I’m taking a break from working on my current novel. Only a short break. Maybe a few days. But the fact was, I just couldn’t bring myself to write it, and I knew that if I pushed through I’d stop liking my characters and I’d stop liking myself.
I’m writing a semi-dystopian novel set in a city that’s effectively run by two guilds of assassins. The closest thing to justice is murder. Protesting about it can get you killed. There’s no effective system that can punish those who do the killing, because it’s commonplace, it’s accepted, it’s too hard to fight. It’s entrenched in the institution of the city, and who’s going to fight it? The ordinary people? They haven’t got the power; they’re kept in place by fear.
My main character is one of these assassins. Mostly, she kills politicians, businessmen, people who’ve done something to annoy the guilds. Sometimes she kills children or teenagers, because that’s what she’s paid to do.
This is not supposed to be a good thing.
At the same time, you’re supposed to sympathise with Isabel, because she’s the main character. You don’t have to like her, but you have to care what happens to her, to some extent. She’s a librarian by day. She dresses like a punk and has blue highlights in her hair, and she’s loyal to the people she actually cares about. Once upon a time her only dream was to stay in school and get an education, but that didn’t work out for her.
Dystopias are great, because they allow you to critique society, but they also allow you to put yourself in the shoes of someone you would detest in real life and learn to appreciate them. And Isabel is a challenge, because she’s a cold-blooded killer. I was doing fine with it, and then Ferguson happened.
If you haven’t been reading about the events in Ferguson, I strongly suggest you go and do so. No summary I can provide will be the same as reading the Twitter feeds with their pictures and eye-witness reports. It’s a town in Missouri that has been effectively a war zone this week (although I believe things have calmed down somewhat now) following protests after the murder of an eighteen-year-old boy, Mike Brown.
He was meant to start college this week. I think that’s what made it sink in for me, when I got my A-Level results — that he was my age, feeling the same picture of anticipation and apprehension at the future in front of him, that he had everything waiting. My age.
Read those Twitter feeds, read the reports, and then read the paragraph at the top of this post where I summarise the state of play in my fictional city Espera. Painfully familiar, isn’t it? Dystopias are only fun when you’re not living in one, and when the story you’re telling looks a lot like real life but from the point of view of the bad guy, it can be pretty hard to swallow.
I like Isabel, I really do, but in my horror at these events, I couldn’t bring myself to even look at her narrative. I know her motivations, and I know why she does what she does, but I couldn’t write her. Not this week. Not with everything that’s happening. These things happen all the time, I guess, and it shouldn’t be any different, but it is.
Because he was my age and when that properly hit me, I started crying. For a boy I never met and never will.
I can’t write Isabel’s story at the moment. I’ll go back to it when I can be more objective and when her reality disentangles itself from this one, but I can’t do it right now. The world is too awful, and this fiction was meant to be escapism, meant to be fantastical, but it’s not. Our reality is dystopia, and all I’m seeing in my book is a twisted reflection of our world in a broken mirror of first-draft prose.
So I’m taking a few days off. Writing poems, working on mock-ups for my third collection’s cover. I pressed ‘publish’ on the first two collections on Nook earlier, so they’ll be available in a couple of days for those who have Nooks instead of Kindles. Writing things that aren’t quite so difficult and don’t strike too close to the heart of everything that’s happening.
As a writer it’s my job to hold up a mirror to the world, but gods, not like this, not right now. It’s too hard to swallow.