The interesting thing to me about getting older — or, as I prefer to think of it, “gaining life experience” — is the perspective it brings to my life and, by extension, how that perspective is reflected in what I write.
The other day, I was being interviewed for an article about Robotman and the Doom Patrol, a DC Comics’ character I first wrote in 1977 when I was twenty-two years old. The interviewer was asking me all sorts of questions about characterization and motivations, expecting, I guess, some sort of analysis of the character’s relation to the zeitgeist of its day … but which left me with the (not, in retrospect, surprising) realization that, at twenty-two, barely three years into a career as a comic book writer, I hadn’t actually had anything to say. I was writing a character who had lost everything, from his physical body to his best friends and comrades, and I had absolutely not clue one what loss of any kind felt like. I wrote what was, I hope (I’m afraid to go back and reread it to find out, knowing it’s probably going to be even worse than I remember) an adequate simulacrum of emotion, but the real deal? Naw. Wouldn’t have known how.
Just a few weeks back, I typed “end” at the bottom of “A Clockwork God,” my contribution to ReDeus: Beyond Borders, and after giving it a day or two to rest and settle, went back in to do final revisions and fixes before sending it out to my partners-in-theological-crime, Bob Greenberger and Aaron Rosenberg. My process involves starting a writing session by revisiting and rewriting previous sections or chapters as a run-up to the new words I’ll be throwing at the paper that day, so I get this very tunnel-visioned view of a piece until I get to the end and go back in to look at it as a whole.
To me, it’s just plain commonsense that there’s a part of the author in every character they write. Man, woman, child, adult, good guy, bad guy, man or god, whatever they are, some aspect of the writer — even aspects you don’t want to admit to or even think about — is in them. I mean, who else is a writer going to write about? You can only be you, no matter whose voice you’re pretending to speak in, and while the job is to extrapolate how characters will act or react under certain circumstances, your jumping off point for those reactions is yourself. Your character may be a planet-sized amoeba with a genius I.Q. that shoots laser beams out its ass as it tries to conquer the universe … but you are in there. Last year, I wrote Kevin (now available in finer bookstores everywhere!), a young adult novel about the Archie Comics character Kevin Keller, the company’s first gay character. In the book, Kevin is a nerdy overweight middle school student with braces and bad skin who hangs out with a small group of fellow nerdy comic book fans, faces bullying, and is just coming to terms with his sexuality and his place in the world.
I never wore braces and I’m not gay, but other than that, I knew exactly what Kevin was going through in the story. I’d had pretty much the same life, only in Brooklyn circa-1970, not fictionalized Medford in the 21st century. His reactions were my adolescent reactions…and the best part about fictionalizing myself in service of Kevin’s story was that I was able to make Kevin the hero of his own struggle as he stood up to the bullies and accepted who he was, while I, of course, stuck in real life, had to wait a few decades before I was confident enough in myself to take my own stands.
So, you can imagine how much of me, a divorced, middle-aged atheistic Jew who grew up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, might have found its way into a character like Irwin Benjamin … a divorced, middle-aged atheistic Jew who grew up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn! Rereading “A Clockwork God” through in one sitting, I kept coming across myself in the most unlikely places, enough so that I even started editing “me” out of Irwin because I wasn’t comfortable with how real some of it felt.
And that’s when 1977’s The New Doom Patrol and 2013’s “A Clockwork God” kind of converged into my yin & yang of creativity. In other interviews I’ve given over the three years I’ve been writing the critically acclaimed Life With Archie magazine (featuring the Archie characters as twenty-somethings in two separate “what if?” story lines, one in which he’s married to Betty, the other where he’s wed Veronica), I’m often asked why I think the book has been so popular and successful. The answer I always give is, “Truth. I try to write the characters in as real and as truthful a way as I can.”
In The New Doom Patrol, I hadn’t yet learned the truth so I wasn’t able to write it. But “A Clockwork God” was about as truthful and honest as I could be in a fictionalized, fantastical setting … why was I trying to bowdlerize the very thing I was so proud of accomplishing in Life With Archie and Kevin just because my protagonist happened to be more like me than, say, a twenty-something Archie Andrews or Kevin Keller?
So I undid all those edits and left “me” in there. Of course, none of this should have any bearing on your reading of “A Clockwork God.” Whether Irwin is based on me or someone else is fundamentally irrelevant to what you take from the story. But life has taught me that truth really is stranger than fiction, even when that fiction involves the return of the gods and the remaking of the world in their images. Yes, the setting we’ve contrived for the ReDeus stories is a total lie, but that’s okay; readers will accept any set-up, any far-fetched or ridiculous situation the writer cares to throw their way, just as long as the characters in those situiations tell the truth about themselves.
When I was twenty-two, I thought fiction was the art of telling lies. At fifty-eight, I’ve learned that it’s actually the art of telling the truth with lies. And that’s a realization that takes some of the sting out of getting older.
I mean, “gaining life experience.”
ReDeus: Beyond Borders will be available in print and digital formats next week.