Thursday, March 03, 2016

Why I Wrote This Book

 I've obviously been slack on the blog activity of late (not that many would notice), but that's because much of my writing focus has been on the creative side. Since 2012 I've penned four full-length manuscripts, one of which was accepted by the only publisher who has yet dared publish my work. This book, entitled The Accidental Marriage, was released in the autumn of 2014 by Ignatius Press.
But herein, apparently, lies the proof that I am a pitiful excuse for a blogger who doesn't have a clue what personal blogs are for. They are for keeping people informed about what's going on in your life, which would include the fact that you had a book published! Here it is, a year and a half after the book was released, and I've yet to say a single word about the work on my own blog. I've made posts reviewing other books, and had my book reviewed on other blogs, and have even been interviewed on television and radio about the book, but I've yet to use my own blog to comment on my own work.
So, a bit late out of my own gate, here's the story behind The Accidental Marriage. It's a short book, just over 200 pages, with a fast-moving plot and only a few major characters. The protagonists, Scott and Megan, are friends who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he's an engineer at a tech start-up and she's a clerk in the city office. They both consider themselves gay, have respective partners, and are good friends who meet for lunch from time to time to share their struggles. The story opens with Megan burdened by the latest wish of her overbearing partner Diane: to have a baby. Obviously this requires a man's participation at some point, and though a sperm bank would serve, funds are tight and cheaper options are attractive. Seeing a way to help, Scott blithely offers to donate sperm to the cause with no strings attached. After a few tries, eventually the donation succeeds and Megan becomes pregnant.
Then things start to come apart. Diane turns on Megan, now seeming to despise both her and the unborn child. Her deteriorating performance at work causes Megan to lose her benefits, including health insurance, and Scott offers to assist by getting her on his policy. This forces a rupture in his already-strained relationship with his partner Greg, as well as the most startling adjustment of all: in order to get Megan on his policy, Scott has to marry her. This they do, merely as an administrative formality. When Megan loses her job and her relationship with Diane totally collapses, Scott offers her a place to live, essentially as a roommate. Scott and Megan work out a simple, mutually beneficial living arrangement that endures even after the birth. They have a little girl, Grace Marie, who is a much-loved addition to their lives.
Then Scott's secure world abruptly flies apart. The tech firm that employs him is secretly bought out, and he loses his job in the midst of severe economic conditions (the story opens in summer of 2009, so the story unfolds in the shadow of the Great Recession.) With no connections or resources in the Bay Area, the couple is forced to return to Scott's small hometown in Michigan simply to survive. Once there, Scott takes a relatively menial job, well below his abilities, just to keep food on the table, and both he and Megan have to grapple with the seeming collapse of all their dreams and intentions for their lives, as well as the additional burden of a baby. Scott finds that the relationships which were so easy and fulfilling when he had a surplus of resources are now chafing and burdensome, hindering him from living the carefree life he wants. Finally he is forced to confront some of the darkest corners of his heart as he struggles with what he is living for, and what matters most to him.
Through these trials Megan and Scott learn more about themselves and each other, and grow in understanding of what it means to be human. Their friendship and commitment deepens even as they question many of the assumptions that have been driving their lives. The story ends on an ambiguous note: both still consider themselves gay, but have a renewed commitment to their life together. They still view their marriage as a formality, but there's a hint that it may deepen in the future. There is hope, but resides completely within the friendship they share.
When The Accidental Marriage came out, it was well received by some, but in other corners it sparked no small amount of controversy and even scorn. Seeing that the protagonists considered themselves “gay”, some took up the book in hopes of it being a sympathetic portrayal of that aspect of their lives. Others approached it in hopes of finding a morality tale that would end in either the bitter reaping of a sown harvest or a dramatic renunciation of sinful lifestyles. Since neither eventuality unfolded, both parties were disappointed, and said so. But many read the story for what it was: a tale of human brokenness and movement toward love. They are the ones who saw most clearly what it was about.
But, since I'm the author, I'm able to explain what others can only guess at. One is the “gayness” issue. This facet of the tale was what generated the most discussion, and the biggest amount of disappointment – in some corners because it sympathetically portrayed characters who considered themselves gay, in other corners because it didn't celebrate their “gayness” enough. But I'm about to let the cat out of the bag here: the fact that Scott and Megan consider themselves gay is a minor plot point, invoked for a reason that has nothing to do with anyone's agenda. There's a sense in which it's almost irrelevant.
What? With “gayness” having such a high chatter quotient in modern society, wouldn't it make sense to exploit that? Sure, if you wanted to write a book about “gayness”. But I didn't. What I wanted to write was a full frontal assault on one of the most dangerous idols of our society, and having Scott and Megan consider themselves gay was a good way to stage the attack.
The idol to which I refer is what I call The Myth of the Everything Relationship, the persistent and unquestioned assumption that there is one relationship out there that can complete, fulfill, and satisfy you. This is epitomized in the concept of the “soul mate” – the mystical party for whom you spend your life searching and who, once found, brings meaning and purpose to your life. This idol is worshiped by gay and straight alike, and has even been enshrined even in Christian circles, with Scriptural imagery and passages used to justify this view of romantic relationships. Even the ancient institution of marriage has been pressed into service of this lie, seen as something subordinate and secondary to romantic fulfillment (as witnessed by the countless songs, stories, and movies that revolve around a married people discovering their soul mates somewhere outside their marriage.) Yet in all my nearly 60 years, I don't think I've found a worse enemy of happiness and virtue than this idol.
I discuss this somewhat in my post A Most Terrible Idol, but when I took up my pen to write a story about how love could, and arguably should, flourish outside the reach of this dangerous illusion, I found myself in a bind: how to portray a love that grew out of the reach of “romance”? How to portray a relationship built on self-giving charity that wouldn't risk invoking the shadow of the “soul mate”? In years gone by, the answer would have been easy: write about a friendship between people of the same sex. But, as Sheldon Vanauken predicted, that gate has been closed by the common acceptance of same-sex romance. But how about if one wrote about two people of the opposite sex who were themselves same-sex attracted? Would not their presumptions about their own “gay” identities serve as sufficient insulation to prevent them “falling in love”, and force them to deal with each other out of straightforward charity? That was my hope, and that was the reason I chose to have Scott and Megan consider themselves gay – not to celebrate or to denigrate that, but to make use of it for a different reason.
That reason was to explore what marriage truly is – not as a culmination or stamp of validity on a mystically preordained romantic relationship (which is what the concept of a soul mate is), but as a permanent intimate relationship focused on supporting each other and any consequent children. As a relationship of sacrificial love that endures despite transient emotional states. As a deep determination to will the good of the other regardless of cost. That's what Scott and Megan discover as they forge a life together – one without sexual or romantic attraction, but with a firm intent to help the other.
Another point that came up in various critiques was that the treatment of the ancillary relationships. The story is mostly told from Scott's perspective, and other parties incidental to both Scott and Megan's lives are given scant treatment, including the partners they have at the opening of the story. The reader isn't given much of Scott's history and almost none of Megan's, and other characters are minor by comparison.
I admit this freely: I deliberately chose not to build up those other characters or explore those relationships. I did this for a couple of reasons, one tactical and one strategic. The tactical reason was that I understand that I'm writing for the “post-Postman”* generation who was raised on video stories and prefers texting because e-mails are too laborious. This is the generation that prefers a movie about Narnia because the books are too tedious. Few anymore relish long, intricately plotted novels with a cast of hundreds, rich character development, and complex nests of relationships. Those who do will be disappointed by the sparse, quick-moving plot of Accidental. For that I make no apologies.
The strategic reason is that a principle of good writing is to not involve too many characters outside the circle of your main one(s). Even adept readers can only follow a handful of characters, and the further out you get from the core protagonist(s), the harder it is to follow the story. Thus, I didn't want to get too far from the main character. Scott and Megan were the first layer out, and everyone beyond was yet further removed. But wait – what? Aren't Scott and Megan the central characters, and layers of relationship counted out from them?
The main character, the party around whom the story revolved, was Grace. The baby. Her presence weaves its way through the story and looms over the lives of her parents, and through them, all the other parties in the book. She is the driving force from the first pages to the last, bending Scott and Megan's lives to her needs. Though the story is told through their eyes (mostly Scott's), they are the secondary characters. Interestingly, the artist who designed the book's cover cottoned to this when he first read the manuscript, which partly explains the “flying baby” motif. He spotted that the driving question of the book was, “Who'll catch the baby?” Grace was brought into existence on a whim, but once she was there, she changed everything.
So there you have the secrets. I figure I wouldn't be sabotaging any sales by making these points so long after the book's release. There are more, but if you want them, you'll have to get the book and read it.

* Read Neal Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death