Saturday, March 1, 2014

Tuning In To Radio Nowhere

When I was invited to contribute a story to TROUBLE IN THE HEARTLAND, I had a terrible secret I had to admit to everyone. I was not a fan of Bruce Springsteen. I didn't know his songs well enough to have a favorite I wanted to use as inspiration. Sure I could sing 'I'm On Fire' like every good kid from the 80s could (listen to Top 40 stations long enough, you could memorize almost anything), but I never bothered to search out more of his music. Springsteen was dropped into a category along with Dire Straits and U2 as bands I respect, but subjectively didn't like.

My wife had always told me 'Darkness On The Edge Of Town' is a great album, full of bleak urban textures and noir themes, but at every mention of Bruce Springsteen's music, all I hear playing in my head is his cover of 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town'. It was nothing I'd want to listen to. Bruce Springsteen? Yeah, yeah. I smile and nod and go back to listening to the overproduced dark techno droning test patterns I call music.

So when the guys here at Zelmer Pulp got serious about this Springsteen anthology, they had to spoon feed some titles to me. Whatever. I'll try to make it work. Once I started reading his lyrics, I started to understand why they were fans.

The desperate longing to become someone better in a world designed to crush your soul, or struggling through a shit job just to keep your family together—these are just a couple of the themes I found in his lyrics, themes that I had already been exploring in other writing projects.

Brian Panowich recommended 'Radio Nowhere' for me—a trucker rolling down the backroads of America trying to keep awake by listening to the crap on the radio, his only constant thought is of the good woman waiting for him at home. The song had a kind of bleakness to it. Driving alone on a dark highway with only thin threads of communication connecting you to the world around you was a theme that spoke to me. If you haven't already figured it out from my other contributions, I write a lot of science fiction. The next step seemed completely natural—I'll write a story about a space trucker.

So few people listen to the radio anymore. It's just the way technology is evolving the way people listen to music. Technology is also changing the way people interact. My niece has noticed that all the kids in her school are socially inept because their faces are permanently planted in phones or other devices. She held out her hand to introduce herself to a new classmate, and they looked at her like she was an alien. Technology is changing people, and the most common denominator means change not for the better.

Yes, I write science fiction, but it took me five years to upgrade my phone. It took me another two years to install an app into it. Technology is a tool I use as a means to express myself, not as the means to express myself. People have learned how to hide within their technology, behind virtual identities every day, and I wanted to explore what that world might be like if taken to extremes.

My contribution to TROUBLE IN THE HEARTLAND takes the original premise of Springsteen's song—a long-haul trucker—but instead of racing home to meet his baby, my character is racing toward oblivion. He uses technology to hide from the world.

After a few drafts, the other contributions started pouring in, and I started to get nervous. I didn't want to be the only freak at the picnic. Everyone was writing straight-up noir. And when Joe Clifford announced that Dennis Lehane submitted a story, I experienced a moment of profound existential angst. I re-read my story twelve or thirteen more times, changing a few words here and there and milking assurances from Joe and the Zelmer crew that they weren't just being nice to me, keeping my gothy space story in this crime noir collection just because I know how to move stuff around in photoshop.

Surrounded by so much talent is intimidating. I've read more than half of the contributions so far, and I am still shaking my head, wondering how I got embedded with this spectacular crew. I can't speculate how well the book will do, but I do know that it feels like a strong foothold into that rock cliff called 'legitimacy'.

Huh. The desperate longing to become someone better in a world designed to crush your soul. That's one of Bruce's themes. That's also what it's like being a writer. It can seem like an exercise in futility, but sometimes, you finish that long drive and get home to your baby. Sometimes, the deal goes right. Sometimes, you get to be in the same book as your heroes.