The Big Idea: Patrick O’Leary
Posted on February 8, 2022 Posted by John Scalzi 4 Comments
The Big Idea of 51 is really quite memorable… or is it? Author Patrick O’Leary is here to shed light on his potentially unforgettable concept.
The trouble with big ideas is that they never happen when you need them.
It would have been useful to know what my novel was about before I wrote it. I would have wasted a lot less time. I would have been nicer to my wife. But that has never been how I write.
Jeanette Winterson’s mother said, “The trouble with a book is you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.”
She understood the dangers of opening something that cannot be closed. An idea.
I am her. I write the book as I read it. I write it to find out what happens next. My only guide is that I don’t move on until I believe the story. Really believe it. That’s it; that’s the secret. So I listened very carefully to 51. But it is not my story. It is the story that needed to be told. Clear? Often I do not understand what I’m writing until I’ve read it years later.
Jung said,”Whatever we do not become conscious of becomes our fate.” The great task of consciousness is to see things as they are. Esse Quam Videri.
About 10 years into the adventure of writing 51 I discovered the critical foundation of the tale.
Creatures who evolved over eons the perfect disguise: forgettability. Even seen, they are not remembered. They can’t help it. They are prisoners of their survival tactic: involuntary camouflage. It is impossible to be seen, and once seen, impossible to remember. This camouflage is so perfect they rarely appear as they are. They will always appear as the viewer prefers.
51 is about that which we do not see.
Disguise. Persona. Repression. Secrecy. Stealth. Suppression. Propaganda. Lies. They are all variations on one idea: Denial.
Sleeping we are born like dreams.
I hand you a paperback book. It’s blue. I say it’s a magic book.
It’s a secret book hidden in this book.(Bonus!) I can’t tell you what it is. You have to discover it yourself.
Then you read the book and you can’t find it. No matter how hard you look, the hidden book eludes you.
You will carry that magic book inside you for years.
There’s no telling when, but one day the book will break open inside of you like golden sword of light from a tall white lighthouse splitting the night.
And you will have finished the invisible book.
The book that cannot be told.
The real book hiding in the other book.
The book that could not be told straight because no one would see it then.
It contains its own camouflage.
Waking we are born like dreams.
I think of the cosmic irony that America’s biggest secret is a place everyone knows. I wanted 51 to have the impact of a conspiracy theory proven true. As a brother said in The Impossible Bird: “We cannot tolerate a meaningless existence so we’ve substituted a malicious one.” We have grown so saturated and susceptible to GossipTruth.
So like a stained blue deck of cards with mysterious symbols, I turned them over one by one and laid out a life line that could include all of them. I put all the goofy and awful pieces together, like the super sleuth Winston Koop who tracks down and erases every last living trace of 51.
Koop’s unlikely reunion with his old side-kick, photographer Adam Pagnucco “Nuke” sparks the plot. Both are alcoholics. Koop is shipwrecked after his wildly dangerous career and Nuke is more than happy to surrender his rather dim and ordinary life to help his old friend find a new purchase on a very slippery reality. Truth is the only antidote to the alcoholic’s hazy roller coaster of denial. So Koop begins recounting his failures which is the heart of any 12-step journey back to sanity. And like a good sponsor Nuke is his sounding board. As the shrink says in my Door Number Three, “The only terror that heals. The terror of being yourself.”
Living we are dreams come true.
51 is a collection of confessions aimed at both revealing and concealing the secrets, sins and crimes at the heart of the coverup both men are swept up in.
Who can be trusted? Your oldest friend? Your lover? Your Government?
51 is a tell-all that starts as a most unforgettable character tale and ends in a demolition of reality as we once knew it.
Is it Sci-Fi? Fantasy? Tabloid Journalism? True Confessions? Or fractured fairytale?
Or is it, perhaps, something far stranger?
A string of clues to a mystery that only the reader can solve. An intervention in a world run by denial.
Or maybe The Big Idea was the night I dreamed about a huge blind albino snake.
Hey. Thanks for reading.
51: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Visit the author on Twitter.
” I write the book as I read it. I write it to find out what happens next. My only guide is that I don’t move on until I believe the story. Really believe it. That’s it; that’s the secret. ”
Yes! So much yes! And I will be reading this book very soon.
I loved this Big Idea and will put the book on my list. The idea of the hidden book reminds me of the book I did an Oasis (retiree casual learning opportunities) class on, Hamlet’s Mill, by Santillana and Deshend; I introduced the class saying it had taken me 40 years to understand this book but I was now prepared to reveal all. One of the class takers came up and said, 40 years ago I bought this book …. I just hope some of it made sense by the end of the classes.
Wow. I don’t think I understood at all what this book is about but I really want to read it.
P.S. also part of the premise (maybe?) reminds me of Addie LaRue, which was also great, but this seems different enough to be interesting. Sort of (but not really) like how Harry August and Groundhog Day and Live Die Repeat are similar but different.
@Tim Maddox: Wow, I understood all of those references! (That’s rare) I’ve seen both the movies (Groundhog Day is my absolute favorite movie) and I read Addie LaRue last year and I’m reading Harry August now! I just finished The Sudden Appearance of Hope, which hinges on a woman who nobody can remember (!!!) also by Claire North. This vaguely reminds me of The Silence from Doctor Who, so it’s on my TBR list as well.