“How was your day?” my platonic life partner Jules asked me a couple of weeks back.
“Oh, the usual,” I said. “Rivers of faeces, and women with their hair on fire.”
She gave me a look which I couldn’t decipher at the time. Two intensive therapy sessions later, it has been established that my remark, while true, was not an appropriate way to respond to a casual inquiry. “I feel like crap” was suggested as a substitute for the future.
I’m not all that good with the rules of human conversation. Maybe, in part, that’s a consequence of working a job where a normal day can involve rivers of faeces and women with their hair on fire.
All right, I confess, I am a bit of a drama queen. I’m sure this astonishes you, given that I write about Victorian ingénues who get imprisoned in Gothic mansions and apocalyptic futures filled with mutant lesbians, but such is indeed the case.
I’m a second-hand adrenalin junkie. It’s why I work where I do, in spite of the Matterhorn-sized piles of paperwork, the imperious demands of Her Majesty the Queen, and the metric tonnes of red tape. It’s because any second of any day, I could get a frantic call and get to launch into my here-I-come-to-save-the-day routine. What might the call be about? Anything. Literally anything. In the broadest sense, my job is just about working with people, and there is no limit to what people can get up to in their off-hours. I pick up the phone, and there could be a crisis with a bomb in a basement. There could be an imploding corpse or an autocastration. There could be machete attacks or cats being held hostage (hand on my heart, that’s happened).
Or there could just be someone wanting me to explain the Rules of Civil Procedure for the nupteenth time. That’s possible too.
You can’t get around routine, you can’t avoid the need for it, but jeepers, it can wear you down. For me, a howling, frantic, drop-everything-and-run-around-screaming crisis is always easier to take than the slow grinding pressure of the day-to-day, with its petty insults and little injuries.
I carry those tastes right over into literature. I’m usually pretty catholic when it comes to what books I read. (Graphic novels? Young adult lit? Nineteenth century travelogues? Greek tragedy? Just pile them all up in the corner, and leave me alone for a month while I work through the stack.) But when it comes to slice-of-life stories set in our own time, I can get a bit fussy.
What I always hope for, when I’m reading stories set in the modern era, is that they’ll find a way to transport me. They’ll tell me about people and settings that I couldn’t have imagined on my own, or they’ll give weight and shape to my own imaginings, or they’ll make me see familiar things with new eyes. One of my very favourite books of this kind is the super-magnificent Among Others, by Jo Walton. In a sense, it has the most mundane setting possible- a private girls’ school which might as well have been a laboratory researching the most efficient way to stamp out creativity. In this down-to-earth, matter-of-fact book, when the protagonist starts matter-of-factly performing magic and talking with elves, the suspension of disbelief is effortless. The author didn’t create a world and then ask us to accept it. She took our world and imbued it with magic of her own.
Every now and then, I binge-read a Japanese comic series or binge-watch three seasons of some celebrated anime. It’s a good shock to the system, encountering plots that involve a girl turning into a car in order to escape purgatory with her lady love, or a high school student whose thoughts control the universe. Whether you’re a fan of Japanese media or not, it’s gorgeously refreshing to remember how infinitely many stories there are in the world, and how few limitations we have when we want to try to make some up.
Jules and I, long ago, came up with a principle of fiction writing termed The Law of the Chocolate Chip Cookie. It goes like this: If it would be interesting for something to happen in a story, then it ought to happen, even if it’s not at all probable. Unlikely things happen every day- and as someone who deals with rivers of faeces and women with their hair on fire, I can confirm that they probably happen more often than you think