Thursday, May 21, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 32: “Moonless” by Bryan Hurt

      It took some doing but I finally made a white dwarf star like they’d been making out in Santa Fe. I made mine in my basement because basements are the perfect place to compress time and space. I slammed together some very high frequency energy waves and—ZAP!—a perfect miniature white dwarf. Even though it was very small for its type, no larger than a pushpin, it was extremely dense and incredibly bright. The star was so bright that you couldn’t look directly at it. Had to look above or below or off to the side and squint. One time I set myself the challenge of just staring at it for thirty seconds. Got a big headache, huge mistake.
      Density was a problem too. The star was dense enough that it drew small objects towards it. Tissue paper, curtains, the tail of my cat. Of course they all burst into flames. But at the same time it wasn’t so dense that it just hovered there above my table, an object fixed in space. It wobbled this way and that, wandering the basement, knocking against the walls, the floor, the ceiling, leaving burn marks everywhere. The last straw was when it set fire to my favorite Einstein poster—the one with his tongue sticking out, his messed up hair and goofy grin. I trapped the star in a box, put a padlock on the heavy lid.
      But stars are not meant to be kept in boxes.

          from “Moonless” by Bryan Hurt

And so, my friends, we’ve come to the end of our daily monitoring of the stories in the Watchlist anthology. It’s been a joy to dissect these 32 stories over the past 32 days, though I’ve only lightly skimmed the surface of what makes this anthology such a great one (my own contribution notwithstanding). I hope this countdown has sparked enough interest in Watchlist that you’ve gone out and secured yourself a copy. Today is the book’s official publication date (though readers scattered around the country have reported they already have it in their hands). I thought I’d wrap things up with editor Bryan Hurt’s story about a fellow who, in the midst of tinkering in his basement, creates a universe (you know, the sort of thing that happens to all of us while we’re waiting for our wives to call us to dinner). It started with a binary star system, built even further when the narrator’s cat “rubbed his cheeks against the sharp corners of the universe,” and, before you can say “Big Bang Theory,” there was an entire planetary system in the basement, including “a tiny scientist in a tiny white lab coat” with a telescope looking back up at our narrator-cum-god. The story perfectly captures the surveillance spirit of the anthology and I’m pleased to have Bryan Hurt close out the Watchlist countdown with this essay on how he came to write “Moonless.” He mentions he wrestled with the idea of including his own story in the collection, but I’m sure you’ll agree after reading “Moonless” that he had absolutely nothing to worry about.

Shoot the Moon

While I was editing and compiling the stories that would go into Watchlist I was completely unsure as to whether or not I would, or even wanted to, include a story of my own. On one hand I felt that I was obligated to include a story because Watchlist was my idea. If anyone had something important or original to say about surveillance vis-à-vis fiction shouldn’t it be the guy who, um, thought of the book? But on the other hand I didn’t want to come off as a complete narcissist, an editor who had set out to publish himself. Plus as the stories started arriving in my inbox I began to feel bowled over by them. Here was work--truly magnificent work--from all of my literary heroes. Even if I could think of something original/important/ socially or politically conscious/etc., no way did I want my own work stinking up the rest of the book.

I decided to deal with this conflict as I deal with most real life conflicts: I did my best to avoid it. I went to work, bought groceries, picked up my son from daycare, walked my dog, sent emails to Watchlist writers reminding them that the deadline was approaching soon, and pretended that I had nothing to do with it. They were the ones who had the hard task of writing about something as ubiquitous and important as surveillance, not me.

It was while I was doing all of this skillful avoiding that I heard the star story on NPR. I’d just picked my son up from daycare and we were driving home down Ocean Park Boulevard, through the crawl of Los Angeles rush hour, stoplights on every block. I knew this particular stop-and-go so well that its rhythms had imprinted themselves somewhere on my subconscious; I tapped the brakes or gas based more on instinct than on anything seen or heard. While I zoned out and watched the sun set into the not-so-faraway ocean, I became aware of the guy on the radio saying something about a lab in Santa Fe, Z machines, zaps, and manmade white dwarves.

At the time I was working on a series of very short stories based on misinterpreted scientific facts. I figured that if I got the facts wrong I would arrive at some kind of science fiction, a genre that I love but always felt closed out of when I tried to write. The rules for these stories were simple: find something scientific that interested me, follow it wherever my imagination took me no matter how off course that was, and include one common character, Dr. Hu, as a long-running pun. For “Moonless” I had other goals too, more technical and probably somewhat dry: write a story with a fairly clearly defined external conflict, escalate it as much as I could. I like writing to prompts because they impose the illusion of order on an otherwise disorderly process; they allow me to trick myself into thinking that I know what to do. The bonus in this case was that the story had nothing to do with surveillance, there was no pressure to try to write it for Watchlist. It was just a story about a guy who made stars in his basement, who made tiny worlds and tiny people and watched over them as if he were a god: nothing surveillance-y about that.

My point here is that I wrote my surveillance story by tricking myself into thinking that I wasn’t writing my surveillance story. I did the work I had to do by doing the work that I wanted to do instead. I think that writers often feel certain obligations when writing (“I need to write about THIS;” “my character needs to do THAT; or the worst: “my writing needs to be IMPORTANT/GOOD”) that do a lot of harm, create inhibitions, stifle the imagination, and make writing no fun. There aren’t many places in life that you get to do whatever you want to do, but the page is one of them. If not fun exactly, or not fun 100% of the time, then writing should at least be something like freedom. As a writer, I feel that my only real obligation is to write what I want. In the end that’s why I decided to include “Moonless” in Watchlist. It was the surveillance story that I wanted to write. I hope that it doesn’t stink up the rest of the collection, or at least not so bad that you can see the wafterons rising off.

Bryan Hurt is the author of Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, winner of the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and will be published later this year. His fiction and essays have been published in The American Reader, The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New England Review, Tin House, and TriQuarterly. He lives in Colorado and teaches creative writing at Colorado College.

Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  The “persons of interest” contributing short stories to the anthology include Etgar Keret, Robert Coover, Aimee Bender, Jim Shepard, Alissa Nutting, Charles Yu, Cory Doctorow, David Abrams, Randa Jarrar, Katherine Karlin, Miracle Jones, Mark Irwin, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Dale Peck, Bonnie Nadzam, Lucy Corin, Chika Unigwe, Paul Di Filippo, Lincoln Michel, Dana Johnson, Mark Chiusano, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Chanelle Benz, Sean Bernard, Kelly Luce, Zhang Ran, Miles Klee, Carmen Maria Machado, Steven Hayward, Deji Bryce Olukotun, Alexis Landau and Bryan Hurt.

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