Thursday, January 8, 2015

Five Questions: "The Unofficial Guide to Travelling With Kin"

My first original story in a year has dropped. "The Unofficial Guide to Travelling with Kin" is now available online and in glossy print format in Betwixt Magazine Issue 6. This issue also contains a story by another Clarionite, Gabriela Santiago of the 2013 class. Much thanks to editor Joy Creslin for publishing my second story for Betwixt. It's a nifty magazine going places.

So let's dive into my Five Questions format for some brain pickings over how this story came to be.

Bruce, that you?
(image: Chris Hemsworth
photoshopped as a unicorn)
What was the inspiration for "Unofficial Guide"?
A lot of people have a fantasy about running away, checking out the greener grass. At the time the inspiration I was annoyed with some aspect or another of my life (I can't honestly remember, I must've built a good bridge writing this story), and had the silly thought "what if I just kept on driving until I couldn't drive any more?" Of course, this kicked off the fantastic side of my brain. What sort of hitchhikers would I see? If I reached the ocean, could I drive on the ocean floor? Do werewolves eat salad?

Within hours of chucking these ideas into the mystic toilet of my writer brain, I plunged into the rabbit hole of investigating road stories. "The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why It Matters" by Vanessa Velka solidified where I was going narrative-wise. The fantasy of hitting the road, seeing the world, shaping your story as the tarmac unfolds before you is a quintessentially male privilege, emboldened by books and movies into a mystical experience. Any violence a man experiences on the road is seen as cool, or he is in control of, or he escapes.

The story for women - their reasons for escape, their self policing while on the road - is completely different. If there are road narratives for women, they are usually punished for the control they take. Violence is enacted upon them, they are eventually "sent home", they are punished in some way for stepping outside the strict boundaries of a woman's life narrative, for encroaching on a narrative and physical space that's been constructed as intrinsically male. Or as in the case of one of the most famous women's road narratives, "Thelma and Louise", they choose death rather than a prison cell (metaphorically and physically, that of domesticity and incarceration).

The ending was a bit Thelma and Louise - the reader doesn't know what happens to the driver.
That was absolutely intentional. I like creating endings that leave something to the imagination - I like making my reader work beyond the last word.

I wanted to expand on that Thelma and Louise idea, and make it obvious that woman CAN survive the hard choices of walking away, because women don't usually survive road narratives. Perhaps Thelma and Louise DID survive driving off the cliff, but there was nothing magical to indicate they would. My driver absolutely had mermaids looking out for her, or a kraken ready to wrap her up in a big womanly hug if she wanted it. Or she could have continued driving on to another continent to discover what interesting hitchhikers awaited her there. I wanted her to come face to face with the violence of the road, compare it to the violence she left behind, and discover she had the strength within, even if she never actually does anything with that strength. Sometimes women just carry on.

Have you ever picked up a unicorn hitchhiker?
Being a lone woman driver is also a dangerous experience. As much as I would have liked to (I've done lots of long road trips on my own over the years), I have never picked up a hitchhiker while driving alone. This self policing makes me sad and angry - imagine all the incredible people I've missed getting to know! It's also unfair on the hitchhiker - they're in need of help. Rarely has any hitchhiker I've picked up (because I'm with a passenger) been all about the adventure of the road. It's a means to an end.

Like the driver of my story, I pick up women hitchers. I know how dangerous it can be on the other side of the car door for them, so if I can give them a couple hours of rest from that ever present anxiety of "what jerk am I going to have to deal with for a ride?", I'm all for that.

And, no. I haven't picked up a unicorn, or a werewolf, dragon, or mermaid. They were probably not comfortable enough to show me their true kinship. I keep my own dragon-ness buried pretty deep, so I understand.

I searched images of fantastical beings
for inspiration. This could be Late For Lunch.
(image: a dark skinned mermaid with
long brown hair, and a copper coloured tail)
Did the story change, or did it all fall into place quickly?
The original draft happened quickly, and I had all the hitch-hikers fleshed out from the beginning, but I struggled to find the driver's motivation. I wanted her to be an "every-woman" of a sort, hence how I hold back on identifying descriptions. However, feedback I kept getting back was that she was just a bit hollow and not driving (arh arh) the action enough. So yeah, it was silly to try and write an every-woman, because all women are different and their experiences are informed by so many factors and intersections.

I wasn't entirely comfortable with narrowing her experience down because I wanted to convey that sometimes people run away just because. A sense of wrongness operating within a capitalist system. Feeling trapped by familial expectations. A sense that what you thought were right decisions brought you to the wrong place in life. So, yeah, it was all a little bit too existential for my writing skill to convey at this point in my career, so I bit my tongue and chose a reason.

Because the story was ultimately about the violence women experience on the road, and how they take charge of that, I gave the driver a domestic violence back story. Eventually it all clicked together that she uses what she learned from that part of her life, and the realization that women can be there for her, to pass on that quiet strength to others. Sometimes just sitting in silence with someone is sharing and a type of listening.

Where did the title come from? It actually sounds like a real guide book.
It sort of is! I was having a tough time finding a resonant title, and it only clicked just before I started sending it out on submission. At the time I was writing the story I was planning one of my regular trips to Disneyland. A Disney geek, I get an updated copy of "The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland", a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek guide, each time I go. I had the 2013 edition sitting on my desk as I was writing. I glanced at the cover, smacked my forehead, and said "Of course!"

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