The Big Idea: Jeremy Szal
Posted on November 29, 2021 Posted by John Scalzi 1 Comment
Authors often see themselves in their work. But sometimes, it takes a while for that to happen. This is a thing Jeremy Szal discovered while writing Blindspace. Here he is to delve further into that personal discovery.
I’ve always infused intensely personal material into my work. If you know me well, you’ll see it immediately if you read anything I write. Still, for someone like me who’s scribbling about worlds filled with asteroid cities, psychopathic AIs, alien drugs, spaceships, galactic empires, my fiction isn’t exactly what you’d call autobiographical. Not at first glance, anyway.
Vakov Fukasawa, the protagonist of Stormblood and Blindspace, spoke to me in a way no other character has during the writing process. He’s a visceral, broken wreck of a man who’s brimming with barely-concealed rage and anger – someone who’s been damaged and wants to deal damage in return. He’s got the DNA of an extinct (and genocidal!) alien race running through his veins, making him addicted to adrenaline and aggression. But despite all his viciousness and anger, he’s someone who loves fiercely and intensely from the heart. He’s withdrawn and brooding, and while he doesn’t want to get close to a lot of people, to his friends he gives his undying, unequivocal loyalty.
But it wasn’t until Book 2 that I realized how closely I was writing about myself.
I’d poured so much of own rage, my own anger, into him. Injustices I’d suffered at the hands of people I believed were my friends, the way I was treated like dirt as a half-Polish, half-Lebanese kid in an all-Catholic school in the Austrian mountains. Moments of mistreatment, oppression, all oozing out of me like blood from a wound.
I’d taken my own flaws, passions, aspirations and laid them bare through his voice and his flesh, warts and all. I’d given him my own personal damage, intensely magnified, and watched him claw and fight against his demons, igniting in me a hope of battling my own.
Vakov isn’t me, of course. If he was, I’m pretty sure I’d be in jail. Vakov is a soldier riddled with PTSD. I’m not. He’s has alien DNA running through his blood and bones; demons that are, in many senses, literal. Mine aren’t. Rather, it’s the essence, the approximation of a personality, we share.
Still. He couldn’t remain stagnant. His personality, and the way he responded to the alien DNA in his body, had to adapt to new challenges.
Blindspace was written over a three-year period in my early 20s, during a time where my personality and worldview dramatically evolved. My capacity for compassion and empathy expanded. I learned to read the room. I learned to stop and listen when people I trusted told me things I didn’t want to hear. I got out of my comfort zone and started being more comfortable in my own skin. I made no excuses for how much I’d tolerate bullshit, or those trying to sell it to me. I gave myself permission to fail, as long as I picked myself up and tried again. I understood myself, and my place among people I cared about.
And I was no longer ashamed of the fire burning inside me: burning for both rage and love.
See, it always felt so strange to me to see character growth that involved moving past anger. To learning to let go of your feelings, emotions. To remain stoic and unflinching. Because then, what are you fighting for if not the things you care about so much it hurts? What do you become if you loose the part of yourself that makes you, well, you? How could I take my character on a path neither of us wanted?
I couldn’t take away Vakov’s rage anymore than my own. I tried half-heartedly in the early drafting days, but Vakov wouldn’t let me. He knew that I, that we, had a fire that burned too brightly to just fade away.
But there’s been times where I’ve misused my anger, where I’ve hurt people I cared about, pushed friends away, burned bridges, and ended up with nothing but guilt to show for it. I’m not proud of it. But those moments taught me a valuable lesson, and showed me the path forward.
So I trained Vakov to weaponize that fire inside him. He was no longer someone who responded to his violent urges in a knee-jerk capacity, hurling himself into danger alone, guns blazing, risking the lives of everyone around him.
Sure, he was fighting to protect the people he loves. But in doing so, he’d push them away, but as a result, would push them away. It was a macho, toxic mindset masquerading as heroism, dismissing and disregarding the people he wanted to trust.
So he resisted the dark, adrenaline urges caused by the, quite literal, aliens inside him. He began standing his ground, trusting his friends, working in unison with a team, no longer allowing himself to get swept up in his body’s urges. Slowly, he started taking a step back. To admitting his wrongdoing, acknowledging his urges and flaws, but not allowing himself to get swept up by them as he tried to do better, even as he never lost the rage and anger that was forged by trauma and hardship. And in doing so, he’s found a richness, a depth, to his personality and his relationships with others he’d never knew was there.
In many ways, me and Vakov have evolved in tandem. Vakov has taught me a lot, not only about myself, but the person I want to be.
Getting this book down, and going through life while writing it, has been a bloody, difficult journey at times. I’ve wanted to give in, admit defeat, and run away from it all, but Vakov’s dragged me back, because the stubborn bastard knows I’m not done yet. He knows I’ve still got our stories to tell, to let those fires burn bright.
And it’s only the beginning.
Blindspace: Amazon|Kobo|Google Books|IndieBound |Barnes and Noble
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As a son of Trinidad immigrant and English mother sent to Catholic and then Grammar school in England, I have never read an author blurb that spoke to me so personally.