How I Finally Learned to Love the Backstory

(2016)

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It is by now an overused trope of accomplished creatives to acknowledge “divine” powers greater than their emaciated selves as assistance in the creation of their artistic works — be it an inspired novel, film, song… or a wasabi-flavoured mashed potato bust of Slavoj Zizek, replete with a fried onion beard. 

The mechanics of human creativity, though, contrary to the marketing campaigns of once-great technology companies, are still quite mysterious and primitive, and “inspiration” still seems to be a serendipitous neurological phenomenon that cannot be readily mass-reproduced.  Or, maybe, much of creative inspiration is still simply an effect induced by mind-altering substances and/or activities, and the myth of deep creativity is just that: a myth “story” fabricated by Marketing to sell the process as much as the product.

I don’t pretend to know the answers to these age-old questions, but something I can tell you for sure is how i Are the Kanatan, my debut novella, came to be — here is its backstory:

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I grew up, from an early age, in the capital of a small Central European Socialist Republic (which no longer exists) at the western edge of the Iron Curtain (which has since been flattened), on a quiet, peripheral suburban street (which still exists, but under a completely different name, so it technically no longer exists), all under the firm but benevolent grip of a totalitarian Communist regime (which also no longer lives on, other than in numerous impersonation Twitter accounts).

By early 1989, my parents managed to bribe enough mid-level career bureaucrats to somehow receive a coveted travel permit that enabled our entire (!) family to officially betray our socialist motherland, embark on a leisurely vacation through (imperial) enemy territory and, by way of an extended sojourn in an Austrian immigrant internment resort-camp on the other side of the Iron Curtain, earn our way to landed residency on the far Western temperate rain forest shores of a vast sovereign monarchy lands of a thousand and one lakes.

In the subsequent decade and a half, I worked hard to repay my socioeconomic debts to parents and adopted land by diligently pursuing studies in French and World literature, with the intent of, one day, becoming a fully-functioning fiction citizen-writer, dutifully satirizing the mores and spores of my welcoming adopted home.

(It is really not worth noting that, after the culmination of my literature studies — partly because it was, at the time, the trust fund hipster zeitgeist thing to do — I started to fantasize about a career in European art house filmmaking. It is also really not worth noting that, to “make this happen”, I took numerous digital film-making courses at a startup film school that, much like the country, street and regime I came from, went defunct shortly after coming into existence, and thus no longer exists today.)

It is there, nevertheless, at that now-defunct “unreal” film school, where I managed to get a basic film production education, and met my future frequent collaborator and alter ego, “a. alfons o. III”. He was also a student — one of the very few — taking classes at the school and he, I learned early on, also harboured “deep Euro art-house” sentiments like myself on subjects as varied as film, literature, music, meal preparation, relationships and couples’ mutual massage therapy.

As a result of our deeper philosophical connection, borne out of frequent technical classroom discussions, he gifted me, one day, out of the blue, with a videotape of the footage of a revolutionary event he and his colleagues attempted to organize and stage shortly prior to his start of film school, and the kernel of a future work was sown. (The footage was to comprise a sort of a pre-thesis “Making of…” featurette that the group planned to use for investor relations purposes but, the event having failed, he never found any use for and chose to gift me with the master copy of the raw (partly sewage) footage in bulk, “as part of his healing process”.

Inspired by this object trouvé gift, I spliced together, using nothing but his amateur footage, a gross docufictional narrative — a backbone of a future feature-length film — that told the kernel of the story of their attempt at staging the revolutionary event.

Once I edited the footage into a coherent narrative, I reverse-engineered the featurette into a feature-length screenplay and, in the process, incorporated the family members’ histories, and humanized the revolutionaries’ speaking parts. (This “intervention” was necessary because the original video footage contained, in parts, awkward, semi-staged dialogues and, in other parts, extended sections of different characters simply staring into the camera, hypnotized by the magnetic vortex of its lens.)

The final phase of this perverse, labour-intensive “de- adaptation” saw me graft a pre-production ready screenplay into a virgin Word document and elaborate the script into a full-length intelligent far West fiction novel.

The writing process took about a year. During that time — or, more precisely, towards the culmination of that year — a curious phenomenon had started to unfold within my psyche:

Imperceptibly at first, in the course of creating a fictional, parallel, retro socialist kitsch utopia universe within the novel, the borders of that fictional universe had slowly, gradually, started to migrate author-ward, that is, into me. Then, gradually, almost imperceptibly, the fringes of that universe began to eat away at the fringes of my reality — and at the fourth wall shielding me from my work — until one tumultuous, rain-soaked night, not too long after sending a finished manuscript off to a publisher as part of an unsolicited query, the marginal cracks in that fictional other-world grew so wide that the roots of the historical and sociopolitical subtexts of the novel slithered out from the mentioned fourth wall cracks, grabbed at my ankles, tangled my feet, and violently pulled me into its universe.

(As a disclaimer, I hereby vouch that no drugs, alcohol or illicit substances — other than Canadian West Coast transcendental watercolour meditation, seaside nature walks, and intensive journalling — were involved in stimulating the above-mentioned episode.)

That night, the above-mentioned roots grabbed hold of me, dragged me across the permeable border separating my reality from fictional reality, and I lost mastery over my work: I unbecame the master of my fictional universe and became subject to the forces of its historical and sociopolical subtexts — specifically the trajectories of cultural production in totalitarian regimes of the old Soviet Bloc, whose stories have gripped my subconscious ever since childhood.

Now, to be more specific, the “modes of cultural production in totalitarian regimes” I refer to is actually a reference to the overt ideological censorship of public creative and/or intellectual expression — be it essays, articles, theatre, literature, music… or, simply, expressing your mind openly at a local pub — encountered specifically in former Czechoslovakia following the “thaw” of the late 1960s, the subsequent “restoration of order” by the Warsaw Pact in 1968, and the resulting twenty years of severe clampdown on the freedom of expression of views and opinions opposing to the official ones.

Thus, to greatly oversimplify, the “modes of cultural production” became a story of either:

  • Producing watered-down, well-funded “mainstream” content that dryly communicated official “socialist” propaganda;
  • Telling constrained but highly inventive socialist realist stories that cleverly — usually through highly inventive satire — communicated “unofficial” views to an audience plugged in to its subtle subtexts; or,
  • Doggedly creating not-so-subtle “disruptive” content that, for the most part, did not make it past the censorship committees and often resulted in the creator being socially and professionally ostracized.

(Or, so I read, since I was too young to experience any of these firsthand.)

And, so, as this backstory unfolded, faithful to “trajectories of cultural production in totalitarian regimes of the old Soviet Bloc”, my submission to the publisher was apparently intercepted by an anonymous informant, who secretly forwarded a copy of the work to the security intelligence bureau who, upon loosely reading the satirical elements of the novel (specifically the dialogues between the Son and the Father, and the Son and the Second Friend) out of context, inferred that my novel was a “threat to the socio-cultural integrity of the regime” and, as such, put into motion “an action” against me that culminated in me, now a dedicated sleeper with a direct connection to the author, being summoned and given the task of destroying the author’s work while he was out doing (Monday night) beginner hot yoga classes at a local yoga “college”.

As such, on that fateful night, I, as the summoned sleeper-actor, channeled the repressive aggression of the central authorities of the regime and destroyed and/or erased all of the media related to the work in question that I, the author stored in my sparsely-furnished apartment: manuscripts, notes, mini DVD tapes, DVDs, and all digital files, including photographs and background research documents — anything related to the work that, if seen by the public, would infect its fragile psyche and stir unrest within its emaciated hearts.

Once I completed the gruesome task, the roots of the fictional universe let go of me and I, exhausted and disoriented, tumbled out of the fictional universe and collapsed into deep, restorative sleep on the floor of my sparsely-furnished apartment.

Such was the mastery of the secret sleeper-agent that I came to realize the magnitude of the “action” perpetrated against me only gradually. It took me a few weeks to fully grasp the extent the “intervention”, the loss of all my prior creative work and, like the loss of a loved one, its loss was so profound that I ceased to be creative for three (3) full years in order to mourn: the regime had succeeded in neutralizing me.

The human soul, however, is resilient and not easily crushed.

During my subsequent three-year sabbatical, the novel — at that point nothing more than a vague memory of something once might have once possibly happened — slowly started to vibrate its energetic imprint in my heart and started to signal that it, too, wanted to be resurrected.

I tried, in vain, to suppress these feelings, but they acquired a strength and conviction of their own, and I thus began to search for signs of remnants of life of the original narrative.

With a strange sort of epiphany guiding me, I was able to — with the aid of basic data-recovery software — find old digital fragments of the original screenplay and then — in my wife’s secret drawers — find a copy of a late draft of the novel containing the first ten chapters of the work.

From that serendipitous point on, I embarked on a reconstruction of the novel:

The reconstruction, along with fragments of other works destroyed by the authorities, took about a year to complete, and was a painful, yet restorative process. I tried, initially, to heal my sorrows by daydreaming frequently — admittedly quite callously — of re-branding the above-mentioned episode as a “contemporary artistic approach to the socio-cultural narrative [that took] the finished literary work on a site-specific, body-performance-art tangent” and gain notoriety in the art world but, fortunately, my professional self-restraint reigned over loose vanity, and I did not choose that route.

I simply continued re-writing i Are the Kanatan, because I felt it wanted people to read it — again, for the first time.

In retrospect, I now realize that this destructive-creative “episode” — although now a handy-dandy marketing backstory — was something altogether greater, and quite organic. It was actually an explosive manifestation of stories-trajectories I half-heard as a child growing up under the Communist regime that used to emanate from private conversations of people close to me… stories that collected, condensed, and fermented somewhere in a murky depth of a culturally-specific part of my subconscious and later, dislodged initially by English-language synopses of once-censored Soviet Bloc New Wave films I discovered at the local Cinémathèque, were released through a deep-dredging creative process into the one-time novel.

I, it seems, living out my days in my adopted new home in the Canadian far West, far removed from the Central and Eastern European realities I grew up in, was stirred (jarred!) by the lingering spirit of the old regime’s effects on my heart, mind and bones, almost twenty-five years after the fall of the regime, long after I thought I had forgotten it and “moved on” to a more carefree Western life.

Such is the power of our collected stories. steeped deeply in collective histories and our interpretations of them:

They do not get neatly swept away by revolutions, seductive new ideologies, or us running away from them as far as we can (afford to). Their residual effects linger deep within us, often forgotten, waiting — sometimes for the most inopportune moments — to emerge and inspire, or even guide, our present-day realities.

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