It’s funny that despite all the literary fiction I’ve read over the last couple of decades and all my literary aspirations, I ended up settling on my current subject, my current writing obsession.
Throughout my twenties and thirties, I’d wanted to be a writer. Like Wilco’s great lyrical genius Jeff Tweedy says in his book How to Write One Song, I’d wanted to be a writer, thought of myself as a writer—long before I’d written anything or had any idea what I’d put down. In fact, that’s the rub for most would-be’s, isn’t it? Do they have an idea worth writing about?
Before starting my current thesis project, I’d just finished most of a novel (it’ll require all kinds of rewriting, I’m sure, before it’s ready to try to publish) for an undergraduate novel-writing course at UMUC, ostensibly called Jim Vs. the Devil, about a southern border patrolman, Jim, at the epicenter of a battle between drug smugglers backed by Satan himself and the inventor of, and proponents of, a cure for drug addiction backed by the Spirit of America called Colombia.
It was a supernatural “Avengers Battle for the Soul of America” kind of thing, firmly in the magical realism camp (with a healthy dose of comic book-style action, too; I’ve often imagined teaming with my very talented artist son to make both my novels into graphic novels when he’s a little older, out of high school.) So I was already on a kick from the beginning of my writing life about the Devil, Christianity, and mankind’s interaction with it.
The origin of that novel, though, and its driving idea throughout, was my hatred of drug smuggling across the border, what it does to our country (especially the next generation now that fentanyl is killing them), my misgivings about the American government’s handling of that ongoing crisis, and my hope for a final solution—or at least the start of a solution—in the form of a border wall. So that book is really about the border wall.
(And, by the way, I’m pissed that the Biden administration only funnels money into drug addiction services and has mostly halting construction of the wall while drug deaths soar. Don’t get me wrong: addiction treatment isn’t a bad thing. It is certainly part of the solution. It at least keeps drug abusers alive and perhaps makes them high-functioning addicts who can work instead of siphoning public dollars, but the bigger solution, the final solution, is to cut the flood of drugs off at its source.)
Aanywhoooo, my point is that I guess I didn’t fully scratch the itch—the compulsion to write about the Hell mythology and its master—so the next thing you know, after a night of watching Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief, I had an awesome dream about kids running a kind of Minotaur’s maze in Hell (I direct movies in my sleep. Do you do that?), and I woke up thinking that’s it! That’s the next book! But of course one setting, one scene, doesn’t make a novel so I started asking myself Why? Why are the kids there? “Well, Satan brought them there to perform in a kind of barbarian game, a spectacle for the damned, in Hell’s romanesque Colosseum.” Why put on a show for the damned? “Well, it’s a show of force, an appeasement for the population—like the Roman emperor did during his time: he used it to scare, astound, and stun them into submission, cement himself as the high ruler, and show off the amazing skill of his champions.” But why would Satan do that? “Because the population might otherwise rebel. After all, there must be literally billions of people there if it exists, right?”