Continuing with our series of behind the scenes conversations, I’d like to put a little focus on my character The Hound. In the past I’ve mentioned that many of my ideas for the characters in Conduits came from drawing I did as a child. To set the record straight, The Hound was not one of them. Rather, if anything, it came from a deeply rooted childhood memory of McGruff the Crime Dog coming to school with Officer Friendly. Mix that with a love for the movie Perfume, and I guess you get Jeremy Bonaventure. But there’s more to the puzzle. It’s pretty apparent I’m a fan of super heroes. It fascinates me to think of having an ability that no one else has and makes your life even a little easier or cooler. In my post about Jinx, I mentioned that I’ve been able to see auras since I was a kid. I don’t typically talk about it much because of the skepticism I’m betting you’re feeling right now. But to get back on track, I mentioned an ability that makes your life even a little easier or cooler. I’ve never found that to be the case with auras. I never cared enough to figure out how to use it to my advantage, always dreaming of flying or super speed. Even turning invisible would be cool. But instead I see fuzzy colors around people. And only if I really concentrate.
But for The Hound, I thought about how I’d used the ability to see auras in Jinx, high lighting the idea of heroes with less than desirable abilities. So I ran through a couple: Super hearing, super sight, super touch, super smell. And when I got to smell, I flashed back to Perfume and an overwhelming urge I’d always had to make Jean-Baptiste Grenouille a hero. But at the same time I loved the origins he came from. Literally birthed into the sloppy-mud as his mother waits for him to die. Horrific. But I, being a wannabe optimist, love an underdog story. So do Americans. It’s in the very fabric of the stars and stripes. Unfortunately, I didn’t come to this conclusion until many drafts into crafting The Hound.
The truth is, The Hound was my hardest character to pin down. I’ve always had an altruistic streak in me. Characters like Superman just make sense to me. Or at least they did before I grew up. But certainly that messianic figure type that is willing to listen to their heart and do what they know is right.
A scene that appeared in several early drafts was based on an instance I actually had. It eventually turned into the basis for Pinto, Jeremy’s childhood nemesis. My wife and I were on our way home from the grocery store, taking the one-way side streets of Lincoln Square in Chicago when we came to a line of cars at a stop sign. Before I go any further, it’s important to note that this was in the tail end of the winter of 2013. A particularly bad and nasty winter that never seemed to let up with the regular onslaught of snow. You walked around for months without ever once feeling true solid ground under your feet. Driving was a struggle and Parking was impossible. As a result, people all over the city were at their wits end, flipping out on complete strangers. I was soon to join the fray.
I poked my head out the window and surveyed the scene. There was a small car in front of us, and a mini-van in front of that completely parked at a stop sign. Along side the van was a man sitting on the street, fixing his tire. The driver of the van was leaning out the window and talking to the man on the ground. But he didn’t seem to be paying notice. The car in the middle honked its horn. No reaction from the van. It honked again. He flipped them the finger. So I decided I would join in. Eventually the van moved, but only enough so that when the middle car rolled forward, it got stuck in the intersection. The driver of the van got out. He was a skinny man with a thin mustache and wild eyes. He rushed up to the middle car and started pounding on the window. In the side mirror, I could see that the driver was a woman about my mother’s age. When I herd the guy use the C-word, I flipped. I stepped on the gas, driving over the grass and throwing my car into park. I hurried out and got face to face with the skinny guy. He told me to mind my own business, among other things, and I put my hand on him to get him away from the woman. Then he pushed me. I grabbed him by the shirt and with some sort of weird “Hulk Smash” mode, I picked the guy up and threw him at least ten feet into a snow drift. I went back to the woman in the middle car to see if she was okay. Meanwhile, the van driver reached in his vehicle and pulled out a tire iron. Additionally, two other people got out of the van as well. He began swinging the iron bar around like he was gearing up to treat my skull like a baseball on a tee. I told him he didn’t want to swing. I told him he wasn’t going to swing. And then he swung. He cracked me on the skull, in the sweet spot right behind the ear. But I didn’t go down. I took it and bent over. And when I righted myself, standing straight and tall, I’ve never put more fear into anyone in my life. He and his cronies scurried back into their car and scooted off. We called the police, giving them the license plate of the van. But months went by before we heard anything. When we finally did hear from the police, the detective on the case gave me the same story Jeremy gets in The Death of Jinx Jenkins. The guy was threatening to press charges on me for pushing him first. I asked the detective if we were going by nursery school rules all of a sudden. The man assaulted me with a fucking tire iron. That had to count for something. Then he told me the guy was “connected” and that I, “didn’t want to mess with these people.” I could see he didn’t want to help me, so I dropped the charges.
When I first wrote about The Hound, the overwhelming note that I got from my professor, the great Nami Mun, was that Jeremy was too perfect. He didn’t have any flaws. Everything came so easily to him. The audience needed to see him struggle. When she pointed it out I was embarrassed. It was plain as day. I was babying him. So over the course of several drafts I kept changing his story. Nearly all of them page-one rewrites. But I was determined to get the character right. I knew he was going to be a pivotal character moving forward. And one thing I learned at UCLA was that if you don’t get act one perfect, act three is going to fall apart.
Eventually I recognized that I was packing too much of his story into the first installment. It seems obvious now, but at the time it was a break through. After that, things really started to come together. I knew I wanted to do a hero based on a dog due to the sense of smell. Though in my research I did discover that a number of different animal species have far superior noses. I wanted a character that would embody my obsession of the canine. I pictured him with a pack of ten dogs, arms stretched out, leashes taught. The Hound would get my revenge on the tiny man with the tire iron. The rest is written.
If you’ll allow me, I’d like to go through my various characters and landmarks that appear throughout Conduits with a separate post for each one. For this post I’ll be focusing on the title character of both books, none other than Jinx Jenkins. As I’ve mentioned in the past Jinx quite literally found me. I was still in my first semester of the preliminary year of my MFA. It was cold out—winter had crept up on Chicago as it always does, allowing for a minimal autumn season before it transitions into all out Siberian nightmare—and a few members of my cohort were with me as we waited for the late Red Line train to take us back up north. That time of night it was always packed on the Red Line and so we fought our way on the train and found a few seats abandoned at the end of the car. It was a hell of a win in my mind seeing as that usually I was forced to stand the whole way. But as we sat down, I quickly realized why the seats had been unoccupied. Across from us, laying out across three seats was a homeless man who wore a smell on him unlike anything I’d ever known. As the car became more and more full, he seemingly woke up. I was struck by how overwhelmingly the man had been run down by life. On his shoes he wore elastic booties that you might wear at an open house on the carpet. His body was tall and lean. I remember he sat up and took off a winter hat, exposing something I would have never expected. On his scalp there was a thick layer of what appeared to be soap scum or white wax. He stood up and very kindly began asking other passengers for any spare change. Or at least that was what I thought was his intention. You see, he would get three or four words out and then collapse into a sort of senseless gibberish followed by a tiny chuckle. As he got closer to me, his scent was as powerful as the meanest onion you ever chopped. My eyes watered, I tried to hold my breath, but nothing was of use. It was as though my pores were absorbing his stench. I felt sick. And then I noticed something peculiar. On one of his hands, a pinky finger was more swollen then I thought possible at the knuckle. Truthfully, it was as big as a large olive, with an open wound that was oozing a putrid rainbow of colors. As we rode and I did my best to avoid staring at him, I felt ashamed of myself. I’ve always wished to help people in his situation in a way far more meaningfully than handing over a few coins or loose bills. But here I was, face to face with the unluckiest human I’d ever seen, and all I could show him was contempt.
Later, walking home from the train, the man would not leave my thoughts. I hated myself for the reaction I gave him. If for no other reason than when I looked at him, I saw all the worst parts of myself. I genuinely wished I could go back and do it over. I wanted to make it right. And then I began thinking about all the things that could have possibly brought him to that point. Was he stoned off his gourd or was he in the throws of mental illness? Maybe both? What was that film on his hair? Why was his finger so swollen, and why hadn’t he sought out treatment?
We had very recently finished Toni Morrison’s Sula in one of my classes and the character of Shadrack was very fresh in my mind. I’d seen what Morrison had done with this kind of character. Taken the meekest of the meek and given him some true purpose. I wanted to do the same for this man. In a city of three million people, I knew the chances of ever finding him were slim at best. Though I always kept an eye out for him. But as a writer, I would be able to immortalize him. Give his suffering some kind of positive in which I might shine a spotlight on his plight. That night I began to map out his life. By the next day I had his entire story planned out. I knew I was on to something big. Something that would change the trajectory of my entire world.
I decided that the best way to tell his story would be to parody it on Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Why? Because I had quite literally finished the story a week or two before and I had been awestruck by how masterfully it had been structured. Ilyich and Jinx have nothing in common on the surface. But what stood out to me was their common falls from grace all at the fault of a seemingly innocuous injury. And it was their fall that I found the most camaraderie with. You see, as a child, I grew up in a very well off family in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago. Everything that could be offered to a person in order to give them a leg up on the competing forces of life had been gifted to me in double. But as I grew up and earned from my undergraduate, I found that life was suddenly not as easy as it once was. I struggled for quite a long time, often scraping for money or going back to my family with my tail between my legs asking for help. Yet very rarely did that help get me very far before I suddenly found myself back in the same situation. Let me be clear, I was never homeless. But I felt a deep familial shame in having not grown into the success that was expected of me. In that way, Jinx is a representation of my greatest shame.
Also, Jinx has the ability to see auras. I rarely speak about it with anyone, because of the skepticism I see in people’s faces, but I’ve seen auras since I was a child. Not very pronounced, certainly nothing on the level of Jinx, but I assure you they’re there. I’ve always thought of it as a kind of useless super power. After all, what is a person supposed to do with that information? Especially if they don’t know what all those colors mean. So I gave them to Jinx in the hopes that he might lead me to an understanding of how to use them for myself. I knew I wanted certain characters in my stories to have abilities. But I didn’t want them to be the typical ones you see in comics. Or if they were, they’d need to be different in some way. Jinx is certainly more different than any character I’ve ever written. I’m glad he found me. And in case I never see that homeless man again (I’m even less likely now that I live in Houston), it was important to me that I allow him to live on and gift him immortality in the only way I knew how.
Being that I’m completely green to this whole blog thing, I’ve decided to write about what I know that you, my readers, don’t. Most obviously, that is the origins of where and how Green Valley and the people who live there came to be. As I’ve mentioned before, Conduits was originally my MFA thesis. At that time, The Ballad of Jinx Jenkins and The Death of Jinx Jenkins were messily slapped together into a single manuscript. It wasn’t until I moved to Houston with my wife, shortly after finishing grad school, that I noticed something: Some of the stories were much more connected than others. With this in mind I decided to separate them all out and match up the ones that clearly went together. What was left were a group of stories that more than anything helped me show how diversified Green Valley was. But they didn’t have a through line. And while I’m aware that not everything needs to be connected in fiction, in Green Valley it did.
I’d written a sizeable story about the character of Jinx Jenkins which I’d based on the Tolstoy story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”. In it I’d broken down Jinx’s entire life from birth to death, all in the same way as Tolstoy (More to come about this story. Stay tuned.) I’d also peppered Jinx into my stories throughout, but never quite achieved what I was hoping for. It was there, staring me in the face, I just didn’t know it. But then I took a step back, and as always, I thought of none other than Ray Bradbury. More specifically, his book The Illustrated Man. I loved the idea of linking stories by using a single character. And that’s when I realized that the thing I was missing about Jinx was proof. Why did people call him Jinx? How had he earned such an unfortunate moniker? I sat down and in about a day I’d written all the material I needed to make The Ballad of Jinx Jenkins a series of linked stories.
In that way, I realized that the first book should be about the lore and mythos that had grown up around this unfortunate man. And like dominoes cascading into one another, The Death of Jinx Jenkins started to make more sense. I’ve reordered the stories within each book more times than I can count. But by separating them into two books, I was able to see everything far clearer.
The second book, The Death of Jinx Jenkins focuses far more on BigCorp and the character of The Hound. It also allows us to finally engage with Jinx as an actual person, seeing him for who he truly is, rather than merely knowing him through conjecture and rumor. With the second book I was able to achieve what felt like more of a single cohesive story, more in line with the tastes of much of the reading public. Something far closer to a traditional novel than in Ballad. Which, in moving forward with the series may or may not stick. As I continue to discover the world of Green Valley, I find myself writing both stories that are connected and unconnected to that overarching storyline. I might decide to do another linked collection, as well as a continuation of the novel-in-stories. Both means of organization are fascinating. I’m draw to them because of their unorthodox approaches to telling a much larger story. There’s nothing wrong with simply putting out a true collection of short stories. Many, such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Phil Klay, have done this masterfully. But in terms of appealing to a larger audience, I think that taking those stories and finding a way that they all fit together not only works better for my overall vision of Conduits, but speaks to a far baser instinct in people. The traditional novel is the standard barer in literature today. But while I was in grad school I was exposed to the idea of linked collections and novels-in-stories like those of Bradbury, as well as Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, and the timeless classic Winesburg, Ohio by the great Sherwood Anderson. It was due to books like these that I was able to hone my understand of how to tell such and expansive and convoluted tale with so many moving parts. For anyone who is seriously considering becoming a writer, my best suggestion is to fight your way into an MFA program and immerse yourself in everything your professors are able to offer. And if you can’t seem to get in or afford such a loft degree, you should go down to your favorite used bookstore, read as much as humanly possible, and if possible find people to talk with about what you learned. Oh, and don’t forget to actually find time to sit down and write.
It occurs to me, in writing this first entry, that while I am more than versed in the world of Green Valley, you, my dear reader, haven’t the slightest idea of what it is or why you should give a damn. So let me start out as basically as possible. The first story written for Conduits was merely that, a story. I didn’t have any inkling of a massive world that would eventually come to eventually grow into something so large. The story was “The Ballpark Poet”, and it was written in response to a number of different factors. Firstly, being from the North side of Chicago, I’m quite naturally a diehard Cubs fan. But I’d be lying if the idea of The Poet came to me at Wrigley Field. My wife, Lillian, is and always will be a dyed in the wool White Sox fan. A contentious rivalry has sprung from this difference between us; but we make it work. I say all this because it was actually while at a White Sox home game (I don’t mention the name of their stadium because who knows it it will change names tomorrow) with my wife and her parents. It was gorgeous day. The kind you wouldn’t want to spend anywhere other than a ballpark. And it occurred to me, while watching the game and sipping on my beer, that the vendors had it all wrong. Lackadaisically, these men were climbing the stairs and halfheartedly burping out the word, “Beer. Beer here.” I thought of the stories I’d heard of my days in Los Angeles of a hot dog vendor who could throw you your food with pin point accuracy, and of the storied characters that grew up around Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn like the Syn-phony-um and Hilda the bellowing hard ass. At Wrigley they have “Woo-Woo”, a super fan who wears his own uniform and can be heard from all over the stadium with his patented cheers.
As I watched these vendors apathetically climbing the stairs and shuffling through large wads of greenbacks, I leaned to my wife and told her they were doing it all wrong. If they really wanted to sell beer, they needed to have a gimmick. Suddenly I spurted out some absurd little rhyme like, “If you’re thirsty, do not fear. There’s nothing that goes with baseball quite like a beer.” In all honesty I said it to make her laugh. And she did. But the idea stuck with me.
A few months later, when I started on my MFA at Columbia College Chicago, I was in a workshop and we were reading the introduction to Toni Morrison’s Sula. Breaking it down into all its moving parts, fully understanding how she as a writer was choosing to introduce us to this place that seemed both familiar and foreign at the same time. We then went into a writing exercise. The day at the ballpark was still fresh in my mind. And without much effort at all, the words started putting themselves on the page. The next week for class I had already completed the first half of the story. Though I hadn’t settled on involving magic yet. Much like me attempting to entertain my wife at the White Sox game, I settled on the idea of trying my hand at magical realism because it is her favorite genre. And I figured if we were going to spend a lifetime together, I ought to write things she’d want to read.
But it all started as a single story. It was never my intention to turn it into my thesis and then ultimately a series. Rather, I’d been deadest on finishing a science fiction book I’d started years before, but never had the focus to sit down and finish. Yet, after I’d finished “The Ballpark Poet” I realized how amazingly comfortable I felt in that place. I wanted to know more about it. Who were the other people that lived there? Where there other towns? A city? Where did they work? And how were they all connected? After fairly sizeable bowl, Sula, my day at “Comiskey”, and a need for a new thesis, it all suddenly exploded in my mind. Before I knew it, Green Valley was born and a new obsession had taken over.
The overall idea for Conduits has changed a little, but for the most part it’s stayed more or less the same. What I think I love most about Conduits is that I’m just as much a part of the audience as my readers. I never really know what’s coming around the corner. I know where everything is going, sure. But the details are just as surprising to me as anybody else. It never occurred to me that so many people would find my words to be entertaining or hold any merit whatsoever. For that, I need to give my sincerest thanks to anyone who has invested their time into reading these books.