One of the past writing mistakes that makes it clear I didn’t hit the early days of my writing maturity, accomplishment, and professionalism until about 1997 is how I often forced in my own political and personal opinions, along with various passions du jour. That’s fine if such viewpoints and topics naturally fit with the pre-existing storyline or characters, but when they’re put in as little more than mental masturbation for the writer, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
The first and most obvious example is how I tried to force “the dawn of rock and roll” into books taking place in 1949 and 1950. Um, yeah, when rock didn’t even freaking exist yet, and when the music that did lead to early rockabilly would’ve been sold as “race records.” There are a number of pseudo-rock or pseudo-pop bands in my Atlantic City books during the Forties, as a spoof of modern bands and groups and how teenyboppers go ga-ga for them, but at least they’ve never been put forth as actual “rock bands” or “the dawn of rock and roll.” They’re just local bands (typical spoofy names include The Homicides, The Balls, The Guns, and The Abortions, names so over the top you know they’re supposed to be funny), playing music that might be a bit outside the establishment’s idea of respectable.
All these years later, I still don’t understand why I couldn’t have just written an all-new story set in the Sixties, since I was so into this music and excitedly discovering it all for the very first time. I also don’t get why I wanted to write about characters like Violet and Cherie going ga-ga for groups like The Beatles and The Four Seasons in their thirties. Even if a lot of these characters don’t exactly act their age as they get older, they still have limits. The average thirtysomething mother of the Sixties would never have become a huge fan of rock or pop bands! At most they would’ve approved of their kids listening to it, or even enjoyed some of their stuff on the radio. But not going to concerts, hanging up posters, and acting like a crazed teen teenybopper.
I was very happy to include a fair amount of Sixties and Seventies music in Little Ragdoll, and am looking forward to including Eighties music in Justine Grown Up. The penultimate chapter, “Sing Blue Silver Snowstorm,” is even going to be built around a real-life event that coincided with a real concert. But none of that music was/will be forced in there just for mental masturbation or to show off how cool I thought I was to be liking music of an earlier generation instead of stuff like New Kids or rap. It’s a natural part of the storyline, and fits with the cultural backdrop. (I wonder if, had YouTube existed in the early Nineties, I would’ve been one of those annoying kids making self-congratulatory comments like “I’m only 13 and I love [band/singer] and hate [current overexposed, untalented hack].” What do you want, a cookie? You’re not special or unique for liking old music. Once you get out of the superficial world of junior high and high school, you’ll find a lot more people your age are into older music and don’t all like current trends.)
I love silent films, and I’ve been able to work in mentions and discussions of silent actors and films in my first two Russian novels. But they’re set during the late Teens and Twenties. Of course it would seem natural to go to a current movie or talk about a popular actor. Chapter 23 of the sequel is even called “Death of Valentino” and includes the unfortunate three-ring circus his death and wake turned into. But none of this is focused on obsessively, and each time it comes up, it fits with the scene or dialogue. A number of real-life movies and actors are also mentioned and discussed in my Atlantic City books; Max, for example, adores all the classic comedians, and has some strong opinions about some of the knock0ffs, like The Ritz Brothers. His love of these comedians is a big part of his character, and it seems natural when he gushes about how much he admires Groucho Marx or lovingly hangs their posters all over his walls.
In July 1995, at age fifteen, I became a Marxist pretty much overnight. I’d read some unflattering things about Karl Marx’s personal life (such as an allegation he left his wife Jenny to give birth on a bare floor), and decided I hated him and he was evil. I also had been convinced for awhile that Communism was “evil,” in spite of not knowing a damn thing about what Communism actually was, or why the Russian Revolution really happened. I was as bad as my Tsarist characters, out of touch with how the majority of real Russians really lived and why so many people were so pissed at the Tsar. If you’re going to argue against any political or economic system, at least know what you’re talking about.
So for whatever reason, my eyes became opened to what Marxism, Socialism, and Communism were all about. I realized how the ruling classes had walked all over the poor and working-class for so much of human history, and was furious. Socialism was meant to help the common people and fight for social justice. It wasn’t a system of mass murder and oppression. (Obviously people like Stalin and Chairman Mao were perverting real Socialism, and National Socialism has nothing in common with Socialism, in spite of the oft-repeated straw man argument that Hitler, may his name be erased, was a Socialist.) Well, I had to make Cinnimin have a similar overnight conversion too, and she got really, really loopy about it.
The older she got, the goofier she got, turning Marxism into a whole damn organized religion, complete with making letters over herself (like a Christian would make a cross), kneeling and praying before pictures of people like Marx and Engels, striking from babysitting for Mrs. Valli on May Day, looting a bunch of factories with her equally-loony friends from a Marxist club at college on Marx’s Jarhzeit, and taking some silly pilgrimage to Highgate Cemetery while she’s pregnant with her fourth child. Her favorite sister Babs gave Cinni her Christmas bonus, and instead of using it to move out of her mom’s house, take care of her kids, invest in some birth control (even though she’s still a technical virgin and conceived her first nine kids just short of going all the way), or finally marry Levon, she spends it to go jaunting off to visit Marx’s grave and continue indoctrinating her three young sons. Barf.
At least Cinni finally wakes up in the early Sixties and realizes what a scary loon she’s become, saying and doing stuff that’s so out of touch with reality and alienating so many people, even her own kids. And it all came out of left field and didn’t fit with Cinni’s pre-existing character or anything in the storyline. It was just as loopy when out of nowhere again, she suddenly had a weird Russian grandma who’d raised her as a staunch Tsarist and taught her to believe the Tsarevich Aleksey had survived, was in hiding somewhere, and would someday come back to rule Russia. I wish I could blame this on drugs. Tsarism and Marxism-Leninism (eventually Stalinism) are SO incompatible! You can’t just write your current interests and political opinions into a book and think it’ll work!
Cinni even had some oil painting of Stalin under her bed in the introductory series, which she secretly hung on her wall at night. During the second book, Samantha really pissed her off by finding it and throwing it out the window, requiring it to be taken for repairs. I rewrote it so that Elaine, in the first book, finds it while on a visit from Texas and is snooping. Cinni says a painter friend of her Russian grandma gave it to her, and she stuffed it under the bed for lack of anything else to do with it. She wasn’t about to hang it on the wall, and didn’t want to arouse suspicions by offering it for sale in the paper. That whole Tsarism-Marxism storyline was just way too weird and goofy. At least it had enough potential for recasting in a realistic light, and in a way that fits with the historical era and Cinni’s character.
You can always write about your political opinions and hobbies in a journal. Don’t force them into a work of fiction when they don’t flow with the plot or characters. I, like Cinni, eventually grew up and made my Socialist leanings just another part of who I am, not my defining characteristic or something I think, write, and talk about every day. I’m also no longer nearly so extremely left-wing as I was in my teens and very early twenties. I’m no moderate, but I’m no extremist leftist either. (And for the record, I’m a registered Democrat, because there are certain official positions the SPUSA has which I don’t agree with, such as wanting to repeal the death penalty and being very anti-Israel. Contrary to what many modern-day leftists insist, Zionism and Marxism-Socialism are not at all incompatible. Many of the great early Zionists were Marxist-Socialists.)
I discovered that real Socialism is about how you live your life and the convictions you have. Only embarrassing new converts, in the throes of convert’s zeal, think it’s all about shouting slogans and constantly saying catchphrases and buzzwords like “exploitation of the proletariat” and “bourgeoisie.” Cinni and her college friends were like the embarrassing newbies you want to hide in the back because they haven’t been Socialists long enough to know how real Socialists talk, act, and think. My Katrin is a real Socialist, and she doesn’t go around blathering catchphrases and buzzwords. She writes articles for leftist magazines and newspapers, hosts meetings in her penthouse, and is actively involved in many progressive causes of the Twenties (and later Thirties, Forties, and beyond). And her Socialism is an integral part of her character and fits with the historical era.