By Mike Carey, Guest Columnist
Welcome back to REFLECTIONS. Did you miss me?
I apologize for the recent sporadic schedule of the column. If anyone ever tells you to edit a magazine, edit the entertainment section of a newspaper, oversee and publicize the publication of a book, have a weekly interview column, take the maximum amount of credit hours at your college and graduate all over the course of six months, don’t do it.
I promise to get the column back on a weekly schedule come December, but right now I would rather have fewer interviews that are really amazing instead of three months worth of mediocre ones.
Yes, I did mention that I was getting a book published, and as of this week, it’s up for sale on Amazon. Because of this very special occasion, I decided to talk about the publication of the book, and the writing process, with one of your favorite authors and mine, Mike Carey. Mike, being the amazing guy he is, agreed to read the book and be the interviewer for this very special edition of REFLECTIONS. So read on and if you like what you read, consider purchasing a copy for yourself. I know I’d certainly appreciate it.
Mike Carey: So in case there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know who you are, Robert – which I admit is unlikely given that this is your column and all – why don’t you tell us a little about yourself.
Robert Taylor: Mike, you flatterer!
You know as well as I do that the individual people, amazing creators that you are, who I interview from week to week, are the main draw of the column, right?
MC: Feh. They can get that stuff on CBR. Carry on.
RT: Okay. I’ve been doing REFLECTIONS in one form or another for five years now. I also worked at Wizard for awhile. Oh yeah, and I’m about to graduate from college at Kent State University, where I edit the entertainment section of the paper and their feminist magazine, “Artemis,” which is mildly ironic since I’m a dude. But whatever.
Life is busy. Life is good. And I wish you’d visit the United States more.
MC: I’ll be back. Now give us a thumbnail sketch of “Adrift.” No spoilers – just the initial set-up, kind of thing.
RT: Well, it’s about a guy.
Just your normal everyday guy who has just graduated from college and is looking for something – some kind of sign to give him direction and purpose.
And then his mom dies.
It throws him for a loop, obviously. Without spoiling too much, he ends up in Italy alone without knowing any Italian or where he is going. Enter a mysterious stranger – and cue the ominous yet promising music.
MC: In part, then, this is an exploration of bereavement, isn’t it? At least, that’s a major theme in the early chapters of the novel. Was it difficult to handle such raw emotional material?
RT: It was rough.
I love my mom. The book is dedicated to her, after all, and I never ever want her to go anywhere. And even though it’s very easy to separate myself from the main character because he isn’t me, it was still rough as hell to write.
It’s easy, when you are creating a plotline in your mind, to think how brilliant the death of a loved one would be to launch a storyline. But to actually tackle it and put the character, and, by extension, myself and the reader, through the wringer – it was rough. But I think the story is better for it, and you can feel the character’s pain.
MC: Your protagonist, Aaron, has a number of very intense friendships. And obviously, without giving anything away, he embarks on another intense relationship in the course of the novel. Was it one of your goals to explore the conflicting demands that friends and lovers can put on you?
RT: I am one of those very lucky people to have several really strong friendships that I am extremely grateful for, and…
…wow, why can’t I ever ask great questions like that?
Being a good friend is hard. It’s a lot of give, with a little bit of take, and because I was so unfamiliar with some of the lifestyles portrayed, and the locations portrayed – I wanted to make a huge part of my story something I was intimately familiar with, and that was my friendships.
Removing the character from his support ground physically and emotionally was very important to me, because they stay with Aaron for the duration of the novel in ways both spoken and unspoken – just like the character of the mother. I loved the way that the two best friends bookend the book – heh, bookend the book – with Aaron in ways that totally contradict and yet parallel one another. That’s why it was so important to establish them as extremely strong characters early, that way they would become more than just your token friendship circle.
MC: Would you like to comment on why one particular character is – for most of the duration of the book – only identified by a pronoun?
RT: We all have our Him or Her. The one person we just know is meant for us. The feeling Aaron has for Him is universal – which is why His name is so unimportant in theory – and yet one of the most important things in the novel, especially after you’ve read the final two chapters.
Plus, why should I give Him a name when the lack of one makes so much more impact on the reader?
MC: This is zooming in for a moment from the global to the particular.
RT: Oooh, sounds like fun.
MC: There’s a very effective and, to me, very appealing scene in which Aaron throws a dart without particularly aiming it. And it’s a dart that was formerly owned by his mother. What are we meant to read into this scene thematically? Is it saying something about that relationship, or about Aaron’s state of mind at this point in the story?
RT: It’s saying exactly what the reader wants to read.
I’ve thought about the scene from several perspectives. The most obvious, perhaps too obvious, approach to the scene would be that Aaron’s mother helped to guide that dart into that part in the globe, and that her spirit is walking with Aaron for the rest of his journey. This is a theme I call back later in the novel to a certain extent.
But was it just a dart that hit a globe? Was Aaron just that desperate to find a meaning and purpose in his life that he would be crazy enough to “listen” to a dart that hit a random part of the globe?
I’m a spiritual person, so I know what I read into it. But if you read into it completely differently, I’d love that as well. As long as it is speaking to you.
MC: I saw it very much as a surrender to experience. It was like, “if making decisions about my life has brought me to this place, and if I’m not happy with what I am, then let’s see what blind chance can do.” But then, I’m averse to finding plans or designs in life outside what we make ourselves. “No fate but what we make” as someone says in one of the Terminator movies. Do you think it makes a difference whether we see what happens to Aaron as willed or accidental?
RT: Yes, I think it does. If you view it more as something he willed to happen, then your view of Aaron is much more proactive than if you believe he is being led along some path. It would change your view of the main character, and to a point those events that randomly occur to him, but his spiritual journey and the lessons he learns are still the same.
MC: “Imagine your first love, but not being able to touch that person but being so close to them you could never move on because they’re always part of your life.” Sorry, that’s more a paraphrase than a quote, but it’s something that Aaron says at a key point in the story. You seemed to be writing from the heart here. I’m not going to ask if this is something you’ve experienced, but is there an autobiographical element in the book?
RT: The book is not autobiographical.
I got the idea when one of my best friends told me that my book should be about a young gay man who has just graduated from college and doesn’t know what to do with his life.
He was just that at the time, and he might have been sarcastic when he said that, but the idea really hit home for me.
The character isn’t like me in a lot of obvious aspects. In fact, I was fairly nervous that I might not be able to get into his head well enough, so I added the weight issue to the character, something very near and dear to my waistline, and made Aaron’s sense of humor very close to mine.
That’s also why I put the book in first person instead of third, and I think that made me really get into Aaron’s mind, and I’m extremely happy with the results.
MC: There’s always that balance, isn’t there? It’s kind of weird, but it’s true. You end up putting bits of yourself into very unlikely characters – I mean, characters very remote from you in some ways – and then you fictionalize yourself in interviews. Okay, let me come at this from another angle. Which aspects of Aaron’s journey did you find easiest to relate to?
RT: Well, the weight issue, definitely. Also the idea of very close friendships and the terror one feels when he may lose one of them.
I also think that Aaron’s sense of wonder in Tuscany is something I could relate to very well. I love visiting new places, meeting new people and trying new things, and when I wrote those experiences I shared the excitement right with Aaron.
MC: Aaron tells us at one point that he enters Italy “as a clean slate.” It seemed to me that both escaping from the constraints of your own past and maintaining links to it are important themes in the book. Is this fair?
RT: I think that the balance, or lack thereof, between the two are the main themes of the book. We all reach those crossroads in life, where we can decide to move on with no ties, or we can hold onto the past. Most of us choose a mixture of the two, but Aaron chooses the former, and that doesn’t exactly work out for him the way he wanted it to.
Your past is often the ties that bind, and ultimately gag – and finding a way to avoid rope burn can be heck.
MC: Aaron compares his life to a soap opera. Is he speaking for you here?
RT: Oh, Mike. My life is such a soap opera.
Do you think your life is a soap opera?
MC: Oh yeah. And it’s not even an understated British soap. It’s like that season of “Dallas” where Bobby Ewing comes back to life.
RT: When you say “understated British soap” you don’t mean “Footballer’s Wives,” do you? (laughs)
People don’t give soaps the props they deserve. I used to watch “All My Children” with my grandmother when I stayed home sick from school. And yes, it was awful. But, when you look at it antiseptically, disregarding the atrocious acting, writing and – well – everything else, then you’ll notice that it can be a lot like life.
Don’t most of the major things that screw with your life come completely out of left field in ways you could never expect? And don’t most of the people who leave your life come back later very changed, perhaps even recast, if I were to ground this metaphor into the ground?
MC: I hear what you’re saying. Realism is a convention. There are lots of times when life isn’t remotely realistic. And while we’re on that subject…at the mid-point of the book, there’s a scene where Aaron senses the presence of his mother’s spirit. I wasn’t sure how literally we were meant to read that. Would you like to comment?
RT: It was a natural extension of how literally you want to take the dart scene that we spoke about earlier. If you read into that scene that the mother was guiding that dart, then it wouldn’t be far off to state that she was there in a very visceral way in that room.
And if you thought Aaron was cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs before, that scene would do nothing to change your mind.
MC: Okay. You’re not going to be drawn, and that’s fair enough. I think you’re right that you take away from that scene what you want to bring to it. Let’s switch gears for a moment. The first kiss.
RT: Ah yes.
MC: Why does Aaron feel that it’s wrong when it’s such a wish-fulfilment fantasy, and when in many ways the book has been heading inexorably towards it?
RT: Aaron was terrified because he was thinking of how he had always feared He would have reacted to a kiss. Simple as that. The fact that Fabrizio chose not to immediately turn away was surprising to Aaron, and heartwarming to the reader – well, if I wrote it right.
MC: It’s certainly a powerful and effective moment. Another surrender to experience, I guess. Now, there are many points in the book where Aaron has to react instinctively to sudden and dramatic events. Do those events control and define him, or does he eventually rise above them? Is there a progression in the course of the novel?
RT: Part of Aaron’s journey is to stop being reactive and become more proactive in his life.
Before I started writing the book, I couldn’t stand “reactive” people. I want people to go out and achieve what they always talk about, instead of just sitting back and watching life happen around them. So I thought it would be interesting to have my main character be one of those people at the beginning of “Adrift,” put myself in Aaron’s frame-of-mind, and then see how I could give him a journey that would change not only his way of life, but his way of thinking.
And I think that, when you read how he reacts to the events at the art gallery, you’ll see how much he’s grown as a character.
MC: “Adrift” is your first published novel, but it’s not your first novel period. Did you learn any lessons from those others that fed into your creative process this time around?
RT: My first novel, “All Fall Down” was a trainwreck. You should know, I tried to make you read it. (laughs)
MC: I read a whole chunk of it when I was in the States over the Summer – those crazy, scary scenes where the protagonist is rolling around inside the insane asylum in a home-made tank. I loved that stuff. But I lost the MS in the process of coming home.
RT: I wrote that book trying to write a story ruled by plot that would be a horror variation on a James Patterson novel. I realized halfway through writing the book that James Patterson’s brand of novels is not something to aspire to, but I had done so much research and done so much plotting, that I finished the book just for the hell of it.
“Adrift” was supposed to be nothing more than a short story or novella that kept expanding once I fell in love with the character of Aaron. Most of the chapters are short, something I like to do stylistically.
I didn’t mean for it to be as substantial as it was, and that is why I love it so much, because it became important to me because I wanted to tell the story of the characters, not because of the fact that I was writing a novel about them.
MC: What was the hardest thing about writing “Adrift?” Or was it all wine and roses?
RT: The hardest thing was getting into Aaron’s mindset from the first page. Most authors have pages to figure out their characters, and can figure out new things about the character along the way, but my character’s mother dies on the second page of the book, and I had to be there, with him, and know every way he would react and every feeling he was feeling.
It was kind of depressing.
But I think I pulled it off. And because I spent so much time crafting Aaron and getting into his mindset, it gave the other characters an opportunity to grow and surprise me as I was writing the book. I didn’t, for example, know Fabrizio attempted to commit suicide until I wrote the words.
MC: What’s next on the horizon, creatively speaking? Do you have any burning ambitions?
RT: At this point, Mike, I just need to graduate. Ask me in a month and a half and I’ll have a three-page plan, but right now I’m too busy sending my magazine to the printer and editing freshmen’s stories. (laughs)
MC: Well good luck with the whole higher ed thing, Bobby. And thanks for being on the show tonight.