The Big Idea: J.D. DeLuzio
With a book title like Live Nude Aliens, it’s obvious that J.D. DeLuzio is going to be writing from perspectives other than his own. But in this Big Idea, DeLuzio shares how when it comes to writing the other, he gets by with a little help from his friends.
Imagine that in 1953, at the height of the flying saucer craze, extraterrestrials actually had landed. Imagine aliens, not Keane-eyed humanoids with birth-canal-defying crania. They walked among us for a few months, ran some studies, left behind a gift, and then returned to the stars. What would happen next?
Consider: in 1953, Stalin died, significantly destabilizing the Soviet Union. The Korean War paused. Vietnam hadn’t been partitioned. Wealthier countries raced to develop an artificial satellite. Makepeace et al demonstrated that the oral contraceptive was viable. The U.S. Supreme Court was hearing Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which would lead to it declaring the racial segregation of schools unconstitutional.
Now add aliens.
Fast-forward to 1971. We’ve seen eighteen years of significant international cooperation. We have a von Braun fever dream of a space program. Astronauts and space-related scientists have become pop-culture heroes. Other things have changed too, butterflies flapping their wings. No one assassinated Robert Kennedy. Canada still adopted a new flag in ’67, but not the familiar one. Hendrix just released a song called “Trans-Neptunian.”
We’ve also had to reconsider several deeply-rooted beliefs, and that is not a comforting thing. Some people feel left behind, as the world keeps watching the skies in a mixture of awe and terror.
Then the extraterrestrials return.
“Flying Whistle Stop,” a new novella, constitutes about one-quarter of Live Nude Aliens and Other Stories. Its protagonists are a group of young people who have never known a pre-contact world. I knew that the character connecting the various members of this “Scooby gang” would be a Golden Boy or Golden Girl, someone aspiring to work in the now pervasive international space program, but also the sort of person who is admired and trusted by peers.
Early in that development a friend visited, a woman who had math-checked my novel, The Con. She inquired about my current project. As we discussed “Flying Whistle Stop,” it struck me that she possesses many qualities that would go to making my fictional “Golden Girl.” She does complex math in her head. She has coached basketball. She elicits trust. She would be an excellent starting point for the character. And so immediately I was thinking more deeply about that most uncomfortable of issues, race.
She and I are both Canadian. My father’s parents emigrated from a village in Abruzzo, Italy. My mother’s ancestors came from various parts of the UK. Some of my mother’s less-thoughtful acquaintances asked her why she couldn’t find “a white one,” but that was decades ago. In terms of how we code race, I belong to the North American majority. My friend grew up as an identified minority.
I hadn’t specifically conceptualized “Golden Girl” as a young Black woman, but I immediately realized why, in a story set in alt-1971, she probably should be.
Attitudes change slowly, and some people demonstrate a singular commitment to being butt-heads. But staring into the eye-clusters of actual others, followed by eighteen years of international cooperation in the space program, would challenge our conceptions of race. That fact would not be this story’s heart, but it needed to matter. A talented young person with aspirations faces additional challenges when she’s a woman and a member of an historically-marginalized group. Those specific challenges reveal a good deal about a supposedly progressive society. And the plot already involved divisions in society.
I shared my rather obvious insights. We discussed the concept of a “sensitivity reader” and I asked if she would be interested.
This wouldn’t be my first experience with a sensitivity reader, per se. My writing includes characters from a range of backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, and circumstances. In most cases, however, I haven’t so much had “sensitivity readers” as I’ve had beta readers who as a bonus would tell me if I was being obtuse or unintentionally insensitive. The character of Patti (the short-haired woman with the cat’s eye glasses and large coffee on the cover), for example, has appeared in a few things I’ve written, including this collection’s title story. She lives with cerebral palsy– as does one of my regular beta readers. But Patti already existed as a character. Some of my writing changed, but the character and her world remained essentially the same.
“Flying Whistle Stop” was different, partially because of the significance of race to its historical setting. More significantly, the novella’s future sensitivity reader influenced the story from its inception. The work improved significantly as a result.
The members of my “Scooby gang,” however, remain characters first, interesting people (I hope) in an interesting situation. “Flying Whistle Stop,” like the other tales in Live Nude Aliens and Other Stories, is a story first. It features aliens! Mystery and intrigue! Political protests! Stoned teenagers! And some cool rides, a spaceship and a Vespa.
It also holds up a funhouse mirror to our world, reflecting on a number of Big Ideas: social change, technology, political priorities, cultural paranoia, and concepts of race. And how we might encounter extraterrestrials, but, to paraphrase Walt Kelly’s Pogo, the enemy may still be us.
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