Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Why I Wrote "S.S."

One thing you come to take for granted living in New Orleans is how readily it forgives eccentricity. I never thought of myself as other than a fairly normal person. Sure, I have this predeliction for writing dark stories, and I like watching dark movies, and sometimes my humor runs to the morbid, but . . . hey, that's normal, right?

For many of us in the genre, of course, it is. By New Orleans standards, it was certainly too tame a character trait to qualify as weird, or even interesting.

But standards are different in Asheville. When people I work with found out that I write and have published a few stories, a few were eager to read some. So I circulated a copy of "You Go Where It Takes You," and the reaction has been largely one of dismay. One person has asked me why I have custody of my daughter if I hate her that much. Another has stopped talking to me altogether.

At first I was stunned by this reaction, although now I see I shouldn't have been taken by surprise. Of course you always know that there are going to be people who can't separate the author from the characters, but it's strange to actually encounter it for the first time. It certainly convinces me that I'll never give any of them a copy of "S.S."

"S.S." was published in March of 2005 by The 3rd Alternative. That probably mean that the few of you who come over here have not read it. It's about Nick, a fifteen year old boy, living at home with a mother rapidly descending into insanity, who is seduced by the white nationalist movement. Since the story is told from Nick's point of view, it is also a sympathetic portrayal. Obviously, any confusion between character and author could lead to some trouble.

Many years ago, my brother spent some time in a white supremacist group. He has long since abandoned it, as well as the belief system that accompanied it (by the way, I asked him if I could write about this, and he's given me his blessing). At the time, though, it was scary for me and our mother; very likely for him, too. He wore the persona like a coat, and it seemed to change him completely. I remember him bringing friends over to the house: big guys, shaved heads, radiating hostility. I was never afraid of my brother -- he was, after all, my four years my junior, and a lifetime of exploiting that fact had deluded me into thinking that I would always be able to squash him into submission if I had to -- but I was afraid of his friends. They looked like they could hurt people if they wanted to. And they looked like they wanted to.

This was right around the time, too, when Geraldo Rivera had the neo-Nazis on his show, and one of them broke his nose with a chair. They were getting a lot of press -- at least it seemed so to me. And the public reaction was, of course, one of moral outrage. And that's the proper reaction to any belief system that inspires violence to a people based on ethnicity, religion, what have you. But that outrage is also a warping factor in and of itself, and all to often what happens is that the members of these groups are painted as two-dimensional monsters. There's no substance to them; no gray. (We're seeing this now with "evil," "death-worshiping" Islamic radicals.)

I probably would have leaped eagerly into that reductivist mindset if my brother hadn't been a part of that scene. And I saw the complexities: I heard the racism, saw the burgeoning urge to violence, watched the contempt grow like a cancer. But I saw that same kid (and many of them are just kids) come home at night and play with his G.I. Joe action figures in his bedroom. You know, voices, sound effects, everything. And that created such a dissonance; it was hard to get my mind around it. But it convinced me that he was still just a kid, and that there was hope for him. And that anyone who said he was evil was not making an effort to understand the roots of the problem. Calling it evil wasn't going to solve anything.

It's a liberal's disease, I know: try to understand the villain. Find his inner child. Discover why he is who he is. But I really believe in that. And because of my brother, I know there is a lot of validity to that approach.

So, years later, thinking back on all of that, I decided to write a story about a kid who gets caught up in the movement. It's not my brother's story. Our mother is not crazy, and our father did and continues to maintain an active presence in our lives. But there are cosmetic similarities: a growing sense of alienation and worthlessness; a feeling of abandonment; and a desperate need to fit somewhere.

A lot of people call horror fiction a moral fiction. You know, drugs and sex will get you decapitated. For a long time I scoffed at that notion, and when I wrote "You Go Where It Takes You" I thought I was rebelling against it. But I understand now, especially in light of "S.S.", that I am very much preoccupied with morality, and that those stories at least can fairly be called moral fictions. What I do rebel against, however, is the notion that horror fiction should be an instructive moral fiction. I think all good fiction should ask questions. Beware fiction that offers solutions; beware fiction that offers catharsis. You're being drugged.

I wrote "S.S." to get readers to see the world through Nick's eyes. It was an uncomfortable story to write, and I hope it's an uncomfortable story to read. There are no apologies offered for the epithets he uses, or the actions he takes, because he does not feel they're wrong. I don't celebrate Nick; I don't really like him, even. But I get the kid. I understand him.

If this story ever gets a wider circulation, and people confuse me with the protagonist, the way they sometimes do with Toni, I understand it might cause me some trouble. Especially if people find out about my brother's history and decide to leap to some handy conclusions. But I like fiction that digs into ugly places; I like fiction that places the world in an unusual and disturbing perspective. I think that if horror fiction is truly an exploration into morality, then this is one of its duties. Maybe its most important duty.

That's why I wrote "S.S."

But I'm still too chicken to bring it into work.


At 12:56 PM, Blogger Brian said...

"S.S." was a great story, thanks for sharing this.
As for how the people at work reacted to your story, it's a sign of the times. It seems like few people know how to read fiction. They believe it has to be based on the author in some way. The making stuff up part seems to get past people. If people read more, maybe this wouldn't happen as much.

At 3:20 PM, Blogger colin said...

Stock response: "Do you hate Stephen King for hurting all those nice people in his books?" It strikes me as near lunacy that anyone could read YGWITY and think the author hated and wanted to abandon his child. Mind you, at the end of the story I was outraged, at the character (whose name I forget, sorry), but I realise, or I believe anyway, that was part of the intent.

I guess one has to develop a thick skin to take the abuse that one will receive for exploring unsympathetic characters, or people who (gasp!) do the wrong thing.

I think you'll have to watch out for slightly more plausible and therefore more hurtful questioning of your intent in writing certain stories as well. I can think of another interpretation of the characters in YGWITY that I will omit here, because I think it's wrong and insulting to you, but others will come up with similar interpretations, and you'll have to find some way to deal with that.

At 3:47 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Brian -- I agree, it's not a very sophisticated attitude. I fear a literate audience, if you don't mind me sounding pompous, will only become more scarce in the future.

Colin -- In YGWITY, I expected everyone to be outraged at Toni, but it was my hope that they could also see how she could come to that state; not sympathize with her -- just see that there was a logic to the progression, however deranged.

I think you're right when you say that there are more plausible questions a reader might ask an author about stories like these, and I think "S.S." invites some of those questions, which is why I wrote this little essay. I'm intrigued about the other interpretation of YGWITY that you allude to, though. It sounds sinister ...

At 5:46 PM, Blogger colin said...

Hi, Nathan. The end of YGWITY came as a shock, like a slap in the face to me when I first read it. At first I was dumbfounded. Although I know damn well that that sort of thing actually happens, I couldn't understand why anyone would. Only later, after mulling over the story, did it make it's own kind of sense. So, I was forced to mull over the story, in order to deciper this action by a character who was, if not sympathetic, at least human. The way the story forces you to think about it after you are finished is one of the things that makes it great.

But anyway, that's getting away from the point of your post.

There's nothing particularly sinister about the interpretation I thought of, or deep for that matter. I'm a little sorry I mentioned it at all. It's just a slightly different application of the same simplistic logic that says anything in a story somehow has to reflect the author's private life.

At 6:02 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

You must be referring to my boxes of human hide. The fact is I do skin people alive. Is that so wrong? :)

At 7:01 PM, Blogger colin said...

Ok, ok. There's no point being so mysterious about this stupid idea which occurred to me as I read your post. Keep in mind that I don't believe this for a second, and I'll delete it (or you can) if it bugs you in the least.

So, say someone looked at YGWITY and asked you, "Is Toni abandoning her child at the end of the story about your divorce? Is Toni supposed to represent your ex-wife?" I don't know about you, but I think that would piss me off. Especially since it doesn't make all that much sense. I think you will get readers asking things like that eventually, maybe in front of crowds of other readers.

At 7:29 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

I can see that. And it doesn't bug me; I think those kinds of questions are natural. And even though I understand that that wasn't your interpretation and that you weren't looking for an answer, I'll provide one anyway: the story was written when everything was hunky dory on that front.

YGWITY plays to what I think is the most awful thing in the world: child abandonment. If there's a little kid crying in a book or on screen somewhere, I don't care how schmaltzy or manipulative it is, I'll start crying too. It's like getting hit with a wrecking ball. So naturally I decided it would be a good subject for a story.

I remember the day before I was going to write the last scene; I knew what was coming, and I was already starting to feel just awful about it. I called Mia over to me -- she was two at the time -- and gave her an enormous hug. I felt like I had to apologize to her for what I was about to write.

At 9:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


On "You Go Where It Takes You": We don't write simply to horrify others; we also write to examine our own fears.

After discovering you had a child, I was a little more awed by YGWITY. I understood then that you had tackled something of nigh unimaginable monstrousness and in so doing confronted what I may only guess to be a loving parent's greatest terror--that another, normal human being could be driven to perpetrate such a betrayal of trust, of love. The thought of what it took for you as a father to commit this to words shook me a little.

The ending is visceral and powerful and it lays bare the desperate animal in us all. There but for the grace of God and so forth.

It hurts to read and its going to divide people. A job well done.

Best regards,


At 4:54 PM, Blogger Gone said...

Lovely bit of background information. Keep it handy for eventual use in one of your short story collections.

Of COURSE I'm serious!

At 12:13 PM, Blogger colin said...

Nathan said, "The fact is I do skin people alive."

So, you're never going to tell your co-workers and neighbours about this blog either, right? Don't come crying to me when the crowds with pitchforks and torches show up on your doorstep, shouting, "Get him! He skins people alive! And he's a writer!"

At 12:14 PM, Blogger colin said...

P.S. Thanks for the answer.


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