Monday, December 19, 2011

From Whence Inspiration?

I am asked sometimes where my ideas come from. I imagine at one time or another every author is asked that. I cannot answer for anyone else, but for me, ideas are like snowflakes in their uniqueness and delicacy. I am afraid sometimes if I try too hard to understand, and thus explain, where they come from, they will stop. Ideas seem to present themselves in massed ranks to some authors, to throw themselves in inexhaustible numbers at them like human wave attacks -- lucky bastards -- but for me ideas are more bashful and so their mating grounds are best left undisturbed, lest they stop coming around altogether.

But I will tell you where I got the idea for How Dark The World Becomes, my upcoming novel from Baen Books. I got it from a song.

I am a Tom Waits fan from way back. I followed his musical career from the mid-70s on. His early music has a strong jazz and blues influence and his lyrics are not simply incredible poetry and story-telling, his melodies can be hauntingly beautiful. Then along came Swordfish Trombones and he frankly lost me. His muse took him off in the direction of what, to me, sounded like discordant and atonal noise, not music. I never begrudged him that, by the way. Artists have to keep growing and changing, have to keep finding something new to say, or they end up just a Las Vegas stage routine, doing the same act over and over forever, because "that's what sells" -- until it doesn't any more. Even back then, I think I understood what I years later read Lois McMaster Bujold put so succinctly and so well: "The author reserves the right to have a better idea." Or in this case, the musician does. If I can't see his vision as clearly as he can, it's not his fault.

So for a number of years I did not follow Waits's newer music, although I remained a dedicated fan of his early work. Then a few years ago a friend and fellow-Waits fan, and one who had stuck with him, played a Waits album called Blood Money in his car CD player. I didn't care for it, for the same reasons I'd drifted away in the first place: harsh, jarring music and a bleak, angry world view. But over the next few days I couldn't get the first song on the album -- Misery Is The River of the World -- out of my head.

It's not that I liked it; it's that it just kept rattling around up there and would not go away. I ended up driving out and finding a copy of the CD, buying it just to listen to that song and so exorcise it. It was as bleak as I remembered, even more so once I listened carefully to it.

Misery's the river of the world.
Misery's the river of the world.
Misery's the river of the world; Everybody row!
Everybody row!

Waits's command of the language is still as powerful as ever, if harnessed to a black dystopian view of a corrupted world.  He may be, as another friend described him, America's greatest living poet. He's a guy who manages to sum up, and then dismiss, the entire ascent of man in two lines:

The higher up the monkey can climb,
The more he shows his tail.

So here's what I started thinking as I listened to this song again and again: if some guy from a hundred years from now heard this song and it resonated with him, with his life experiences, what sort of world would he come from?

The other thing I realized as I listened is that, no matter how bleak and hopeless Waits's music may sound, it is not without hope. If there is no hope, then there is no point to rage -- and there's plenty of rage here. Out of that first question came the idea for this novel, or rather for its protagonist, and out of that second understanding came the theme. Here's the brief setup:

About thirty years in our future, we are contacted by a star-faring civilization, a mostly-peaceful "Star Collective" encompassing all the settled worlds of five intelligent races -- all they have ever encountered. We are invited to join and we do so, becoming the sixth race of the Collective. Fast forward seventy more years and, due to the intellectual property laws of the Collective, we are locked into all the low-tech, low-wage, dead-end grunt jobs. There are a couple areas at which we excel. We have a creative streak unmatched by the other races, and so Human musicians, composers, visual artists, architects, even interior designers are in demand throughout the Collective. For those without a creative streak, or the ability to fake it, Human mercenaries are widely used as well. Finally, we are very, very good at crime.

The title comes from a quotation from Leo Tolstoy, as I believe I mentioned in a previous posting, but it is worth repeating as it captures the theme of the novel completely:

There is something in the human spirit which will survive and prevail, there is a tiny and brilliant light in the heart of a man that will not go out no matter how dark the world becomes.

That is to say, the novel is hopeful in tone, a celebration of our better angels which remain with us-- if we let them -- regardless of how black things appear.

By the way, Blood Money is a remarkable album, one which gets in your head and grows on you over time. The music was written for the 2000 musical stage production of Woyzeck, co-produced by Waits and Robert Wilson and based on the famous incomplete stage play of the same name. written by George Buechner and published posthumously in 1879. Strange to contemplate the play's origin in the middle of the Victorian era, but there you are. The song God's Away on Business from the album appears in the 2005 film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

I highly recommend the album -- but not for the faint of heart.

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