As much as I love writing stories targeted to a younger audience, I also love extremely gory fiction with gratuitous profanity, and life's too short to worry what other people might think about the disparity between my loves. I am who I am, I love what I love, and as seemingly anti-middle-grade as it is to have published this bonkers book that's likely to offend a whole lot of people, I'm as proud of The Book of David as I am of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees.
All that being said, although we're not going to discuss sex or violence in this post (just lost half its readership, I'm sure), and I'm not going to swear, I am going to discuss a story that contains all of those things and more. It also contains my only character (to date) who happens to be a middle grade writer. For that reason, I think some Esteemed Readers who enjoy this blog might also enjoy The Book of David, if you can get past all the swearing... and the sex... and the violence.. and the blasphemy.
The Book of David, which I will from this paragraph forward mostly refer to as BOD to save space, has a warning on its first page and in its book description for a reason. This book is not appropriate for younger readers. I wouldn't let my kid read it and I would never give a copy to your child. Should they obtain a copy elsewhere, this is me giving parents a heads up to use extreme discretion.
Don't write me an angry email or yell at me at a signing. Pay attention to your kids and what they're reading, dude.
Also, this is an afterword, to be read after you've read the book. Why you'd want to read this before and spoil the surprises of the story I've worked so hard to craft for you, I don't know. You can do whatever you like, but if I get a vote, I vote you read the book first.
There are other non-spoiler aspects of BOD I've discussed elsewhere that I won't be discussing in depth here. So if you want me to know my thoughts on UFOs, or why there are so many gosh darn cuss words in the book, or you just want me to admit I want to be Stephen King when I grow up, here are some posts related to BOD in which I discuss those things:
An Open Letter to Stephen King
Author, Year Two
Author, Year Three
On Using Naughty Words in Fiction
On Conspiracy Theories and Flying Saucers
Funeral for a Friend (in which I discuss my failed novel)
On the Destructive Desire for Fame (And Ben Affleck)
For this afterword, I'm specifically going to discuss some of my experiences writing BOD and some of the personal autobiographical elements that inevitably make their way into every work of fiction (or at least, they do in mine). I'm also going to share with you some insights, including some photos from my son's nursery readers might enjoy seeing (those are in Part Two). I wonder about the wisdom of sharing too much as I think some things are better left to the reader's imagination.
So let me preface everything by saying: regardless of the author's thoughts on his story, the reader's experience is her own.
If you thought the best theme song for BOD should've been "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden, I disagree, but that's a great song and it's your call. Over the year and a half it took me to write all five chapters of BOD, 200+ songs found their way into my writing playlist, many of them mentioned in the book. Favorites were "Power" by Kanye West, "Handlebars" by Flobots, "Reckoner" by Radiohead, "You Die or I do" by Hans Zimmer, "Imagine" as sung by Scott Bakula (naturally), "My Body is a Cage" as sung by Peter Gabriel, "When You See Those Flying Saucers" as sung by The Charles River Valley Boys, and "Soul on Fire" by Third Day. And just what sort of Hoosier would I be if I wrote an Indiana story without listening to John Cougar Melencamp's little ditty about "Jack and Diane?"
But in my mind the song that will forever be mentally linked to BOD is "A Blessing" by Max Richter. I've read that writing is a form of self hypnosis and I don't doubt it. I find it useful to have a theme song of sorts to begin each writing session to put me in "the mood" of the story. The somber, beautiful, hopeful, yet heartbreaking sounds of Richter's strings brought to my mind the sort of slow motion tragedy I intended to write. I didn't want to write just satire or horror, though I'll count myself lucky to have accomplished either; I wanted to move the reader the way Max Richter moved me. I can't imagine Miriam Walters wailing in the street outside her haunted house or David Walters finally telling his father, "I only ever wanted you to love me," without thinking of "A Blessing."
Right off the bat, it's a bit of a spoiler for me to tell you that of the many writers and works I drew upon to influence the creation of BOD, the foremost works my book is consciously modeled after are The Shining and, perhaps less immediately apparent, Stranger in a Strange Land. A great debt is also owed to the comedy of Bill Hicks, who I think would've got on well with Sexy Jesus, multiple articles published at Cracked.com, Hugh Howey's Wayfinding series, Vince Gilligan, as I've jokingly, but half-seriously thought of this story as "Breaking God," and the research and lectures of Richard Dolan, my favorite UFO historian, who was kind enough to email some words of support during the writing of BOD that meant quite a lot to me.
There are two quotes from Robert Heinlein about Stranger in a Strange Land that I kept in mind while crafting my own novel. When facing pressures to tone down the more controversial aspects of his masterpiece, he said, “If I cut out religion and sex, I am very much afraid that I will end with a nonalcoholic martini." As to the reaction of certain readers to his work, he said, “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers. It is an invitation to think, not to believe.”
That pretty well covers it and I cannot improve upon Heinlein, so when it comes to my own novel, I'll just say, "what he said."
I can't always tell you where the ideas for my stories come from, but with BOD, I can: I was actively looking for an idea. I wanted to write a serial novel (it's a bucket list item I can now check off), I wanted it to be a horror story for adults, and I wanted it to be something I thought older fans of All Together Now would enjoy. Having recently become parents, Mrs. Ninja and I were house shopping to leave apartment life and the last of our extended adolescence behind. So a haunted house story seemed a natural choice and another bucket list item to be checked off.
I was debating whether or not there was anything new to be done with a haunted house I hadn't read multiple versions of already. I'd just about decided there was not when an only just barely original idea occurred to me: what if at the end of The Shining, Jack Torrance carried a Bible instead of a croquet mallet and instead of talking to ghosts to help him find Danny and Wendy, he had a whole church congregation saying "right this way, brother, they're over here."
That idea made me laugh hysterically as the best ideas so often do (you can't fake love), and then immediately terrified me. "Don't you dare write that, Kent," I told myself. "You already ticked off enough religious folks with the zombie stories. Why would a nice Middle Grade Ninja like yourself want to upset your mother with such an offensive and outrageous tale destined to result in angry one-star reviews and emails and a general wishing of ill will upon you? Don't you dare write that story! Write something nice."
This was sensible advice, so I got back to work on Banneker Bones 2 and Zombies 3. But the thing about a great idea is that it won't leave you alone. Stephen King has said he never writes down his ideas as the good ones fight for a writer's attention, and I've found that to be very true. I was busy buying a house and living my life and the voice in my head that speaks up when my subconscious has worked out a story problem would every so often whisper tantalizing details to me: "the man's name is David and he has special powers because he's maybe/maybe not been appointed to be God's prophet. He believes he's an atheist and he's got a real sensible job, like a banker or something, but you can't fight destiny." And I would say, "No, the man's name is nothing, because I'm not writing that."
"It could end with a shocker like Stranger in a Strange Land--I mean,not exactly like that, but not not like that."
"Lalalala, I'm not listening."
"There's a painting on David's wall that talks to him. Guess Who the painting's of? Just guess. Sexy Jesus."
"That's even more offensive than the original idea! I'm not doing this. I mean that's pretty good, but... what would David even preach about?"
"The End Times, of course. And bankers, because seriously, f**k bankers. And David is himself a banker, so how deliciously ironic, right? Oh, and UFOs since you have to use all that 'research' you've done late at night on YouTube for something."
"Oooh, that's... that's... No, I'm not writing that. But if I did write it, could I call it The Book of David?"
"Crap. I can't not write it now. I'll spend the rest of my life wishing I had."
To understand why this idea so captured my imagination, I should share some personal information, beginning with where the title comes from. I was once a smart alec kid trapped in Sunday School who knew enough about the Bible to make my teacher hopeful, but was enough of a thinker to ask all the vexing questions that follow anyone compelling one to take something on faith.
And sometimes I'd quote Bible verses that didn't, strictly speaking, exist, but which should've. On one such occasion when my teacher called my bluff and asked me to find the verse, I told her it was in "The Book of David." All the other kids laughed and it became a running joke when I spoke up and I laughed as well, but in the back of my mind I thought, "one day you'll see." So the title of my novel itself is its own bucket list item.
I don't write autobiographies. A novel about me playing video games while I listen to audiobooks after a day of spending time with my family would interest no one, not even me. Doubtless, some readers will ascribe qualities of my characters and their situation to me. No offense taken as this is a common experience for most authors and kinda goes with the territory.
But for the record, I have (to date) never seen a flying saucer or a demonic alien (that I'm aware of), nor lived in a haunted house, nor been addicted to pills or booze or any of the other drugs in this book I had to research to write about, nor French kissed a baby (I once heard about a creep who did and have wondered about him ever since), nor had a conversation with any come-to-life paintings. My marriage is much, much better than the Walters' as is my relationship with my parents, which is much less compelling for a book. I have bumped into a couple situations of high strangeness, but I'm saving some of those for future novels:)
I have struggled with a cigarette addiction (I'm not smoking now unless you've got an extra cigarette) and I did grow up in a small Indiana town. I did buy a house not long ago and switch to part-time work so that my son wouldn't have to go to daycare (I would've never just quit my job without Mrs. Ninja's consent; WTF, Miriam!?!). None of those things is interesting enough on its own to sustain a novel, so I added a whole lotta lies to reveal some metaphorical Truths.
Here is something that is true: my grandmother lived in a house across from the park in the small Indiana town where I grew up and it really did have a white sign with multi-colored lettering on its front that read "Jesus Wants To Give YOU Eternal Life" (I added the exclamation point in the book) and it really was a local landmark. I love my grandmother and I miss her terribly (if there is an afterlife, she's the one I'm presently most looking forward to seeing), but I hated that stupid sign. When the school bus passed her house, not every day, but enough days, someone would mock me for it. That sign is present in many family photos and forever printed across my memory. To the best of my knowledge, the house that the sign was attached to is haunted only by memories, most of them good.
But over the years, the message of that sign, "Jesus Wants To Give YOU Eternal Life," began to seem to me less like an enticing offer and more like a threat.
This same beloved grandmother was once chased by a flying saucer. I believed her when she told me about it and I've never doubted her since. I also had a cousin who saw multiple flying saucers, which really ticked her off as she was a strict science teacher and extremely uncomfortable with the experience she probably would've never admitted to having if she'd been alone. The memory of her annoyance as she tried to tell me facts about the world and I insisted on asking her again about the flying saucers still makes me smile. Over the years, I've collected enough credible UFO stories from various sources that I find staunch non-believers tiresome and silly.
Here is something else that is true, though more difficult to discuss and less likely to be believed: I have, at different times in my life, experienced moments of extreme intuition and Déjà vu. I believe this is a common experience that folks mostly keep to themselves. To be crystal clear, I am not saying I have super powers or even a particularly practical skill. But at different times in my life, I've had flashes of insight that should't have been possible for me to have in reality as I've come to expect it to behave; experiences that have led me to question the nature of existence and refuse outright atheism. Here is an account I wrote about one such experience. Good fiction reveals a truth inside the lie, and you can choose not to believe me on this point, but believe that I believe it, and it is a Truth I wanted to express.
I believe psychic communication is possible as are a whole lot of other wacky scenarios in part because of my own experiences, even though they've been mostly mundane stuff. Sometimes I'll recognize someone's future importance to me the moment I first meet them. When I met Mrs. Ninja, I knew pretty quickly she was the one. I've known when something tragic was coming and something good, but I can't decide what to know or when and I've had plenty of false alarms. I wouldn't pick a stock or place a bet based on my intuition, but when my sixth sense kicks in, I've learned to pay attention, and I've talked to plenty of folks who've had similar experiences. The world is an interesting place and there are odd things in it to be found by those who go looking.
When our realtor showed us the house we would buy, I knew it was the one as soon as we pulled up. I experienced flashes of our living here as though they were already memories (This is the place, welcome home). You can think I'm a crackpot (did I mention I believe in flying saucers?), but I've had similar experiences throughout my entire life and I'm just being honest because I have no doubt there are Esteemed Readers who know exactly what I'm talking about. I have often wondered if this sense of mine wouldn't one day come in handy when at last divine prophecies were revealed to me, because...
Here is one other thing that's true: I occasionally preached as an adolescent, though never at the level of David Walters. After one occasion of my speaking in front of our church, a respected missionary who was a man of great faith and integrity really and truly did pull me aside and told me that God had revealed to him that I, Robert Kent, future author of Pizza Delivery, would one day be a prophet of the Lord.
Honest. That happened.
It wasn't the exact scenario I wrote in my story, because, again, where's the fun in that? If Esteemed Reader wanted real life, they wouldn't be reading fiction. I didn't smack my head on a podium or see any bright lights or aliens. That's all bullcrap I added to show Esteemed Reader a good time. People like stories that are fun and full of conflict.
I remember the moment of this man telling me of my coming prophecy very clearly. He held my shoulders as he spoke the declaration with all the seriousness of Garrick Ollivander giving Harry Potter his wand. He went back to the mission field quickly after that, so I never got to ask many follow-up questions. But I've never forgotten our conversation and it has weighed on me heavily during different periods of my life. I've both longed for it to be true and been terrified at the possibility that it might be.
One last thing that actually happened: When I was first learning to drive, I was behind the wheel on a trip from Chicago back to small town Indiana and I really did have occasion to slam the brakes while traveling at 65 miles-per-hour. My father was in the passenger side seat, my brother was sleeping in the back, and we all screamed as the family roadster spun around in the center of the highway, cars passing on either side. Did God save us? It certainly felt like it at the time and I haven't come up with a better explanation in all the intervening years. Nor was that the only time I've been bailed out by Something greater than myself.
So am I God's prophet? Dude, I don't know. I hate to say "no" as it's a fun fantasy to indulge in. I will say that my prophetic status strikes me as an extremely dubious proposition. I can think of far more popular blogs than this one and more successful authors far better positioned than me for God to use as His mouthpiece for mankind (one would think He'd pick a filmmaker, or at least a writer with less of a potty mouth).
I can't promise that an angel won't yet come to me to reveal The Truth and command me to share it with the world. But I'm older than Jesus ever was at this point without having had even a single prophetic vision and should I start having them now, I imagine my credibility will be greatly undercut by my having published this fictional account of a man who does have such visions. This was one of the reasons I wrote the book; as an insurance policy:)
Tell you what: though I took most of the predictions David makes from actual doctrines, if some of it starts to come true, we'll know I called it because I was a prophet:)
What's important for our purposes is that I did believe this missionary when I heard him and for a long time after. While growing up, I used to fantasize about one day writing books or making movies (or both), then I'd remind myself that I really needed to be preparing for my coming prophecy.
When I got older and ditched my faith for a time, I laughed bitterly at the memory and concluded that this missionary was either a loon or worse, a liar (smug, young punk atheists are quick to write off large portions of the world as crazy).
Was it the missionary's schtick, I wondered. None of the other kids at my church had been told they would be prophets (I asked), but was it possible this creepy dude went from church to church and occasionally pulled aside the kid he judged most likely to be a sucker? I have a brother and two sisters who have all been missionaries, and two of them have been ministers, so obviously there's something to Proverbs 22:6, which was the key Bible verse that propelled my desire to write BOD.
While we're on the subject of Bible verses, I should mention that none of the verses quoted in BOD are actually replicated in any existing editions of the good book. It turns out Bible translations are copyrighted, which is gross and wrong and one of many terrible things about the modern world and possibly evidence of Satan's work in publishing (joking, mostly). But I don't want to be sued, so every "Bible verse" in BOD is my own translation, worded however I felt best suited the story. I remember my own disappointment in finding Ezekial 25:17 in the King James Bible is nothing like Jules Winnfield thinks it is:)
Esteemed Reader, that brings us to a discussion of the actual writing of BOD and the techniques employed, and as I see that this Afterword is quickly catching up in length to the book, why don't we save that for next time? We'll be discussing the crafting of the story and the characters in Part Two and I'll show you some pictures of the animals actually painted on the walls of Little Ninja's nursery, if you'd care to join me...