I make stuff up for a living. It’s a good living (and this year may prove to be my best ever – details forthcoming) but I’ll admit it’s an odd existence. Doing my job means creating a fictional world, populating it with fictional characters, and then making things happen. I’ve written sci-fi and fantasy, horror and historical action, and am working on a novel set in 16th century Italy, and a comic book set in the 1990s. These are places that don’t exist, and populated by characters that aren’t real. Even a world set ostensibly in our reality is a fiction; I just finished a spec set in Greenwich Village and Lower Manhattan that is strongly based on real NY streets and buildings and events, but is still a story that happens only in my mind, and the minds of the people reading it. The characters do not exist, the setting is real, but you can’t go into that world and inhabit in it.
It can be lonely, leaving these worlds behind, when I finish writing them, or when I take a break from them. Immersing yourself in a fictional construct can be the best and worst thing about this job (well, that and the sporadic pay, lack of medical coverage, pension, benefits, sick days, vacation days … and so on). When I’m really enjoying the time I spend in a fictional world, the crash back to reality indeed feels like a crash. Take my Mixtape project; a story set in a small town in the early 1990s and based largely on my own life’s experiences. I get sucked into the world and the time and the people and when I’m done, and return to 2011, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed I have to leave. So I compensate for that momentary malaise by the act of decompression through art. Like a deep sea diver returning to the surface, I have to equalize slowly to avoid getting the bends. I do this the same way you do after a rough day at work. You watch TV or a movie. You play a video game, or read a book.
I bring this up because recently I’ve found the line between fiction and reality blurring. Not in a Philip K. Dick crazy way (at least I hope not), but in the way a fiction can become reality.
As part of my work on Mixtape I’ve been reading comic books and graphic novels set in the same general (non-superhero) world, and if you’re a comic reader, you probably know the name Scott Pilgrim; a comic book by Torontonian Bryan Lee O’Malley. A movie adaptation his theaters last summer and promptly bombed (teaching Hollywood the oft-forgotten lesson that cult comic book = cult comic book movie). It’s set in Toronto, and is about – well, I won’t get into that. That’s why Al Gore invented the internet; look it up. It is, however, set in the “real Toronto” and features the usual prominent landmarks – as well as some less prominent ones. The most notable for me is the fact that Scott Pilgrim’s neighborhood is the same neighborhood I lived in when I was still a resident of Toronto, to the point the tiny shed of an apartment he shares with roommate Wallace Wells is right around the corner from my old apartment. Given the timeline of the writing and illustrating of the books, it’s possible and quite likely that Bryan Lee O’Malley and I were crossing paths constantly during our time in the same nabe. The Second Cup coffee shop Scott frequents is the one I frequented when I lived further north on St. Clair Avenue. Lee’s Palace, Sneaky Dee’s – places I frequented in college. The Toronto Reference Library, Honest Ed’s, Pizza-Pizza … the list goes on. And as a result I briefly experienced that rare case of déjà vu in reading a fictional story set in a world I know much better than I have any right to.
There are people – devoted fans of the series – who make their pilgrimages to the various Pilgrim-related points of interest in the Pilgrim-verse. They want to see “the real places” this fictional character inhabited. This is not limited to Toronto either. New York still runs a Sex and the City Tour, and you’ll find tours for Gossip Girl, Seinfeld and the Sopranos. Lovers of The Catcher in the Rye will visit the same locations as Holden Caulfield, their aged and underlined copies of J.D. Salinger’s tome in hand. Visitors to the MET will recall it as the setting of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil. E. Frankweiler (and I’m sure at the height of that book’s popularity there were more than a few “sleepovers” organized.
People want that tangible connection to a story that moves them or inspires them. The comfort that comes in reading or re-reading a book, or re-watching a film or TV series; those stories we return to over and over again provide comfort food for the soul. Reading an old comic book becomes less about the story as it does about the whole package; the ads, the letters page – re-reading it carries you back to the first time you read it and the person you were when reading it. Ditto with books, ditto with movies and TV shows; watching Twin Peaks on Hulu again gives me an appreciation for the show itself, but it also forces me to recall the first time watching it more than 20 (gasp!) years ago. It’s the same reason we all have our favorite bands and favorite albums and songs; listening to them acts as something of a time machine. I can’t listen to Nevermind or Bossanova or Doolittle without flashing back to Fall of 1991, Fall of 1990 and Summer of 1989 respectively.
All of this prompted me to ask some friends this question; what fictional world would you most want to take a vacation in? More than a few mentioned the Star Wars galaxy or the milieu of Max Brooks’ World War Z. Others think it would be cool to kick it around the Springfield USA of The Simpsons, visit the Duff Brewery, attend a pizza party at Wall E Weasel, and a summer trip to Mt. Splashmore. My wife, without hesitation, picked Oz – but specifically the world of the L. Frank Baum books. Not the 1939 movie. Not the prison drama. You can’t be the star of the story; you don’t get to be a Jedi or a bounty hunter, or wear the ruby slippers. You can visit Tatooine or the Emerald City, or you can run for your life from the hordes of zombies rampaging through the world (maybe you get an “ejector seat” to blast you back to our reality in that case). You would just be yourself, in that world, just like spending a week in Martinique doesn’t make you Bogart wooing Bacall and running weapons to the resistance.
For me, I’ll stay on home turf; put me in the NYC of the Marvel Universe circa the MARVELS series of the early 1990s. Make me my ordinary self, writer extraordinaire, writing stories set in a New York without super-heroes. Have my A-train downtown held in a station because Spider-Man is battling the Lizard at Columbus Circle. Have lunch in Bryant Park interrupted by Juggernaut battling the Hulk. Have the tech convention at the Javits Center interrupted by the Mandarin as he squares off with Iron Man. Make me an ordinary man in a world of extraordinary beings, and see how I cope. What is the impact of being a mere mortal in the face of actual living Gods —
Hang on …
That gives me a great idea for a story …