Hal Duncan: April 2010 Archives

Seeing as how Charlie's still away, and is currently at risk, it seems, of being kept away by an irate Icelandic volcano god, I thought I'd slip in another post to help tide things over, maybe riff off something I touched on at the end of the previous entry, and in a couple of comments after. Cause, yeah, another of my current madcap schemes is the screenplay I'm trying to sell for a high school movie based on As You Like It, with the female character of Rosalind changed to a male character, Ross. Is that a sellable proposition? I ask myself. I don't know. One commenter rightly points to the success of Brokeback Mountain. Another points to Glee. And both of these are pertinent. But maybe, I think, it's worth expanding on the backstory of how the script came about to give a sense of why -- as much as I wish it were otherwise -- those two examples don't entirely assuage my doubts. Not that I think it's entirely hopeless.

So, OK, it all began with a happenstance encounter via Wikipedia with a cool little movie called The Curiosity of Chance, starring Tad Hilgenbrinck. The actor was entirely unfamiliar to me from his roles in sequels to American Pie and The Lost Boys but, hey, he was clearly a hottie, so I was intrigued enough to track down a copy. Set in the 80s, it's a straight-up high school movie in the mold of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, by turns comedic and dramatic, a thoroughbred of its genre right down to the Battle of the Bands denouement. There are two differences though: 1) Hilgenbrinck's main character, Chance Marquis, is openly gay, so the whole thwarted-love rom-com plot is about this quirky outsider having the hots for the jock next door; 2) It's set in an international high school in Belgium.

The latter is visibly a constraint of budget and funding, (the indie production had to actually go there to find the damn money and willpower to get the film made) with the largely Belgian cast performing characters with names like Hank and Brad. It jars at first, and there's a few of the supporting cast that don't quite pull it off, but I found once I got past that initial discord, I fell in love with the movie. A bona fide high school movie with a gay kid as the protagonist? Awesome! And it is, I think, a little gem of a piece in terms of a script that sings and zings, and wonderful performances from Hilgenbrinck and Chris Mulcahy as his military father. (One of the things I love most about it is the way Mulcahy's character slips out of the overbearing, homophobic dictator dad cliche into something much more subtle and ultimately sympathetic.) Anyway, I blogged about it here so I won't go on.

A little while later I caught another movie set in a high school, again with a gay protagonist at its heart, another indie flick called Were The World Mine. And better still, this one's a musical, and better still a musical based on A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's rougher around the edges than TCoC, I think, but again I found myself having a lot of love for it. So again I blogged about it, though the entry linked is less a review and more of a fanciful riff on the fact I couldn't help but see parallels between the leads in this movie and two characters I use a lot in my own fiction. (So, yeah, quite possibly meaningless to those unfamiliar with my stuff.) In the comments thread to that entry though, a reader grumped that this was patently escapist fluff when compared to something like The History Boys. Do we really need the banality of a Gay High School Musical, for crying out loud? was the general sentiment.

This is, I reckon, a very bad comparison, the music in WtWM being way more interesting than the sort of treacly trite Disney nonsense that, trust me, gives me the boak as much as anyone. But my main argument wasn't to defend WtWM -- or TCoC for that matter -- as serious cinema, especially when that runs the risk of derailing into arguments over idioms like the musical or the high school movie which some are going to disregard as essentially populist low art whatever you say. No, my argument was simply that we do indeed need exactly those popcorn flicks. Brokeback Mountain is a great movie, but does this serious, worthy movie actually offer much to a fourteen year old kid? To a not particularly precocious teen who doesn't want to see a ponderous tale of the human condition, just the same sort of fun popcorn flicks his mates are going to... but one where it's his story being told, not theirs, not always, always theirs? For all that Brokeback Mountain was groundbreaking, My Beautiful Launderette broke that same ground over twenty years previous; and being there at the time, as a gay high school kid, you know, I didn't really want to see something sophisticated and sensitive and blah blah fucking blah. Booooooring!

I wanted Grease with Danny Zucco as a deviant, Star Wars with Han Solo as a homo, Raiders of the Lost Ark with Indie as an invert. (It's not a Harrison Ford thing; he was never my type. Those are just the first examples that spring to mind. Just saying.) What I mean is, as a kid I wanted John Hughes to have made something like The Curiosity of Chance, so I didn't have to project a queer reading onto Some Kind of Wonderful by pretending that Watts was not just a tomboy but an actual boy boy. And as a writer now, that's the sort of shit that drives me to create works that might hopefully fill that niche for others. I see movies like The Curiosity of Chance or Were the World Mine as important steps beyond where we are today, where you can, yes, have a gay protagonist in serious cinema with mainstream backing, but when it comes to the popcorn flicks the fags are relegated to supporting roles. Glee has been superlative in the storylines it's allotted to the Kurt character, but he is still secondary. Rachel and Finn, Schue and Sylvester -- that's where the core stories are at.

But here's the thing. As I was making this argument in the comments, saying how I saw this as an absence begging to be filled, I wanted to ensure that I wasn't painting a bleaker picture of reality than was fair. The Curiosity of Chance exists, after all. Were the World Mine exists. These are indie flicks made on shoestring budgets, labours of love the both of them, but they are out there. And maybe I was just ignorant. Maybe I'd just missed the movies I was looking for. So, in the interests of fairness, I did a quick Google on "gay kid" and "high school movie". The result at that time was my post on The Curiosity of Chance as the top hit.

That floored me. I wrote it into my response -- so ironically the page that comes top now is the one where I comment on it. I twittered about it. I realised Google might be doing something weird algorithmically just for me, so I signed out and tried again. Same response. I'm still half-convinced there's something I've missed, but I've talked about it on numerous occasions and I'm yet to get someone coming back with, "No, I get something else entirely." And I know my hit stats. I know how low a profile my blog has. I'm staggered at the idea that nowhere on the whole internet are those phrases used together on a page that trumps me. They're not that idiosyncratic, surely. Gay kid. High school movie. How can these phrases not be popping up together all over the place?

And the answer seems to be because the movie that would have that effect doesn't exist. While The Curiosity of Chance and Were the World Mine are out there, they didn't get to sit at the big table with the grown-ups. They didn't get backed by major studios. They didn't get Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. They didn't get Ang Lee. They didn't get the serious PR that comes with all of that, the hype that's only boosted by the fact that -- holy fuck! -- it's as big a movie as you can get in terms of investment and it's a motherfucking gay love story.

That's the movie I want to see.

Forget Brokeback Mountain. Forget Glee. Or better still, think of what I want as the fusion of the two. With the big studio budget and support of something like 10 Things I Hate About You, The Curiosity of Chance or Were the World Mine could have been, I think, game-changers in Hollywood. There was a time when Hollywood still baulked at the notion of a black lead in a popcorn flick, a good old-fashioned blockbuster. Now all such nonsense notions can be quashed with two words: Will Smith. Would a gay lead in a popcorn flick really be surefire box office disaster? What is the target demographic of your average high school movie as, in many respects, a rom-com for teens? What proportion of that prospective audience is female? How many men who actually want to see 10 Things I Hate About You are contrarily going to refuse to see something comparable just because the lead character's queer?

Did whites stay away in droves from I Am Legend because they, like, just couldn't relate to Will Smith?

If you think that comparison is a stretch, this is the same issue that's beset another movie, Falling For Grace, as pointed out by the Interstitial Arts Foundation. That movie is a straight-up romantic comedy, written and directed by Fay Ann Lee, who also stars in it. As the name might suggest, Lee is Chinese-American. Which apparently means "no movie studio, no TV channel, and barely any theaters will pick up this film." Lee has been told in no uncertain terms that the movie can't be marketed as the rom-com it is, only as an "Asian-American film."

Imagine: "I'm sorry, Mr Smith. We couldn't possibly sell I Am Legend as a sci-fi action/adventure blockbuster. With a black guy in the lead role, we could only ever market it as a Black film."

How fucked up would that be? But that does seem to be the logic at play here for Falling from Grace. I can't help but think the same is true for the high school movie I want to see with a gay kid as a protagonist, and I suspect it will hold until such time as the game-changing movie comes along that smashes through the craven cowardice. Being an ambitious and contrarian son-of-a-bitch, of course, seeing that woeful state of affairs, getting that gobsmacking Google result thrown back in my face, didn't make me simply bemoan the stark reality. Bollocks to that. As I sat there, trying to put into words my sheer shock at being the top hit for a string combination like "gay kid" and "high school movie," I found myself basically saying, oh fuck, if the movie I'm looking for doesn't exist, the only thing I can do about this is try and fucking write it.

And thus was born Whatever the Fuck You Want.

It's a simple premise. If you've read As You Like It, it's based on that, pretty much scene for scene. Even the dialogue, while modernised and freely fucked around with, is largely riffing off Shakespeare's original text. The big change -- switching Rosalind's gender -- is actually, I think, in keeping with a quite radical subtext to this play, an update of a feisty queer spirit I see in it. You know that in Shakespeare's day the female parts would have been played by a boy, right? Well, the main plot of AYLI revolves around Orlando meeting and falling in love with Rosalind early on. Almost immediately though, she has to go on the lam disguised as a boy, calling herself Ganymede (ahem!) When they meet up again, he doesn't recognise her. As Orlando moons over this Rosalind girl, "Ganymede" offers to help him practise his courtship skills by pretending to be her. So we end up with Orlando pretending to woo a girl who, he thinks, is really a boy, who is really a girl, who is really, in reality, a boy. Dig? Shakespeare's gender-bending is, I think, so consciously playing with this that modern performances with Rosalind played by a woman erase a fundamental import. Because she -- no, he -- no, she -- no, he -- is actually the person Orlando loves, only he doesn't realise it. Hmmmmm.

But wait, you might say, isn't that last "no, he" stepping out of the story? Like, the base character is still a girl, it's just the actor would have been a boy, so there's that whole fourth wall between her and him, no? But Shakespeare breaks the fourth wall.

In the epilogue to that play, the actor playing Rosalind addresses the audience directly, first with an excuse for the irregularity of having a woman speak the epilogue. But, hey, if it's fine for a man to do the prologue, she says, why shouldn't a woman do the epilogue? The usual elicitations of indulgence are made: we tried our best; give us a break if it wasn't your cup of tea. But then something interesting happens. All you women in the audience, Rosalind says, for the sake of the love you bear to men, I ask you to like this play... as much as it pleases you. (I'm paraphrasing here.) All you men in the audience, for the sake of the love you bear women -- and we know you do cause you spend so much time whining about them -- maybe "between you and the women the play may please." Which rather reads to me as if Shakespeare knows fine well that your average red-blooded male may suffer "chick flicks" only for the sake of his girlfriend. So you don't like rom-coms? Be happy that you're making her happy, by being here with her. Find the pleasure in sharing this experience between you.

And then comes the kicker.

"If I were a woman..." says Rosalind. And where is the stress in that? "If I were a woman..." If it were me at your side. "If I were a woman..." But I'm not. "If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not..." I'd kiss all you fine specimens of manhood, with your manly beards, your smooth skin, your sweet breath. If I were a woman, that is. You hunks, you.

There's a blatant flirtation here, as I see it, a feisty faggotry that demands to be acted with desire. I've read at least one commentary that posited the actor's removal of his wig as part of the performance. With the explicit admission of gender -- that he is not a woman -- the character is being abandoned, the pretence stripped away. To remove the wig at this key point while carrying on the coy plea for indulgence, to stand revealed as a boy while still coquettishly teasing the men in the audience... this is, I think, queer theatre in action. It is defiantly deviant, an inversion of the play's "truth" -- that Ganymede is really Rosalind. No, it's saying, Rosalind is really Ganymede.

Granted, it's fairly coy for the most part, almost everything in the subtext. We're not talking a bad boy like Marlowe here, happy to break a few noses on his path to an early death, picking Edward II as subject -- the king who, for his sexual sins, got a red-hot poker up where the sun don't shine. But does Shakespeare worry that all the straight boys will have their masculinity so threatened by a hint of Teh Gayz that they'll stay away in droves? Does he chicken out from what, if played just so, could well have been pretty much in-your-face faggotry, for fear that it'll make men run a mile? No, "for the love you bear to women" Rosalind says to the men. Enjoy it for her sake. Don't get all gruff and manly man heteronormative about it. "If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me..." You're too handsome to be a homophobe, honey.

I studied the play at uni, and loved it for that from the off. Part of me wonders if Shakespeare was deliberately writing it for the queers on the stage and the queers in the audience, to give the actors a chance to play lovers without one of them in a dress, to give the audience that sight. To give them a scene where a boy dressed as a boy stands on stage and, as other characters proclaim the passions of love, that love is this and that and the other, and that this is how they feel for such-and-such and so-and-so, he repeatedly echoes: And I for no woman.

And I for no woman.

One might well read that as an assertion of sexual identity. One might well read Shakespeare's title as a response.

So as I got to thinking about the high school movie I wanted to see, with films like 10 Things I Hate About You in mind, it occurred to me that As You Like It might well stand a similar treatment. And could you switch the gender of Rosalind to take it back to its bolshie roots? It turns out you can. It changes the whole dynamic to have Orlando and Ross first meet while Ross is dressed up as a girl, to have their mock courtship charged with Ross's knowledge that the girl Orlando claims to love doesn't actually exist. But it changes it in, I think, a kinda interesting way. And there are so many features of the play that transfer so neatly to the high school movie idiom that a large part of the writing process consisted of me wetting myself at how naturally it all clicked into place.

Will it work for a reader who's seen screenplay after screenplay? Have I fucked up in some way that I, as a novice in this field, just don't see? Fucked if I know; my literary agent liked it enough to pass it on in the right direction, but there's every possibility it's not at all what anyone in the right place is looking for, purely on the screenplay level. And even if it does work as a script, is such a story sellable in Hollywood right now? I hope it is. It'd be cool for such a movie to be made outside the gay/indie ghetto, to get a seat at the big table. And for it to be one that lays its cards on that table in the title, if one does take it as a comment on the queer desires that ripple through the subtext: As you like it. Whatever the fuck you want.

Hell, I just hope something like this is sellable. I want such a movie to get made whether it's mine or not. Cause if it's not, it seems like the whole "gay kid" and "high school movie" Google thing will just carry on being true. I'll keep on being the top hit for those strings. And that is frankly just fucked-up.

Although, hey... Charlie has much better traffic than me, so maybe from here I can knock myself off the top spot. Heh.

After blogging about travel adventures and the unknown, I thought I'd follow the loose tangential connection my mind makes with such things, and post about the next jaunt on my own agenda, and about the way that stepping outside your comfort zone in other ways can sometimes end up in something unexpectedly cool. Cause for me the next journey off my native soil -- flights just booked shortly after that post, actually -- is a wee trip to Chicago in June. It's only a few days, with I don't know what crash space organised for me at the other end, there's no convention to go to, and no publishers to see, and I really can't afford it, but I couldn't resist it, couldn't not go. There's a musical playing, you see, for the first time ever, world premiere. And it's mine.

Yeah, yeah, I'm sure there's some of you out there who're thinking right now of how much you hate musicals. A lot of folk just can't stand the rupture of a perfectly good narrative with a sudden left turn into song and dance. That's your prerogative. Some people love musicals and some people have no soul. Those of you who have no soul feel free to berate me in the comments for infecting the world with one more acoustic atrocity. You are quite entitled to have no soul. Me, I love em. I hate disco music, divas, rainbow flags, and all other such cliches of "gay" culture, but I have to admit, I'm a sucker for jazz hands. (That sounds vaguely dirty, but you know what I mean.) In almost all other respects, I'm about as far from your stereotypical flouncing flameboy as can be, but from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers through to Sweeney Todd, I loves me my show tunes. I draw the line at Andrew Lloyd Weber -- no, wait, even he gets a pass with Jesus Christ Superstar cause "Heaven on My Mind" is just awesome. That's how deep my addiction runs.

I can't help it.

Anyways, this one has been kind of a weird project of mine for the last... um... five years or so, maybe. It would probably have taken considerably less if I had any capacity whatsoever to actually, you know, sing. Or play an instrument. Or write sheet music. Those skills would undoubtedly have come in handy. When you write a musical, I suspect that being able to communicate what it actually sounds like is, generally speaking, a major advantage. But I'm not one to be daunted by such trivial practicalities. Reality? Hah! If I gave a flying fuck for your piddling reality, do you think I'd be writing a fucking musical?

It began -- as is a good place to start with such things -- with a doomed love. I hooked up with a hot young guy via Teh Seedy Intarwebz -- via Gaydar namely, a gay personals site with all too many profile pics of the "put that away!" variety but where occasionally you run into someone who isn't actually advertising themselves as, apparently, little more than a prick or an arse. And so I met this guy, we had a three-day weekend of intensive dating, I fell head over heels for him, and... he didn't return my calls. Shit happens. It wasn't meant to be. I tried, to a level that didn't overstep the bounds into creepy stalker territory, but he just wasn't into me.

So I hit the booze.

I take what I think of as the Bernard Black approach to a broken heart. Red wine, absinthe, beer, whatever. Smoke lots of cigarettes, don't wash for days, and spend all night railling drunkenly at the injustice of the world while listening to Tom Waits. Or Neil Diamond's "Love on the Rocks." That's a good one for the self-pitying. The more overblown the better, cause it gets it out of your system faster; you just have to push yourself to the point where you know you're a caricature, where you can't take yourself seriously any longer, and eventually, after a week or two of cathartic misery, you come out the other end and get on with your life. It may not work for everyone, but that's my recipe. Shit, maybe I'm just fickle.

That was pretty much my approach this time, except somewhere in that gleeful self-abandon to debauchery, I wrote a song, a blues jazz number called "That Great Big Sanatorium in the Sky" that clearly came from listening to Waits's Small Change one too many times. Then I wrote another called "Tango for the Dead" that had pretty much the same dive bar delight in all things self-destructive. Somewhere in there, the story-teller in me kicked in. I couldn't help but imagine them being sung by a Waitsian waster in some seedy piano bar, a character in a story that clicked together as I dug out some old songs -- scribbled down years before when I really, really wanted to have a punk band called Fagsmoke but knew no one insane enough to put up with my... vocal idiosyncracies. Those songs belonged in other characters' mouths, I realised, and those characters fell together into a narrative. Before I knew it I was writing a script and twisting those songs I had into medleys and reprises, ensemble numbers -- a punk anthem here, a Broadway ballad there, West Side Story meets Hedwig and the Angry Inch meets Tommy meets Cabaret, and all of it in my head.

And then I had a musical. In my head.

It's kind of weird having a musical in your head. An earworm you just want to get rid of, but when it's your own invention you sorta love that earworm. You know your eyes are glazing over as people talk to you, but all you can think of is the tune playing inside your skull. You try to pay attention but you've just come up with a really awesome lyric. It would be fine if you could lay it down. If you could only sing it properly. If you could only play the piano or guitar. If you could only write sheet music. If you could only find some way to communicate it. But, no. There's a fucking orchestra in your head, and half a dozen voices singing different refrains in harmonies over each other, and you have a voice that... well, when it comes to voices breaking, mine took that to mean like when you throw a spanner in the works of some heavy machinery. Christ, they wouldn't let me in the school choir even before it broke.

But I tried. Neil Williamson of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, God bless him, being as talented a musician as he is a writer, and an all-round good guy, suffered through my ungodly attempts to get across a couple of the tunes; but he'd had to have been psychic to figure out what fucking key I was aiming for most of the time, let alone what note. So eventually, I stuck the script in the drawer and got on with projects that might actually come to something. Cause, really... a musical? Like even if I got the basic melodies in sheet music, what was I going to do? Set myself up as the Ed Wood of Glaswegian musical theatre? Use my wild-eyed passion to convince the score or more people I'd need to stage it at the Edinburgh Fringe as some grand folly? How the fuck did I think I was ever going to get this on the stage when I don't know shit about the million things that matter there?

This sort of applies to writing too, I think. I mean, really, every creative endeavour is something of a madcap scheme. A lot of aspiring writers I've talked to are daunted by the odds that can seem insurmountable, and sometimes it's not so much that they doubt their talent as that they just... feel like Luke Skywalker at the start of Star Wars. That they're a nobody stuck in the middle of nowhere. They're never going to be in the right place at the right time. They're just that shitkicking kid from a town of dicks, pricks and fucking hicks. I felt like that myself for most of the time I was working on what was to become Vellum. Who the fuck am I to think I can do this?

But don't worry. I'm not going to get all inspirational on your ass, trot out the old chestnuts about soldiering on and lucky breaks. This is about left turns.

So. Fast forward to a year or so back and I pick up my first Mac as a replacement for a kaput IBM ThinkPad. If you know Macs, you might have messed around with GarageBand, that oh-so-easy-to-use music mixing application with all these loops of piano, guitar, drums and whatnot that you can slap down in multiple tracks, splice and dice, generally fuck around with till you come up with something listenable. It's kind of fun, especially if you're a writer who likes meddling in other media. You can't fool yourself that email and interwebs are anything other than procrastination, because there's nothing constructive going on. Me, I'm shit at video games, so I can't even throw myself into one of those and at least feel I've finished something. But slapping together a tune in GarageBand... now that I can do. It's a great way to avoid work.

So, you're sitting there staring at the outline, writing a word here and there, knocking up against some mini-block where you know something's wrong but your unconscious hasn't figured out what yet. So you take a left turn. Or at least I do. I open up GarageBand and start fucking about with piano loops, and I discover one that sounds... strangely right. It is, I realise, exactly the refrain I had in my head as the backbone of the musical's title song. I slap it down, start fucking around some more. Long story short, a week or so later I have all but two of the numbers laid down -- in files so big, so layered in tracks, I have to do jiggery-pokery to run them without stalling, but near as damn it exactly the way they've always sounded in my head. Awesome! And with a few button clicks and a fileshare site, it's a piece of piss to mix them down to mp3s and stick them up on the web, embed some little doohickeys in a blog post or five so you can share them with the world. Wouldn't inflict my singing on a Tory Shadow Home Secretary, but at least anyone who wants to can hear the instrumental version and get the gist of it, as they read the downloadable libretto.

It's sort of a weird free giveaway but it's a form of fiction. And it's not like I'm really in a position to do anything with it, so what the fuck? Why not?

Some months later I get an email from some kids at the University of Chicago. They're fans of my books, they read the blog, and they've fallen in love with the musical. Would I give permission for them to stage it through the university theatre group? They'd need sheet music, of course, for the proposal, and they'd need to know how the lyrics are meant to be sung, but would I be open to the idea in principle. Is that a lucky break or a left turn? Is it their left turn or mine? Maybe we both took left turns while facing different ways, and found ourselves looking at each other. The point is just, I guess, that sometimes madcap schemes are just crazy enough that others fall in love with the glorious folly of them. They like that sort of left turn too.

I mean, I couldn't give them sheet music. You can produce sheet music of sorts from some of the tracks in GarageBand but it's a far cry from just hitting a button and printing out a usable score. But they got themselves a musical director who was up for taking the mp3s and the project files and working my multi-layered mess -- where a melody might well be based on the way three different piano tracks interact with each other, the refrain woven between them -- and arranging it so it could actually be performed. My singing may be shite, but with some saintly friends at this end, I could lay down my own vocals, play the tracks to them what can sing, and try and direct them as they navigated their way by the music to what I was aiming for.

The result? In a three day run from the 3rd to the 5th of June, University of Chicago Theater Group is proud to present the world premiere of Nowhere Town by Hal Duncan. It may not be Broadway, but it's fucking awesome as far as I'm concerned. It's a madcap scheme born in a week of caprice and chaos, and now it's coming to fruition. It's a left turn, taken on the spur of the moment because a bit of distraction isn't always a bad thing. I like left turns. They might seem to take you completely off the track, but sometimes you stumble onto a whole other path, and if you follow it, you find yourself somewhere you never expected to be. For me, a couple of months from now, that's going to be sitting in the audience on the opening night as my words and music are made real on stage.

As I say, I used to have that mentality that's... not fatalist, not defeatist, but... daunted. Wrapped up in the sense that certain things just don't happen to some snot-nosed scruff from a shithole in the West of Scotland. And when you look at it in terms of soldiering on and lucky breaks, I'm not sure that helps that much. They're words to the wise, these warnings that you have to work your arse off and even then you might not get the golden opportunity, just have to do your damnedest, cross your fingers and hope for the best. But they're words spoken so often that those who need to be persuaded of those realities are as often as not in deep denial of them already. And those who already get that... well, that reality is pretty daunting.

But now I just say, fuck it. Take the left turn and see where it goes. So while I'm waiting for those two long months to pass, I've got two other madcap schemes on the go -- an illustrated children's book with Eric Orchard, and a screenplay for a high school movie based on As You Like It, with the female lead changed to male. Eric's artwork is awesome, so I think I've had a lucky break in hooking up with him, but the idea of a potty-mouthed waster like me writing for kids? Heh. And as for the screenplay? Man, the main reason I wrote it is because "gay kid" and "high school movie" don't mix in Hollywood. (I know this for a fact cause if you Google those strings the top hit is a post on my blog -- not an IMDB entry or a proper review, but a post on my fucking blog -- and I know how low my traffic is. But that's another rant.) Every last scrap of sanity in me says that trying to sell such a project is an act of utter folly. But fuck it.

Fuck knows if anything will come of these left turns, but it was fun to take them. And, hey, if in June I'm going to be sitting in a theatre, maybe one day I'll be sitting in a cinema...

So, Charlie's off in Japan, and I'm his unlikely surrogate for a week or so. Hi, I'm Hal Duncan, and I'm the poor man's Charles Stross. Or the Charlie Stross's poor man. Or something. I'm certainly jealous as fuck of Charlie's gallivanting to Japan, cause it's probably one of my favourite things about this whole writing gig -- the travel. Whether it's a wee con in Belfast (mmmm, Guinness!) or a huge con in Nantes, meeting your translator in Berlin or Helsinki or wherever, it's always an awesome experience for me. I like culture shock. I like the disconnection. I like being lost and alone among people whose language I barely understand two words of.

I realise I caught the bug at an early age, on holiday with my folks in former Yugoslavia, in a little touristy town outside Dubrovnik, wandering off on my tod and randomly picking a stranger to follow -- not in a creepy stalker way, but just to give a direction to my wanderings. Like, even if they were just going from their house to a shop, still, walking in their path was somehow being more a part of the place than, you know, lying on the beach or traipsing round after a tour guide with my folks. Actually, tell a lie; given my age I probably was pretending to be a secret agent or something, but I do think that's where the first germ of the disease got under my skin.

It really took hold on one of those student interrail journeys, trying to muddle my way around Europe with the piss-poor French that comes with a UK education. Years of travelling with my parents, a holiday or two with a mate -- those were cool, but I decided I really wanted to go it alone, not have to haggle with someone else about where we were going, what we were going to do. So, yeah, in classic would-be boho style I decided to do my own Grandish Tour -- Paris, Rome, Florence, etc. -- on a ticket valid for a month, with money that, of course, lasted for two weeks of youth hostels and student halls. So, OK, I blew most of my dosh in one week in Paris; it was still fucking fantastic.

I remember kinda loving the fact that the guy behind the counter in the Metro completely disdained my insult to his language, and most decidely did not "appreciate the effort." He was a bloke, working his dull daily job, and not interested in linguistically wiping my arse for me. I liked sitting in cafes on my tod, preferably ones with as few anglophone voices as possible, cause when you're a solitary scruff, waitors don't give a fuck about you, but every so often you'll find yourself in some random conversation, like with some middle-aged guy who's worryingly keen to get you to come to his night-club in a part of town you've never heard of. I liked taking the Metro out through neighgbourhoods that looked a little rougher, to St Denis Basilique where I was staying. I liked missing the Metro and being fucking stranded.

That was the clincher, actually. See I didn't know much French, but I did remember the word ferme, so having not quite realised the Metro closed at midnight, when that word came over the tanoy as I made my way to a transfer that wasn't going to happen, I sort of wised up rather quickly to the fact that I was fucked. Sod all money in my pocket, needless to say, a little but... enough for a taxi? Shit, I had no idea. But with not much choice in the matter, I made my way outside, found a taxi rank and stood waiting, hoping that I could find some way to ask a driver what the fare might be.

The fight in the taxi rank was an adventure. The sort of adventure you back away from as quickly as possible, the sort you watch really nervously as two men go at it, then their girlfriends try to separate them, then their girlfriends go at it, and very soon one of them is dragging the other backwards by her hair across the street. O-kay, you think, valiantly waiting, soldiering it out until you get to the front of the queue and the taxi driver gives blank stares at your butchery of his tongue. Can you get the gist of your meaning across? Can you fuck.

But, hey, there's always Shanks's Pony! And you have a map, a map of Paris. OK, so where you're staying is actually off the map, but it's labelled so you know that this road here, exiting the map due north, is headed for where you're staying. And the route you need to take to get there is fairly straightforward. And who the fuck knows how far it is when the scale is in kilometres anyway? It's possibly not advisable, if you find yourself in such a situation and having walked for a number of hours already, to select now as the time to experiment with hitch-hiking, not when the street you make that decision on turns out to be, as you later find out, the heart of the red light district. But it turned out fine. The man who picked me up seemed perfectly nice, and if he was sorely disappointed in getting some halfwit Scottish naif who could do little more than jabber "St Denis Basilique?" at him, instead of the long-haired, leather-jacketed, junkie hustler I might have looked like, well, he didn't show it. Hey, I couldn't tell. Didn't have a scooby what the fuck he was saying.

Granted, when he dropped me off on the edge of Paris, the long stretch of unlit pathless road between the city and the suburb was a little daunting, but with the lights of that suburb in sight, it was at least a straight line through the pitch-black. It only took another hour or so to get three-quarters of the way -- not far now! -- and realise that the pocket of my backpack was unzipped, presumably from when I stuffed the map into it in my Parisian Samaritan's motor. And, oh wait, that was the pocket my passport was in, right?

I think it was then that I decided this was awesome. Seriously. You'd think it was after the two-hour walk halfway back to Paris, the painstaking inch-by-inch trudge with my eyes scouring the grass verge every step. You'd think it was after the excruciating tension of hoping against hope that the passport hadn't fallen out in the car and that I could actually spot the old-style British passport, black as the night itself. You'd think it was after the miracle of actually seeing that tiny white bit for your name on the front, gleaming in the darkness. You'd think it was the blessed relief, the swingback into elation from the adrenalin overload. But, no. Swear to God, a part of me just broke a little as soon as I realised the passport was gone, just surrendered to a joyous relish of the absurdity of the entire fiasco.

I made it back to the student halls I was staying in eventually. Couldn't get into my room because the night porter had no access to the key I'd had to hand in (to get my passport, to change money.) Spent the night on a wooden bench watching a scabby moggy chase creepy-crawlies that weren't quite big enough to be cockroaches, (I convinced myself.) But it didn't really matter. Even at the time, I didn't look at it as a horrendous gruelling experience of When Holidays Go Wrong. And my attitude was nothing to do with any platitudinous bollocks about "if life throws you lemons, make lemonade." Fuck that shit. I just discovered there was something neat about being that stranger in that strange land.

When I got a programming job that involved the odd jaunt abroad to places like Marion in North Carolina, Bursa in Turkey or Odorheiu in Romania, that disease resurfaced. I got stranded in Istanbul once on the way back from Bursa, had to find a cheap-ass hotel for myself on the few Turkish lira I had in my pocket. Loved every second of it. But it's not about the thrill of disaster, so much as it's about the disconnection. One of the things I love about going to foreign cons or visiting publishers are exactly those moments people apologise for -- when you're with a crowd of locals who've relaxed into the craic so much they forget they have this barbarian in their midst who doesn't speak their tongue. Suddenly at some point someone will realise -- shit! you have no idea what we're on about! -- but there's something wonderful about not knowing what's being said, about just soaking up the rhythms and tones and body language. Hazy with jetlag, adrenalin and alcohol, seeing the human interaction stripped of referential meaning, you catch a deeper sense to this strange ballet of sounds and gestures, in a way you can never do when you're immersed in the back-and-forth of words and ideas. And it rocks.

Of course, the most alien languages in my travels I've ever had to deal with are Polish, Hungarian or Turkish; and the strange lands I've been a stranger in have been heavily Westernised if not wholly Western, so I can't help wondering if Charlie's having some real honest-to-God lost-in-translation moments out there in Japan.

Fuck, that makes me so jealous.



About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries written by Hal Duncan in April 2010.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog