The Big Idea: Brenda W. Clough

When one is a writer, laziness can be a virtue. Skeptical? Here’s author Brenda W. Clough to explain how laziness was key to creating the story of A Door in His Head.


The wise writer is efficient because she’s lazy. She puts a lot of work into cooking up a universe, and then gets as many miles out of it as she can. All the work that Martha Wells has put into creating Murderbot, of course she’s going to write half a dozen volumes. When I wrote eleven volumes of Victorian thrillers, I created Singii, an Asian island nation in the South China Sea. So it was right there, ready to be recycled.

But the kickoff moment, what got me to write A Door in His Head, is when in the eleventh volume the king of Singii consults a fortuneteller. This was in the 1890s, and the oracle tells him he’ll live to be 75. A friend does the arithmetic and exclaims, “Wow, 1941, that’s forever!”

They go off and have their adventures. But I, the author, am lazy. He’ll die in 1941? Holy cow, I had selected his age 75 out of a hat. Many of my characters are better with numbers than I am. At that moment it came to me that a lot of people died in Asia in 1941. Pearl Harbor on December 7th kicked off the Japanese push into China and on south to Singapore, a campaign of harrowing brutality that dragged Asia into the war. And suddenly I was off and away, writing a novel set around World War 2.

But not about the war itself. Lazy, remember. There’s tons of material about the Pacific theater, Guadalcanal, Guam, the liberation of Singapore, the Communist insurgency. I didn’t want to bone up on any of it. I wanted to fast-forward to the fun part: Stephen Daishin See, war criminal, refugee, and combat casualty, 21 years old and holed up in San Francisco waiting to die. Because even when the war’s over, it’s not over.

This novel has one of the oldest plots in the world: getting better. Coming back, after the war. I could have titled it The New Odysseus, except then nobody would buy it. Because he was ancient Greek, Odysseus’s stresses and PTSD are entirely externalized. He fights monsters with a sword, not in his head. Stephen, a 20th century man, can be psychological. He can suppress all the bad stuff, almost a willed schizophrenia, to deal with more pressing needs: recovering from his injuries, getting an education, supporting himself, acquiring friends and allies, clawing together his emotional life.

In the US, a good avenue for a young man with no prospects has always been sports. Stephen attends Berkeley, a college much easier to get into in 1946 before the SATs and US News college rankings. He joins the college water polo team. I selected water polo for thematic purposes, and man, was I ever stupid. I began writing this in late 2020, and all sports events were locked down. I have never seen a game in the flesh, never attended a practice, never seen a competition pool or even touched a polo ball. But thank heaven for YouTube videos! That and various web sites got me to be absolutely convincing describing Stephen’s steady progress in the sport, until he’s playing at the 1948 Olympic Games.

Stephen meets a girl and marries her, graduates and gets a job. It’s the 1950s, that golden era, and the American Dream is in his hands. Until the past comes back to bite him in the butt. Then it’s time to pop open the door in his head.

I’m not going to describe the rest of the book for you. Spoilers, you know! But that’s what this book is about. It’s about that long-ago America, the one that we see now only in TV sitcom reruns, Ozzie and Harriett, or Donna Reed, or I Love Lucy. When everything was possible, when we were the good guys and the world was our oyster. You could do anything then, when the sky was a bright canary yellow, and you could forget every cloud you’d ever seen.

And the work has resonated! I entered it for the Diverse Voices prize, offered by Grand View University in Des Moines, IA. And it won!

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