Excerpt from “Nobody’s Hero:” “Do you realize?”

Pru pressed the top of her head to the air-conditioner-cooled glass and gazed out and down the window at the ant-sized people 12 stories below. As they boarded and disembarked the 3184 bus, she could identify a woman in the red standard-issue polo for Target employees. A man in nurse scrubs. Two workmates in matching Centropolis Transit Authority jackets.

It must be nice, she thought, to have a job that didn’t follow you home on the bus. The two-for-one mop heads and $10 earrings would stay at the store. The allergist’s patients would go to their own homes to sneeze and cough and hack around the dog they insisted on keeping. The trains and buses would run with someone else behind the wheel. None of them would have their work phone tucked into bed with them like a teddy bear.

The song pumping through Pru’s earbuds changed to “Do You Realize” by The Flaming Lips. A breathy countdown started in her ear: “1…2…3…4” before a drum downbeat and acoustic guitars kicked in at full volume.

High school economics had been the bane of Pru’s 17-year-old existence — the sure end to her short life, and the highest hurdle she was sure she’d ever have to conquer — and she had coped with it by lying flat on her back on the carpet and playing this song through bulky noise-canceling headphones so loud that the supply vs. demand charts wallpapering her brain vibrated right off the walls and crashed to the floor.

As Wayne Coyne asked her if she realized that happiness made her cry, she closed her eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time she cried, from happiness or otherwise. Maybe it was when Joseph — or was it Jordan? She couldn’t remember any more — Holmes had ditched her at prom for his ex. She was clearly overdue: It was time to stoke up Field of Dreams or Finding Neverland and let five or six years worth of emotions come pouring out of her tear ducts, uncorked like a fine aged wine.

Now Wayne Coyne was reminding her that everyone she knew someday would die, and she caught a laugh in her throat before it could escape. Yes, that much was clear, as indicated from what she had just witnessed: Her boss, her friend-turned-tormentor, dead on the lab floor, surrounded by baby carrots and unresolved, origin-unknown animosity.

And that made it even harder to grasp why tears weren’t coming to her eyes — happy, or sad. Rather than waiting around to be told to recognize mortality and acknowledge that sunsets were just an illusion caused by the Earth’s rotation, she ripped the earbuds out of her ears and tossed them to the desk before returning to the article she had just pulled up onto her computer on how to chill a body at the right temperature to throw off a coroner’s report.

Worth the weight: On slowing down and dropping deadlines

Two things about me, one that I don’t like to admit, and one that I love pulling from my hat whenever I need to feel superior to others:

1. I am highly superstitious about some things, and typically in the opposite way as other people.

2. I used to be a journalist.

Now that you know these two things, you’ll understand when I say that I’ve always considered Friday the 13th to be a lucky day to accomplish things, such as ask a boy to prom (he said yes) or send a novel manuscript to an agent (he, too, said yes). And as a former magazine editor and reporter, I also function best with deadlines. If I miss them, I spend a debatably healthy amount of time berating myself for being forgetful, dysfunctional or just plain lazy.

In April I told my agent I’d have a full manuscript of Nobody’s Hero to him by Friday, Sept. 13. By the time I finished extracting marrow from my bones and putting it on a page — how else can you describe writing the first draft of anything? — I had less than a month to edit it, send it to my beta readers, incorporate their suggestions, copy edit, and ship it off to Ross via the Gmail Express.

In other words, to make my deadline I’d have to go on a leave of absence during a high-stress time at my day job, stop sleeping, cut ties with all my friends, and retreat to my apartment like Johnny Depp in Secret Window. And if you’ve seen that movie, you know that it’s best for everyone that I don’t become Johnny Depp in Secret Window.

So a couple weeks ago I looked at the 2019 calendar again and saw with relief that Dec. 13 is also a Friday. The year has given me one more lucky day, and it means that I can make Nobody’s Hero exactly as I want it to be before sending it off. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Mom keeps asking me if I’m enjoying the writing. Not if I’m doing it, or if I’m almost done with it.* She wants to know I’m having fun, and now that I’m allowing myself the pleasure of time, I am.

*Lesson to friends of writers: Don’t ask how close they are to finishing a project. Ask if they’re enjoying it. My mother is a wise woman who has dealt with the many Creative Moods of Kate.

I’ll admit that the editing process started painfully. That’s what happens when you write a book over 18 months — and may be why Stephen King insists that he writes a book each “season” rather than a year and a half. When you take that long to write a story, the tone changes, and although the characters morph into what you want them to be, they don’t always do it the way they should. Case in point, Pru Mornay is absolutely heartless in Chapters One through Four, and while having a flawed main character is interesting, having an irredeemable one is off-putting. The structure was all off, with the perspective shifting between characters from paragraph to paragraph instead of section to section, and innumerable details were flat-out wrong.

In the end, I had to rewrite those chapters, and in the process, kill multiple darlings. Farewell, Foster’s glib and uncharacteristically cold remark about Pru’s dating life. Au revoir, Opal’s penthouse apartment. You were once a gorgeous description and massive plot hole.

But the revisions are becoming easier, or at least more fun, to make, and as I read through what’s already on the page, I find more opportunities to organically world-build and bring in snippets of commentary that I wanted to make clear but never had time to develop when working off plot alone. I’ve had a couple revelations and added some minor characters that help deepen the personalities of my supporting cast. There’s a notebook on my beside table that I use to write down words in the books I’ve been reading (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Robert “JK it’s Rowling” Galbraith’s Lethal White) that I want to incorporate into my own work. “Gawping,” for one. “Indefatigable,” for another. Anything to liven up the writing.

And I’m sticking to editing a chapter a night, maybe more on the weekends, fueled by scotch, whiskey or limoncello. Sure, Hemingway said “write drunk, edit sober.” These nights it feels like I’m doing more rewriting, so as far as I’m concerned, he can put that in his Cuba libre and sip it.

Because dammit, I’m having fun!

A coda: Jidenna released a new album, 85 to Africa, the week after I finished the rough draft, and the first track was called “Worth the Weight” featuring Seun Kuti. While the song focuses on the experience of displaced and emigrant Africans around the world, particularly in America, a line really spoke to me as I came to terms with having to let go of my personal deadline in favor of drawing even more marrow from my bones to bolster Nobody’s Hero to its full strength:

“And I pray that I’m the brightest sound that you ever felt / I’ma take a million flights around, ’til that shit is felt / That’s that lead the way, ayy / That’s no piece of cake, ayy…”

Short Story: Would You Like To See Magic? Would You Like To Do Magic?

Oh, mamma, I didn’t mean to do it I didn’t mean to make a deal with the man in the scarf and diamond shoes at the end of the block but OK yes you told me not to talk to him, and I didn’t think you meant not to be polite you’re always saying I should be polite so when he said Hello I thought I should say Hello back and then he said he liked my hat and I said I liked his scarf and the next thing I knew it felt like that long blue and white scarf was wrapping around my wrist and pulling me into the alley where he lives and then he handed me a cup of tea from a kettle over the trashcan fire and it tasted so good, mamma. No, not as good as yours, of course, but so good, like the way marshmallows smell when being burned over a fire of dry leaves on a cool October night, the night that Ansolo wrapped me in his coat and told me he would always love me no matter what no matter if the sun goes black and the skies turn solid.

And that’s when the man said Axiom Would You Like To See Magic and the flames in the trash can turned purple, not like your dress purple, but like the flowers on the lavender bush outside, like the color I’m always trying to get right with my paints but never do because I add too much white or too much blue or the green accidentally runs into it. They were so beautiful, mamma, and they spit vibrant silver sparks unlike any fire I’ve ever seen before, and then he asked Would You Like To Do Magic and what color I’d like to turn the flames next, and I thought of one, and they turned that turquoise shade that only silk can hold.

I asked him what else he could do and he took my hand in his and put a thumb to that scar on the back of it from when I fought Brandlee on the playground when she was making fun of Tobi, the new half-orc in our class, and suddenly it disappeared and I didn’t have the crescent moon of her nails etched on the skin anymore and, mamma, it felt so good, like someone had peeled a layer of pain off my flesh and I could stretch and dance and breathe again. And I thought Ansolo, lying in that bed, waiting for me to come and read to him or paint by the window while we talked or, at least, while I talked as he can’t really talk much without tiring himself out and coughing and falling asleep now that the Sickness has reached his lungs and I asked the man if he would come with me to see Ansolo so he could heal him and the man just laughed and flung his scarf over his shoulder and said I didn’t need him to come with if I learned how to heal Ansolo myself.

Mamma, I know I shouldn’t have I know that I know you said not to enter into deals with strangers, let alone the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes, but he said it would be easy and that all I’d need to do was shake his hand and I’d have the power to heal Ansolo and turn fire purple and turquoise and do so many other things like vanquish evil so elves like Brandlee would never make fun of half-orcs like Tobi and I don’t know how he knew all of that but his diamond shoes were so shiny and he was so nice and the tea tasted so good and I went to Ansolo’s house feeling like the man was still squeezing my hand like I was walking hand-in-hand with a phantom and my arms and chest and legs tingled in anticipation of knowing that I could cure Ansolo now and make him better and we could finally get out of this little town and have the adventures he promised me while wrapping me in his coat that autumn night.

And it worked! It worked, mamma, and once I had taken Ansolo’s hand he stopped coughing and his legs started to twitch under the blanket and he actually swung them over the side and stood up and walked to the window, right past the easel I had been painting at and looked out at the trees like he was getting up from a good night’s sleep instead of months of slow death as his body gave up on him. And then he looked at me and asked me Who Are You.

I’m Axiom Your Wife I told him and I went to stand with him at the window and take his hand and remind him how he would hold me just so like our bodies were designed to fit together and he pulled away and looked at me like I always looked at the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes, that is to say Go Away I Don’t Know You I Don’t Trust You I Don’t Want To Talk To You, and my heart burst out of my chest and dropped to the floor with a thud as I saw in his eyes that he didn’t know who I was and that my easel by the window had disappeared and so had the paper flowers and birds I had hung from string over his bed and so had the tiny portrait of us at the festival last summer and so had the ring he wore around his finger to tell everyone that he was mine that I was his that we were lassoed together with gold bonds that couldn’t be severed.

And I realized as I twisted my own gold ring around my finger, holding tight to it so it wouldn’t disappear too, that he didn’t know me that he didn’t remember me that to him that night by the bonfire with the marshmallows and the moon hadn’t happened or at least hadn’t included me and I saw over his shoulder the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes sneer at me as he held something aloft that sparkled in the morning sun and it was Ansolo’s ring and memory of me. I was so distracted by the sight that I didn’t notice that Ansolo was about to walk right into me then walked right through me like I no longer existed in his world and I wondered, mamma, if I didn’t exist for him if he didn’t exist for me either, but I know that’s not true, mamma, because I still had the ring on my finger and I still could smell his skin and hear his laugh and remember when we first met as kids on the bank of the creek by our house where we caught gillyfish in our bare hands until the backs of our necks were red with sunburn. Why, mamma? Why did the man with the scarf and diamond shoes take me from Ansolo, but not Ansolo from me?

It’s agony, mamma, like Ansolo took a part out of his heart and I took a part out of mine and we swapped them, like trading out two identically shaped but differently colored puzzle pieces except now he’s handed my piece back and has walked away perfectly whole, somehow, while I have this extra piece of me that was once part of him jammed inside of me reminding me that he once loved me but doesn’t even know me anymore and I’ll always love him but will never be able to get him back.

Why are you looking at me like that, mamma? What do you mean you don’t remember Ansolo?

Vignette: Moxie’s mood makeup

Even lost at sea, she lined her eyes to coordinate with how she felt that day.

At the start of the adventure, she painted her lids with dazzling purple glitter, adding a dot or a star that reflected how shiny and new this wave-riding world felt to her. By the end of the day, the glitter would have flaked and fallen onto her cheeks so that in certain lights, it looked like sea spray, sometimes tears.

They called her Moxie, even though she had never asked them to. Her real name was Sue, but there was a mute man on the crew with a parrot he spelled out as “S-O-O” using a fist and two O-shaped hand gestures. At least, that’s what everyone preferred to think that sequence of sign language letters meant. He could have just been telling them to jack him off. And anyway, Moxie was fine with her new moniker. She’d always wanted an “X” in her name.

The longer they floated aimlessly — except, notably, when they were plowing through the waves to get away from a giant sea monster or enemy ship — the less color she used. Sometimes it would be brown or muted green that brought out the flecks in her hazel irises: A sign that she was being particularly introspective that day. Other times it was a faint gold that reflected the red-sky-at-morning and a particularly playful attitude. And then there were the dark days, like the ones after Porfry and Greela were snatched overboard by a giant squid, or when Yaru was shot through the heart by rival pirates, when she smudged black kohl across her lids and cried it off by supper.

One night a crew-mate called Kraken snuck into Moxie’s quarters and found the tiny box containing her eye paints. It was ebonied wood with a tarnished clasp of cheap metal that had somehow not rusted shut in the sea air that cocooned everything in moist warmth. Moxie knew that Kraken was in her room the minute she heard the screams, the guttural gurgling, and seen the blood creep from under the door and into the main galley as the boat pitched. She calmly opened the door, stepped over the puddle of Kraken’s blood, and closed the box.

By the morning, the blood was cleaned up. The only sign that Kraken had once been on the ship was the stain on the wood planks outside the door. It was the same reddish brown as the dramatically winged eyeliner painted across Moxie’s lids.

Inglourious Basterds: A decade of revisionist catharsis

File this under “writespiration” — ten years of it, as it turns out. I was shocked to find out that it’s been a decade since Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds was released on an unsuspecting world.

I won’t take too much time talking about how the revisionist historical look at Adolf Hitler’s demise has gained new gravity since its release in 2009. Back then it was surprising and satisfying, watching Nazis die horrible deaths and Hitler peppered with bullets until his face looks like a cheap Halloween mask. Today it’s purely cathartic, as the very thing Aldo Raine, the basterds, Bridget von Hammersmark and Shosanna Dreyfus blew up in that Parisian theater has returned with internet memes, tiki torches and the presidential seal.

Instead, I want to focus on how Tarantino’s first installment of his revisionist trilogy (the other two being Django Unchained and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) inspired me to start writing speculative fiction. Revisionism and speculation are polar opposites, I get that, but they share the same starting point: Alternate reality.

Inglorious Basterds asks “What could have been?” I like to ask “What could be?”

The latter, of course, is the basis for science fiction, and I suppose I write a lot of that. But with my current project — of which the first draft is done (woot) and awaiting two months’ worth of extensive edits (oof) — I prefer to focus on what our reality would be if tech-enabled vigilantes existed and were widely accepted. Where Tarantino’s film asked what would have happened if a band of rogue American Jews were enabled to massacre the entire Nazi party in one night, I ask what would happen if the Good Samaritan line cooks and taxi drivers of the world suddenly became superheroes…and super-villains.

My hope is that my project says as much as Tarantino did in his film. But because of that movie from 10 years before, I know the kind of emotion I want to draw from my readers: Not catharsis at watching one of the most evil men to ever live get blasted apart like a piñata stuffed with C4, but the same curiosity hinging on the question “What if?”

Vignette: Patrick Bateman is my neighbor

I’ve got a confession to make. “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins is not on my phone.

That is why, when I woke up to the iconic bah-dum-bah-dum-bah-dum-bah-dum-dum drum riff at the 3-minute-and-16-second mark at 5:15 a.m. on a Saturday, I knew it wasn’t my alarm waking me up. That would have been the bink-beng-bum-bink-beng-bum-bink-beng-bum-bink-bink-beng-bum guitar of “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone.

A quick scan of my apartment confirmed that the poltergeist who had knocked one of my framed pictures off the wall two nights before hadn’t continued its mischief by turning my stereo on, either.

“You don’t know who this is?” slurred a voice as loud as the music. “How do you not know who this fucking is?”

Of course I knew who this was, but apparently my neighbor’s guest, a girl cackling with liquored-up laughter, didn’t, and was now enduring his wrath as he continued yelling over Phil’s echoing, ethereal eloquence.

And then — silence.

Maybe he’s murdering her with an ax, I thought during the absence of sound. Seems a high price to pay for not knowing a song, but Patrick Bateman killed over business card stock after explaining Huey Lewis and the News to Paul Allen in American Psycho, so anything’s possible.

The next morning I ran into her as she left his apartment, heels in hand and mascara dust powdering her cheeks. She had the flush of someone who had had a good night. Thank god I wasn’t awake to hear that part.

We stood waiting for the elevator, with her flipping through social media on her phone so she doesn’t have to acknowledge me. And I wasn’t going to say anything until she almost ran me over in an attempt to get into the empty elevator that had just arrived.

As we descended 20 floors, I began to whistle “In the Air Tonight.”

The Immortal Toni Morrison

It took me a while to know what I wanted to write about Toni Morrison that hadn’t already been said more eloquently. So before you keep reading, please take a look at what so many talented black women have written, like Charlene Carruthers’ piece in Out Magazine, Akwaeke Emezi’s letter in Them, or Roxane Gay’s piece in the New York Times.

And once you’ve read their takes — and hopefully followed the breadcrumbs to other fantastic writers who were not just inspired but seen and represented by Ms. Morrison’s writing — you can come back and read mine.

Back?

Cool.

I credit Meggan Burgoni, my 10th grade English and 12th grade Humanities teacher, with introducing me to two literary loves of my life: Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison. The first she sent me on a two-week getaway with in the form of a winter break Welcome to the Monkey House assignment. The second she teased me with in the spring of 2009 via a slow-paced reading of Beloved.

Recently I read Wired’s review of Euphoria that rightfully lauded the HBO series as the “perfect anti-binging show” — that part of the series’ allure is how it forces you to sit with what you’ve seen and develop your opinions, hopes and fears for each character over eight weeks instead of eight hours. Beloved can be described in the same way. You can read it in a single night, but it won’t have the same effect. You’ll miss things. And so Burgoni would quiz us daily to make sure not that we had done the reading we had been assigned, but that we hadn’t gotten farther in the book than she asked us to read.

(This is where I confess that I totally read ahead sometimes, just made a mental note of where each assignment passage ended so I’d still pass the quiz. Sorry, Mizz B.)

A year after I read Welcome to the Monkey HouseCat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five — the latter two by choice — Kurt Vonnegut died. When we heard the news, a lot of us didn’t even realize he was still alive. I think it was because Vonnegut’s wit and voice, while staying mostly relevant throughout the American Idiot Bush-led era we were teenage-angsting our way through, was clearly from another time. He was one of the literature titans that had formed modern sci-fi satire and been overthrown by the Zeustic powers of Chuck Palahniuk, Christopher Moore and other nihilistic authors who captured our attention with their equally raw but timely storytelling. It was sad he was gone, but we’d still have fun scouring used bookstores for vintage copies of Timequake.

But on Tuesday when I heard that Ms. Morrison had passed, I was gutted. She was supposed to be immortal. Souls are immortal, aren’t they? After all, she was the soul of American literature. She was the conscience, too. And the heart. And the folds of the brain where relationships and emotion hold hands. I haven’t found another writer like it, and I’ve blown my book budget and deprived myself of sleep trying to find one.

There was no other writer who could slice me open; fill me with the faith, skepticism, jubilation, torment, distrust and fellowship felt by her characters; sew me up again for 200 pages; yank out the stitches and the stuffing with one hand at the stories’s climax; and leave me with more understanding and compassion than I had when we started. Her writing changed me.

And she did that without even writing for me. She wrote for black women — the “most disrespected person in America,” as Malcolm X famously and accurately said — but everyone else had the privilege of reading it and learning from it, too.

A couple years ago, I sat in the airport before a business trip, reading Beloved for the fifth or sixth time (I read it every 18 months and always find something new in it). A group of older black women walked past me, and one of them stopped.

“Great book,” she said, more to herself than to me. Then she called to her friends: “This white girl’s reading Toni!” We ended up talking about the book for a couple minutes before their flight was called. She told me the next one I should read was Sula. I’ve read it twice since.

I think that was the first time I saw through the privilege I had experienced as a Caucasian reader and recognized that I was reading something that wasn’t created for me. It was my first reckoning that artists don’t just write for anyone — they have a specific audience, and if they’re good enough, their work attracts readers from outside that group. And I thanked Burgoni all over again for tempting our mostly white, middle-class Humanities cohort to huddle around our red paperbacks at lunch, desperately reading ahead to see what would happen to Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver and Beloved.

There’s a lot more I could say about Ms. Morrison. How she pulled other underrepresented writers up with her, saying “the function of freedom is freeing someone else.” How she refused to be a victim of racism and demanded that white people be the ones to fix it. Then there’s her work on its own: How The Bluest Eye made me a sobbing wreck on a very crowded rush-hour train. How Tar Baby gave us one of the best deep-dives into the social and spiritual meanings of beauty, and Jazz gave us this beautiful quote:

Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.”

Instead, I’ll leave you with one final story. I mentioned to my mom on Tuesday that Ms. Morrison wasn’t published until she was 39 or 40. As I currently lose sleep (and possibly friends) over a first-draft of a book that ebbs between good and garbage, this is reassuring to me, as well as a reminder to slow down — much like when reading Beloved. In fact, I joked to my mom as my throat closed up around a sob that maybe this is a sign that I should just stop and wait until I’m 35 or so to pick writing back up again. The Bluest Eye took five years to write, after all.

Then Mom countered with another biographical detail. When Ms. Morrison’s son died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer, she quit writing from grief. But upon thinking about it, she realized that the last thing he would have wanted. So she started writing again.

“So what would Toni want you to do?” Mom asked.

It’s simple. It’s the quote that most writers have tattooed inside their skulls, if not on their actual skin. And I hesitated to include it in this post (everyone is including it in their posts), but it’s a rally cry that every writer should shout at the top of their lungs and blog pages for the rest of time:

“If there’s a book you want to read, write it.”

I love you, Ms. Morrison. Thank you. Rest in power.