Previously on My Origin Story: I wrote a second novel and got bored with it.
In the early 80s, I had my first nuclear war dream. I dreamed the Russians nuked the moon. Ronald Reagan had taken office, the anti-nuke movement was gearing up and apocalypse was in the air. Stephen King’s The Stand had always been one of my favorite books and I was ready to do the post-apocalyptic tango. During my junior year of high school, I researched nuclear war and got all nicely bleak about the future of humanity.
For the first time since I learned to write, I had spent the previous summer not writing. (Boyfriend and all that–they can be so distracting.) So that summer, I hit the ground writing and started my 3rd novel, which I referred to casually as “Summer Fat.”
By now, I had a little formula worked out for how to tackle the process:
First, Gather. This is a combination of research, character-building and scene notes to begin a story. I read up on nuclear fallout, saw A Boy and His Dog and picked names for my characters, one of my favorite aspects of writing a novel.
Second, Playing. Assume the personas of all the characters and act out scenes before bed and when you’re bored on the bus and whenever you feel like it. This is how most of my scenes are generated. I call this “playing.”
Third, write until you get bored.
And that was about as far as I’d come after two novels. This time, I set up a regular place to write using a stereo console and a wooden plank as my desk. I used Bic pens and loose-leaf college-ruled paper. I put on writing clothes and wrote nearly every day, sometimes for 12 or 14 hours. For once, I had a fairly clear idea of where I was going. Sara, a junior in high school when the story begins, realizes through dreams she’s been chosen by some unknown force to survive the coming nuclear war. She meets others who she senses will also survive, and she convinces them by touching them and giving them a shock. They begin setting up an underground shelter and filling it with stolen artwork and memorabilia from all over the world.
Not much else happens. There are a lot of talking/planning scenes with numerous characters (a staple of most of my novels since then). I experimented with the narrative and had Sara’s viewpoint be somewhat stream of consciousness. This alternates with a tedious journal Sara keeps after the apocalypse where she rambles on to future generations about what life was like in the olden days. (Gosh I hope I wasn’t this obnoxious when I was 17.) The rest of the story is told from the viewpoint of many of the characters right before they’re touched, and then as they adjust to being chosen. It’s more of a blueprint for surviving nuclear war with just a little help from unnamed magical realism forces than it is a proper story.
But I wrote it almost all the way to the end, and actually rewrote the whole thing for the first time. School started and I stopped before the very end, when Our Gang emerges from the shelter at the same time a Russian group emerges and they all start another war. Like I said, bleak. I didn’t skip scenes or jump ahead to the fun parts. And I created one character, Kevin Pearson, who emerges as a fully fleshed-out person. Rocking a kind of Charles Bukowski vibe, his scenes are the best in the book, for what that’s worth.
Kevin lit a cigarette, savoring the smell of sulphur. He grinned wryly up at the smoke-eater over the bar. Joe had probably sacrificed the equivalent of a few pounds of weed and a little cocaine just to buy the damn thing.
‘It does so much good you can barely see it through the smoke,’ Kevin thought.
Whirling the squeaky bar stool around, he rested his back against the wall behind him and slung his legs over the next two stools, booted ankles crossed. Les hurriedly slammed a can of Coors down in front of him. He would have preferred wine, or at least beer that tasted like beer, but as usual he had lived and died well outside his means the night before.
Kevin deserved his own novel, something noirish and ironic where he finds a heart just before it gets crushed.
I wrote myself out over that summer. I thought I wouldn’t work on another book for years to come. I was wrong, as my most obsessive and wordy and insanely insular novel would come and grab me by the neck within a few months. But at least I learned some discipline with my 3rd novel, and I had a pretty good time planning my own private apocalypse.
Here are some much better post-apocalyptic stories:
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1964)
Cause: Nuclear testing throws the Earth’s orbit closer to the sun.
This tense, weird thriller from Britain features lots of nihilism and sweat, and it’s all in a sepia-toned haze that makes you feel like the sun is really moving closer, ever closer.
A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Cause: Nukes. Don Johnson bonds telepathically with a pooch named Blood in the post-nuclear wasteland of the Midwest. Despite some ugliness surrounding the women in the story, the movie is a lot of fun.
Escape From New York (1981)
Cause: Rampant crime prompted the breakdown of society so they gave up Manhattan and made it a maximum security prison. Kurt Russell growls prettily as a convict conscripted to go in and save the president after Air Force One crashlands in the danger zone. Over-the-top in a good way.
Road Warrior (1981)
Cause: Nukes. Back when it was still safe to like Mel Gibson. The best of the Mad Max films so far, the movie gives a blueprint for the punk-leather-and-feathers look of upcoming Billy Idol and Duran Duran videos. Vicious and sharp and a helluva lot of fun.
Cause: Nukes. This quiet movie entered the fray with little fanfare as we follow a family’s struggles after blinding flashes in the sky. Less fun but more effective as a truer story of what it would really be like. Jane Alexander is heartbreaking as a mother tending to her suddenly very sick children.
The Day After (1983)
Cause: Nukes. Made for TV, this movie debuted after much press and debate and came with a crisis line number at the end in case you needed counseling. Ronald Reagan reportedly had a strong reaction to an early screening, saying it made him think about the existing nuclear arms policy. An affecting film though not as graphic as it could have been.
Cause: Nukes. Britain’s answer to The Day After, Threads goes further in showing the depradations that would likely occur after a nuclear war, complete with graphic violence and suffering. And rats. No fun at all, but a fine film.
Cause: Polar ice caps melt, flood the world. Called Kevin’s Gate and saddled with cost overruns and bad press, the movie didn’t fare well. Maybe because of lowered expectations, I found it entertaining hokum. Don’t pay money to see it, but if you catch it on SyFy or rent it from the library, it’s not a bad time.
The Children of Men (2006)
Cause: Environmental disaster and chaos cause most of the world to become infertile. Clive Owen is perfectly cast as the grim-faced anti-hero who must squire the only pregnant woman in the world to safety to save humanity’s future. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, the darkly beautiful film is like a literary popcorn movie.
Cause: Environmental disaster. Gorgeous Pixar animation and storytelling make this elegiac film a delight to watch as the scrappy clean-up robot accidentally finds life on post-collapse Earth. Now it’s up to WALL-E to save the day and give humanity back a future. Making the apocalypse safe for fun again.