if I stole it from her took a crack at it. Knock yourself out, she said.
I set out to write a pure-action novel that was all chase scene, Hell and back again. Like a lot of artists I am captivated by the myth of Orpheus, the musician who travels to Hades to reclaim his wife’s soul, and that’s where I imagined I would run with Nancy’s idea. I think every novel I’ve written has started out with me thinking I’d do a pure-adrenalin adventure.
But something always happens to that outlook as I go. In this case it was thinking deeply about the romance and talent and hubris of Orpheus himself. The arrogance and daring of defying divine decree and even mortality itself. And in the telling I began to understand the commonalities of harrowings (stories of descents into Hell) and deal-with-the-devil stories. And in my mind these archetypes began to fuse. And I had a kind of mashup of Faust and Orpheus and the Inferno and the Crossroads legend of bluesman Robert Johnson.
I started thinking about the ways these stories have replayed themselves in cultures throughout history. And because one of my own tropes is to literalize metaphors, I thought, What if those stories have played out repeatedly. The same soul undergoing the same tragic beautiful adventure time after time. A man bound to the wheel of myth by who he is. The admirable courage of going ahead anyhow once he understands this and thinks perhaps his victory might be to simply break the cycle.
Now we’re talking.
Because I have a sort of science fictional approach to fantasy, I thought a lot about Hell itself. Its purpose, its geography (hadeography, really), its design, its traffic flow. Hell, I realized, is a combination of Disneyland and Dachau. Hell is an abusement park. And they’ve got you forever, so they can afford to punish you across geologic time. To pulp you under granite until it weathers away. Bodies of the damned regenerate in my Hell, so whatever they do to you injures and hurts you but can’t kill you. And because it’s their job to punish you forever, demons are bored out of their minds and starving for ways to keep their work interesting. And as I had mashed up the common archetypes of harrowings and harrowers, so I blended common elements from Greek, Roman, Medieval, Dantean, and Miltonian hadeography.
Mortality Bridge became a dark obsession. I worked on the first draft for about six years, and it simply owned me all that time. I worked harder on it than anything I have ever written. It’s disturbingly violent and very funny and the oddest combination of beautiful words about terrible things. And when it was done I knew that I had never written anything like it or read anything like it, and that it was the book I had been born to write.
I also knew that something about it wasn’t right.
I wonder if Rodin ever looked at a block of marble and saw a figure buried there and realized that he didn’t yet have what it took to bring that shape to light. I wonder if he tried anyhow. I wonder if he went through many blocks of marble trying to attain that shape he knew was there but also knew he wasn’t ready to unearth. And I wonder if he understood that the broken attempts helped carve the way to the successful one.
When I began Mortality Bridge sometime around 1987, I was talented enough to see the figure in the stone, and young and arrogant enough not to realize that I did not yet have the chops to do that figure justice. To make it what it deserved to be. I was in fact my own musician hero Niko from the book itself — taking on something that is just too big for him, driving forward anyhow, needing to realize fundamental things about himself if he’s to have any hope of succeeding in his oddly personal yet epic Grail quest.
I remain startled by how a novel can know things about its writer that the writer hasn’t figured out.
Intermittently throughout the next fifteen years I returned to Mortality Bridge to revise it. Every time I finished, I emerged exhausted and proud — and understanding that I had just made another trial run through another block of marble. It wasn’t the story. It wasn’t the style or the prose. That’s all technique. I had more technique than I knew what to do with, literally.
What was missing, plain and simple, was something without which technique doesn’t mean a damned thing: Wisdom. Not experience but what you learn from experience. The years and struggles and victories and compromises and understandings that give you entree into these odd ghosts who haunt a page, that lend substance to their being and their circumstance.
Soon after Elegy Beach, my first novel to be published in nearly seventeen years, appeared in 2009, something in me said, It’s time. And I went back to Mortality Bridge once more. And this time I sent it off to my agent, Richard Curtis. Richard was more enthused and effusive than I have ever heard him, and that felt great. But he felt the book needed to be restructured. Through all those drafts — thirty, at a guess — the back story had been revealed in pieces as the action progressed. The novel was still colored by my original view of it as an adrenalin-fueled action-adventure. Richard suggested simply rearranging the novel chronologically. I’d considered that notion years before but rejected it — too much work, too commercial an approach, this is exactly the book I meant to write, blah blah blah. (Hubris, party of one? Hubris?) And when Richard made his suggestion I realized that not only was he dead-on right, but that I had earlier resisted the notion out of fear. Fear that I wasn’t ready to write the connective tissue and character-solidifying detail that such reorganization would entail. And now I was. That simple: I was ready. It was time.
So I rewrote Mortality Bridge one last time, and knew that it was the last time. I knew this because as I worked on it I realized that this time out I saw the figure in the stone and at last knew how to bring it out.
It’s supposed to be bad PR to play favorites with your books. I say hell with that. This is the best thing I have ever done. It’s Terry Gilliam directing Orpheus with an unlimited budget, special effects by Digital Domain, creature effects by The Jim Henson Company, a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, a soundtrack by Eric Clapton, and starring Bruce Willis as Faust. I feel gratified by some of the reactions the novel has gotten, and more redeemed than anyone (including me) could possibly have known. Now when someone asks how I can justify the oxygen I’ve used up on the planet, I can point to Mortality Bridge. If it’s the last thing I ever write, I can live with that without a moment of regret. Because it’s finished. Because I became someone who could rightly bring that figure from the stone. And because at last it’s out there in the world.
Rodin himself plays a small role in Mortality Bridge. I think he was trying to tell me something.