Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Corporate life and horror fiction: how the former leads to the latter

Ernest Hemingway famously enjoined the fiction writer to “write what you know.”

This was a subject that Ernest Hemingway had strong feelings about. Hemingway believed that only the actual, real-life experiences of an author constituted valid sources of fiction.

This belief is evidenced throughout Hemingway's body of work. Read any Hemingway novel or short story––from For Whom the Bell Tolls, to “Big Two-Hearted River, to The Old Man and the Sea––and you can trace the kernel of each tale to some epoch or incident from the novelist’s life.

This is why Ernest Hemingway stories overwhelmingly deal with the lingering psychological effects of World War I combat, and the self-destructive dalliances of the so-called “Lost Generation.” (The latter theme was also a favorite of Hemingway’s contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

And what about yours truly, you ask. I don't completely disagree with Hemingway. As a matter of fact, I believe that life experience is the stuff of fiction. This is a partial explanation of why so many writers who achieve conspicuous success at a young age tend to flame out quickly. In order to be a prolific writer of fiction, you have to have a deep well of life experiences. And the acquisition of life experience takes time. (This is a subject that I might return to in greater detail at a later date.)

A lot of people––both online and offline––have asked me about the inspirations behind the various stories in the short story collection Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense. What led you, they ask, to write a short story about industrial robots that turn into demonic creatures (“The Robots of Jericho”), or about a man who sees the undead in Chicago’s O’Hare airport (“Gate Time”)?

When I sift through my life experiences, I go all the way back to the beginning. And this shows up in the stories in Hay Moon. Some of the stories in this collection, like the title story itself, come from incidents in my childhood. (No, I never actually saw zombies in a barn, but I may have imagined that I did once or twice.)

No matter how long one lives, the emotions and pivotal experiences of childhood seem to linger. My grandfather lived into his late seventies, and he was still talking about his childhood when he died. I suppose, therefore, that it is not unusual for me to still be writing about my childhood at the comparatively young age of 43.

However, among the short stories in Hay Moon, there are only a few that I could have written at the age of 20. At twenty, I simply didn’t have much of this material. Now I do.

Why? Partly because I have spent the last two decades in the corporate world, doing all of the things that corporate cubicle dwellers do: coping with office politics, going on business trips, and trying to figure out exactly what it takes to “get ahead” in the corporate environment. (Hint: Smile a lot, never say anything bad about the company, and remain at your desk as late as possible each day.)

Seriously, though, roughly half of the short stories in Hay Moon sprung from experiences that I've had on the job. Since most of the tales in Hay Moon have a supernatural element, they are not literal accounts of corporate working life. (A verbatim account of corporate life would be boring, wouldn't it?) Nevertheless, these are stories that I could not have written without my 20+ years of experience as a corporate warrior.

Take the story “The Robots of Jericho.” On the surface, this is a straightforward science-fiction/monster tale. But the story is uniquely personal to me. I have logged many, many hours in manufacturing facilities. Almost all of these facilities have been automotive plants. And many automotive plants contain welding robots.

Watch a welding robot at work, and it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to see it as a man-devouring creature. Of course, that was just the starting point for the story. If you've read “The Robots of Jericho,” you will know that the story includes a hint of the mythology behind this story’s particular version of the archetypical homicidal beast. That mythology was derived not from my workplace experiences, but from my readings of ancient history. But “The Robots of Jericho” would never have existed if I had never stepped inside an automotive manufacturing facility.

Then there is the story “Gate Time.” I suppose that it would be theoretically possible for anyone who has traveled by air to write this story. But frankly, I tend to doubt it. The weariness and humdrum drudgery of constant business travel are unknown to the casual vacation traveler. The main protagonist in “Gate Time” sees ghosts and other supernatural creatures in airports. These visions come to him because he spends so much of his life shuttling from one airport to another, from one corner of the country to the other. As it turns out, his job is also the reason why he is unable to avoid airports––even after they become terrifying for him.

I believe that readers respond to the horror elements in both “Gate Time” and “The Robots of Jericho” precisely because they are interwoven with aspects of corporate life that so many readers can relate to. I would also assert that I have an advantage in crafting this sort of story—an advantage that I earned through twenty years of very hard labor in Cubicle Land.

I suspect that the corporate workplace will continue to offer me inspiration for stories in the years to come. (My next novel, in fact, is a corporate thriller called Termination Man.) We spend a lot of our lives at work; and the workplace is an environment often filled with high emotions, drama, and conflict. This makes it fertile ground for fiction, as I found out while writing many of the stories included in Hay Moon.

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