Behind The Story
I rarely write stories specifically for special calls. Occasionally I will submit a story I think fits well with an open call for submissions (see Wet Rot, for example). But I tend to struggle finding time to write out the stories filling up my own idea notebook, much less the ideas of someone else. Plus, depending on how specific the call gets, there’s always a chance it will be too narrow in focus to appeal to other markets. So on the relatively high chance my custom-built story doesn’t get the acceptance, I’m left with something of an orphan.
But when I heard about Pidgeonholes’ 90s Mix-Tape theme, I set my standard operations aside. 90s music—and particularly mix tapes of that decade’s jams—were at one time my principal fandom. My cousin Jeremy and I spent a couple of summers in high school tapping BMG and Columbia House’s quasi-ripoff mail-order programs so we could expand our united CD collections in pursuit of the Ultimate Mix. What music-loving people today don’t understand is the labor involved in those endeavors went beyond the mental effort in selecting from thousands and thousands of digital options into something cohesive. Sure, getting the right combination was important, but there was an attentiveness necessary, as well. You had to listen to each song as it recorded. It was a loving effort, a consumer of time, a matter of constant trial and error. If you’ve never had a really great mix ruined by failing to stop the tape at the right time, of having to deal with that audio artifact on each subsequent listen, you don’t fully appreciate what a mix tape is.
But enough of Grandpa’s “You Kids Got It So Easy” rants. The point is, sometimes you get a prompt so good, it’s like one of those imperfect mixes. You have to pop it in, crank it up, and sing along.
Now, it’s no secret Radiohead is one of my very favorite groups. Getting their start in the 90s, I thought they might be good fodder for a story. If nothing else, I figured I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least ensure they were represented in Pidgeonholes’ editor Nolan Leibert’s slush pile. I scanned Pablo Honey’s track listing for inspiration and found it (like the album itself) a little lacking. So I moved onto The Bends (probably my favorite of their albums and the one that converted me) and OK Computer. A few possibilities sprang to mind from The Bends, including a ghost story I half-sketched out of a few lyrics from Street Spirit, but then I started staring at Karma Police and got excited by the idea of a law enforcement agency focused on absolute balance in their administration of justice. Then, somehow, when I started writing it, the idea just fizzled. Pidgeonholes works in flash fiction and the concepts were too broad and abstract for the limited space. I was about to go back to Street Spirit (tentative title, “Blue Hands Touching Me”) when I caught a snippet of news about the X-Files reboot.
Aside from 90s alt-rock music, my other two passions in high school were Magic: The Gathering and The X-Files. While my thoughts and opinions on X-Files as a storytelling framework, as a cultural phenomenon, as a target for modern reprise could fill a book, the one pertinent thing is that I always associate the show with the song Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Further, I credit the show for turning me on to that group, whom I’ve come to love in the time since.
The great part about Red Right Hand is that it is the most deliciously paranoid song I’ve ever heard. The creepy oppression oozes out of every chiming bell and ratcheting percussion. It’s among the most atmospheric songs I can think of, notable particularly because its atmosphere is not your typical romance or anger or sorrow but something a bit more fringe. And, of course, thinking of paranoia and OK Computer at the same time makes one think of Paranoid Android.
Now, many Radiohead songs also carry a sense of paranoia, and Paranoid Android is no exception. But what Radiohead’s song seems to advertise but fail to deliver is a speculative element. Thom Yorke’s lyrics in fact point out that while the paranoia is real, the speaker is in fact a person. But that’s always bugged me a little because the idea of a paranoid robot is much cooler than a fearful human swearing he’s not an automaton. Something about the melding of those two ideas clicked and I poured out a draft of the story that, in the end, I chose to call by the simple name of the Radiohead song.
Most of the initial draft survived intact through the editing process. I had to shift some sections around and re-balance to allow the ending to breathe a bit more. Throughout I was butting up against the word count limit. In the end I decided I liked what I had but I also knew it was very specific to this theme and this market. If Pidgeonholes didn’t want it, it might not be something I’d care to re-frame for a more general venue.
Fortunately Nolan accepted it, and the net result felt almost like being commissioned for a piece. Almost. I mean, I wrote it for a specific purpose, had no real intention of it seeing the light of day otherwise, and it’s got this nifty little one submission, one acceptance thing going for it. The best part of being accepted though came when I got an advance copy of the entire volume and saw the clever, touching, wonderful things other writers had done with the call. It’s a truly great and original concept (there’s even an official online mixtape!) and the execution exceeds even the high bar set by the underlying idea.