While I don’t remember when, exactly, I first conceived of the idea for the tale that would eventually become Undercity, I do remember the thought process more or less exactly.
I was driving in my car towards my house (I suppose that dates the memory to mid-to-late 2009, actually) sitting at a stoplight. For whatever reason, I was thinking about Twlight, about how vampires and werewolves had saturated the public consciousness and how a few years earlier, Lord of the Rings had legitimized elves and dwarves for mass-consumption. What, then, was left? What would be the perfect type of sci-fi or fantasy character to write about, one that would resonate with audiences of all kinds instead of having just niche appeal?
No, not robots. That’s stupid.
Yes, there! Much better!
The idea went undeveloped beyond the barest concept: exceptional female protagonist, cyborg male protagonist, conspiracies, love triangle, etc. In fact, it would be almost another year before I touched it again.
In Spring of 2010, I was taking a class on long-form fiction at St. Mary’s College of California when we were challenged to write the first chapter of a novel utilizing the techniques we’d been discussing in class. At this point, I’d never attempted anything longer than a twenty or thirty page short story. I didn’t think that I had the patience for a novel. But hey, an assignment is an assignment, and danged if that didn’t seem like the time to get cracking on my novel about a futuristic love story between a human woman and a cyborg man.
Of course, I hadn’t fleshed it out beyond that basic premise, and it turns out that if you put me in a room full of other writers and tell me to get cracking on a novel, I turn into Frank Miller. The cyborg became an assassin, and the woman became a young prostitute with a heart of gold. I wrote what was required of me for the class, and then once again put the novel on the backburner.
2010 came and went and I didn’t touch the novel. 2011 brought my graduation from St. Mary’s, and with it slavish devotion to my thesis project, so the novel got no attention that year, either. What did happen, however, is that a few things occurred which would heavily influence the novel once I finally sat down to write the damn thing in 2012. The first is the Occupy movement.
In November of 2011, I was painfully unemployed, and had been for several months. Due to my status as a freelance bum, I was able to take BART from my home at the southern end of the route up to Berkeley for a coffee date with a wonderful girl I’d met at a Halloween party. She was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and we weren’t able to spend more than a few hours together before she had to get back to class. With nothing else to do, I hopped back on BART and rode it south. Rather than go all the way to the station nearest my house, however, I decided to stop in Oakland and check out what was going on with the Occupy movement. Through sheer dumb luck, I happened to run into a few friends from the MFA program, and the next thing I know, five hours have passed and I’m part of a mob 7,000 strong (or 20,000 or 30,000, depending on who you ask) that’s swarming the Port of Oakland. Setting aside personal politics, simply being part of that crowd was enough to bring the issue of class in America to the forefront of my mind. I was unemployed, I was young, I was angry, and I wanted to do something about it. But I also wanted a job and a ton of money and a life of comfort. At that moment, either would have been acceptable to me, revolution or becoming part of the system. Funny how that works out, no?
The second thing that happened near the end of 2011 was that I started seriously dating the aforementioned wonderful girl, which set me down the road to finding more work, starting this blog, and being optimistic enough to pull myself out of the gutter I’d opted to lie down in. We talked about anything and everything, including the experience of being a teen, about women in fiction, about good female role models. All of these discussions got filed away in the back of my head to serve as future references. The novel wasn’t in my mind at the time, though.
Flash-forward to August 2012. Two of my friends are I driving to go on a tour at St. George’s Distillery. One of them has been attending graduate school in New York and he mentions that when it comes to penthouses and such in Manhattan, people are required to buy not just the apartment or condo or whatever that they want to live in, but the space in front of and above the windows as well. That way, whoever lives above them can’t just decide they want to extend their home ten feet out and spoil the view of the people below them.
Class warfare? What it’s like to be a disenfranchised teen girl? The wealthy buying the goddamn sky so they’ll have a nice, unbroken view of the world that’s literally beneath them? Suddenly it all clicked. The novel’s still a work in progress, unfortunately, but I’m pleased that it’s finally getting written.
And that it’s no longer about an assassin and a prostitue. Yeesh.