The Big Idea: Thomas Mullen
Writers, almost by definition, have something to say. What they don’t always have, alas, is the knowledge of the best way to say it. We fumble about through revisions and drafts, adding characters and situations — and then dropping them — to figure out the best way to get across the things we want to draw our reader’s attention to. Thomas Mullen knows about this: As he was building The Revisionsts, he knew he had things to comment on, and characters to do that commenting for him. The challenge was how to put all the ingredients together in just the right way.
We live in a politically polarized time, as we are so constantly reminded. So here are two statements from opposite poles:
1. You’d have to be paranoid to believe that government agents are reading your emails and eavesdropping on your phone calls.
2. You’d have to be naïve to think that they aren’t doing that.
Which is right?
I lived in Washington, DC, from 2002 until 2008. I moved there at the one-year anniversary of September 11, and I left just two months before Barack Obama was elected President. Which means I was there for the Bush years, or the post-9/11 years, or the Orange Alert years, or what Cheney would have called The Dark Side years. We were told that America was under attack, so, as the residents of our nation’s Capitol, we couldn’t help feeling that there was a large target on our back.
My wife and I didn’t work in politics and we knew very few people who did. It’s a large city, remember, and despite what anti-establishment political candidates say, it is indeed possible to throw a rock and not hit a bureaucrat or lobbyist if you aren’t in the biz. Still, living there during The Dark Side years, it was hard not to feel the effect national politics had on our literal and figurative backyards.
As my wife and I worked our jobs and went out at night and bought a house and had a child, the steady drumbeat of borderline unbelievable news pounded in the background. The National Security Agency is wiretapping and eavesdropping on citizens’ phone calls and emails and texts without warrants, despite laws prohibiting this? The CIA is torturing prisoners, not only at Guantanamo Bay but also at secret “black sites” spread across the globe? U.S. intelligence agents are abducting people and putting them on unmarked planes to nations like Egypt, where the prisoners are “rendered” to their evil secret police, armed with pliers and cattle prods? Our wars are being fought with the assistance of privatized mercenaries who fire into crowded markets to blow off steam?
These all felt like the plot elements of some conspiracy-theory film from the Seventies, like All the President’s Men or The Conversation or The Parallax View. Those movies work like bad dreams, playing to our worst fears while indulging in a nihilistic worldview about the way societies really work. Only, this wasn’t a movie. These things were actually happening, and the dark orders were emanating just a few blocks from my house.
Equally galling to me, as a writer, was the fact that when some of these stories hit the news, much of the debate focused not on the legalities of these acts but on the fact that someone had dared leak them to the press. At a time when journalists were being laid off due to the changing digital landscape, the government was threatening lawsuits against writers and their sources for compromising national security.
The idea that government agencies or privatized spy firms are watching us (and worse) is terrifying, and not simply because we don’t like having our privacy compromised. We like to believe that we have control over our lives, that we’re the masters of our fate. Stories of surveillance are so enraging because they tap into this deep-seated fear that maybe we aren’t in charge. Maybe we have no effect on anything, and there’s a vast System stacked against us, and it’s useless to resist.
For a long time I’d been kicking around a few scenes and chapters and character sketches, not sure where they fit in. I wanted a young man, recently fired from the CIA, who has taken a demeaning job, tailing antiwar activists for a private intelligence contractor. And I wanted some antiwar activists, not unlike my son’s former nanny, a hardcore leftist who was great with babies but who sprinkled her adult conversations with phrases like “the Bush regime” and “after the revolution.” I wanted a young corporate attorney, whose brother has just died fighting in Iraq, to agonize over whether she should leak information on one of her clients, a war contractor. And I wanted a young illegal immigrant toiling as a maid for a cruel, mysterious diplomat.
The novel underwent various false starts and at least one near-death, for two main reasons. First, I wasn’t sure if these various strands worked in the same book. Second, and more bedeviling, was whether I could even address such political issues in a work of fiction without seeming heavy or pedantic. A writer needs to be empathetic, to see the world through the eyes of all his characters, and that means people all across the political spectrum. Could I write about post-9/11 America and the Iraq War without sounding like some kneejerk liberal mad at Bush, or like a neoconservative angry at those who didn’t see the world as he did? Simply constructing a plot suddenly became an exercise in political handwringing: if the bad guy turns out to be an over-reaching government, that makes it a conservative book, right? And if the bad guy is an evil corporation, that makes it a liberal book, right? How do you steer clear of this political third-rail, getting at the deeper human truths that speak to all readers rather than kowtowing to a convenient ideology?
Time will tell whether I figured any of that out. But part of what helped me confront all this messy realism is the one character who is the least realistic, but who unites the various plot strands. Zed is a time traveler. He’s been sent from a perfect future as an officer of the Department of Historical Integrity; it’s his job to make sure that a horrible event occurs as dictated by history in present day D.C. Only then will his perfect future come into being.
The nature of time travel and enforced time lines underscores the idea of fate and personal choice that I’d already been pondering. Are we really independent actors on life’s stage, can we truly determine our fate, or are we following narrowly defined roads that have been laid before us by larger forces? Call it God, call it History, call it an all-powerful Government or all-knowing Corporations. Are we in control? Who makes history? Who can grab hold of the reins of fate?
I’m still not sure I know the answers to any of this, but it was a blast trying to find out.