“Rules for Ordinary Heroes” is timely considering recent news headlines about ebola and measles, which only adds to the element of horror. What inspired this story?
A wretched, awful trip to Cancún inspired all of this. Although, to be fair, the trip started out wonderfully. Great hotel, lovely beach, beautiful weather. My friend and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves for four days. Then, twenty-four hours before our flight back, my guts began to revolt with the worst cramps I’ve ever had in my entire life. I literally lurched through the hotel gift shop, sweeping medicine off the shelves, desperate to find something to stop the onslaught. To this day I feel guilty about that lobby bathroom (don’t ask). Two hours later the bug hit my friend, too. I didn’t know liquids could come out of so many orifices. Even a midnight visit from the hotel doctor and a hypodermic needle in the butt didn’t help. Eventually we were able to drag back to America and through the Miami airport, staggering around like zombies. The experience manifests here as an act of terrorism but it was really just bad luck on our part. Even though I’d been to Mexico four times before without getting sick, traveler’s illnesses can strike anyone at any time. All of the details of Miami International are as accurate as I could make them, and there really was a severely handicapped child in the departure lounge who became the offscreen child character in this story. I’d say eighty percent of this story is true. Especially the gross parts.
Stories written in the second person are relatively rare. How did you decide on that POV for this story? Who do you envision as the narrators?
I love second person POV because it offers a different way of approaching a story than through conventional third person. The illness aspect is so emotionally close to my bad memories that it felt extremely artificial to create a character to carry the plot. Instead I came at the characters sideways, using my favorite action movies to explore what we see as heroic in our entertainment while we overlook the ordinary, day-to-day actions that make us heroes to each other. Because most action movies center around men, the protagonist here ended up as a guy steeped in those movies. As for the narrators, I tried to hint at them near the end, with the references to tragedies in the last few decades. After the initial shock fades, we tend to lump victims of terrorism into faceless masses and soon forget them. Few people these days remember Lockerbie, for example, but I think of all those people falling out of the sky into the Scottish countryside, some of them still strapped to their seats, and shudder.
“Rules for Ordinary Heroes” is full of wonderful film references and sly commentary about screenwriting and the industry, which you’ve explored in other stories. How much did your background in Hollywood and television influence this piece?
Everyone in the industry knows Robert McKee’s book about story and plot. One of my bosses at CBS Television (he later went on to produce Desperate Housewives) had taken McKee’s intensive boot camp class and carried his book around like a bible. William Goldman and Joseph Campbell were popular as well, especially in my screenwriting classes at Ithaca College. I won a Rod Serling writing scholarship there as an undergraduate, and his work has been a huge inspiration. (I enjoy the Rod Serling interview videos on YouTube, especially the interview with James Gunn.) In this story I wanted to address all of the expected heroic “norms” as someone who studied them and saw them brought to life in studios but also as a film buff myself. I’ve watched the movies in this story at least a dozen times each. They are all conventional narratives, so I wanted to comment in an unconventional way through the point of view and shifting timeframe. My hope is that you don’t have to know all the texts for the story to work. After all, we can all relate to the fear of illness and infirmity. E. coli and norovirus are enemies that can’t be taken down by clever dialogue, resounding soundtracks, or expensive stunt scenes.
What type of movie and/or movie character would best represent your life right now? What are your favorite movies?
Bridget Jones. I’m her. Except there’s no Colin Firth or Hugh Grant hanging around my fabulous London flat. I completely relate to her mix of heart and despair, good intentions and human foibles. As for favorite movies, I have dozens. Of the ones in this story, let me give a special shout out for Live Free or Die Hard, which has a quite excellent exchange between Bruce Willis and Justin Long about being a hero. Deb Coates, author of Wide Open and other fine books, pointed me to that, and I use it in my classrooms often.
What other work do you have out now or forthcoming? What are you working on?
After decades of never reading my New England neighbor H.P. Lovecraft, I’ve started mashing up the mythos with military science fiction. My story “The Cthulhu Navy Wife” will soon appear in Paula Guran’s The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, and some other projects with that are also underway. My ghost story “The Adjunct Professor’s Guide to Life After Death” will be coming out this year in Asimov’s Science Fiction, and that involves some mass violence as well. Reading my work lately, you’d think I was full of despair about the human condition. But really, I’m Bridget Jones. Send Colin Firth my way, won’t you?
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