I’d heard a while back that Chuck Palahniuk cited The Great Gatsby as his inspiration for Fight Club. I didn’t know enough at the time to see the rationale behind it—this was somewhere round 2005—but after I began to take writing seriously (and by necessity, reading) it started to make more sense. I could see the threads that strung the novels together. Man, I wish I could do something like that, I thought as I sunk back into my stack of Garcia Marquez books.
Flash forward five years and I’m collecting stories for my Snubnose Press collection, Bar Scars, reading through (okay: skimming) everything I’d written since 2009. By this time, I had three novels (though one is now a lovely doorstop and the other in submission-limbo) three novellas and a couple dozen shorts on my Mac. The voyeurism I felt while revisiting things I’d written at the beginning of my career (if you can call it that) notwithstanding, what really struck me was the way all of these places coalesced in my head. There were a ton of bars and building sites, a cadre of reprobates and lowlifes and schemers, all of which not only made Baltimore seem like that much worse of a city, but also began to feel repetitive. When I began writing, I thought it was cheating to write about the same people in different stories. I thought each story had to have its own universe and cast of characters. So, instead of cheating I just changed the names and locations. Which, you know, was pretty much the cheating I was trying to avoid.
In my better moments, I like to think I can paint a pretty word-picture of horrible people, but to be honest I don’t have that great of an imagination. I just write about what I see and read and fill in the parts that don’t make sense or veer away from the narrative I want to explore. In revisiting all of these stories I began to see that the whole was in fact much larger than the parts, and that, rather than being a whole lot of lunatics running around Baltimore, these were the same core group of lunatics and the shenanigans I thought I was writing about was just them living their lives. I was writing my Macondo, only it was an aging post-industrial city in the midst of an identity crisis instead of Gabo’s South American banana town. It was one of those moments when I could actually hear something click inside my head and a warm feeling washes over me. It’s as close as there is to touching god, in my mind, because in that state, for a brief moment, I was god.
Revelation in hand, I went back at the stories, revealing the true names of the characters, changing the signs over the various bars to The Pine Box, as it should’ve been the whole time. That thing they used to say at the beginning of Dragnet—’The story you are about to hear is true; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent’—it was like that throughout the editing process, only none of these people were innocent.
Putting together Bar Scars let me step back and discover this whole universe I’d been living in for the last three or four years without realizing it. It also caused me look over my shoulder a few extra times as I’m walking to my car after my shift. Never know who’s coming down the same street as me. Or maybe, I do.