The Big Idea: Bob Proehl

In today’s Big Idea, for the novel A Hundred Thousand Worlds, author Bob Proehl ponders not only the stories that we have to tell, but the stories we choose to tell — and why the difference between those two matters.


My book, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is about comic book conventions. It’s about a mother and son. It’s also about how stories work. The stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories we consume. What they reveal and what they hide.

For me, it was about explaining myself to my kids, and all the contradictions that implies. I was a fairly new step-dad when I started the book. My kid was eight, a smidge younger than Alex in the book. From the outset, there were things I couldn’t wait to share with him. It was as if I’d been building a library for a kid my whole life. All my comics, my sci fi novels, my records, had new reasons for being. It was only a matter of picking and choosing which ones and when.

Along with this, and less exciting, were decisions about what personal stories I’d share with him, and how, and when. Would I tell him about being an awkward kid who spent more time with books than with people? The bout of depression that stretched through pretty much all of grad school? Dear god, would I tell him how his mom and I actually met?

The stories I chose to tell him, and how I told them, would shape how he saw me, and inform how he saw himself. I could pick a list of my greatest hits, make myself out to be the conquering hero, or the cool step-dad. I could select moments where I struggled, so that when he struggled he’d know I’d been there too, and that it would pass. Ultimately, this is the meta-story we’re telling our kids when we talk about ourselves: this will pass. In telling him who I was and who I’d been, I’d be telling him something about who he was, and who he could be. This is where sharing difficult stories becomes important, if not imperative. Stories are armor, and armor has to be made of stern stuff.

In the book, these two ideas, sharing stories about ourselves and sharing made-up stories, fused together in the narratives Valerie, our other central character, tells her son, Alex. Valerie used to co-star on an X-Files-esque television show opposite Alex’s dad, and each night to help Alex gets to sleep, she recounts the plot of an episode for him. As the book moves forward, we begin to see what’s really going on. Valerie is carefully choosing the plots, tweaking and adapting them so they carry her own story as well, all of it building toward the reveal of the story she’s been holding back, handed over the moment she knows he needs it. The moment she has to send him out into the world armored in it.

Sharing the stories that were important to us as kids with our kids has that kind of intense biographical component, too. These stories become essential parts of ourselves, reverse-transcripted into our mental and emotional DNA. They’re also a direct line back to who we were then, when we needed these stories to get through being a kid. We can see the weird but familiar reflections of ourselves as kids still shimmering in them, and can show that reflection to our own kids.

When I read aloud to my kid (or try to) from young Wart’s learning troubles in The Once and Future King, or give him a stack of Superman comics, I’m telling him something important about myself. There was a time when I needed these, and I found them. Here they are, in case you need them.


A Hundred Thousand Worlds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

4 Comments on “The Big Idea: Bob Proehl”

  1. Intriguing… I wouldnt think of stories as just armor. I think it might be stories all the way down.

  2. The real stories we don’t tell? They are the stories we’re too afraid or embarrassed or ashamed to tell. They are the stories where we or the people we like or admire didn’t become the heroes, didn’t win. Or we don’t tell them, in order to protect ourselves or the people we care about or maybe the people we’re telling the story. That’s why we don’t tell those personal stories.

    The made-up stories we don’t tell? We don’t know how to tell the story, some scene, the ending, the characters, something about it, we don’t know how to tell. Or perhaps it seems too improbable, too unbelievable. There are stories we don’t tell because we think no one will want to listen, or because an audience won’t listen, or a place won’t put it on, buy it, sell it. There are stories that aren’t told because we, or someone, thinks something is too improper to be told. Or perhaps it’s just not fashionable to tell that story this year. Or perhaps someoen else is jealous because that story might get told. They can’t have that story out there, someone might like it better than the one they’re telling.

    Those are just a few of the many reasons a story doesn’t get told, just ones I can think of offhand.

    So often, we edit our stories or the world comes along and edits them for us, whether we want it that way or not. We’re strange beings that way, and life (or the world) is strange like that, in how something comes along and we, or the world, or something, changes things up, changes the story in the midst of the telling. Gosh, it sure seems that way recently doesn’t it?

    Also, do you ever wonder, some days, if you’ve stepped into some alternate reality, some other timeline, without even noticing it? Lately, it seems like that might be more plausible than it used to be. Or maybe that’s only my old naivety popping up.

    Meh, I don’t know. — But I do know that stories are valuable, whether real-life or made-up. Somehow, they are what give us some bit to hang onto, to get through the real-life story.

    How do we change the channels on the real-life story, and what happens if we do? Dunno!

  3. As a parent of 2 under 7, I love the concept – it crystallizes the importance of the stories we tell in molding the next generation. Excellent!

  4. I really liked your thoughts bluecatship; that was the same direction my mind went at the top of the piece.

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