Recently, I shared with my agent a proposal for a book that is near and dear to me, about a group of medical students living, in the beginning of the book, in 1993 Bahamas. She asked me, "Why can't it be present day?"
Which isn't an invalid question. My answer in my head, as the Mistress of All I Survey (what power we writers have!), was, "Because that's the way I want it." But I realized that by saying that, I could be accused of being "difficult," which is code in our industry for "one who does not allow oneself to be fust-fucked by one-sided demands that favor the house."
After the exchange with my agent, I seriously thought about why I tend to plumb history for my fiction, and I've come to thus conclusion -- that's where the best, tried and true plotlines tend to be, in my opinion. I think of some of the historical contexts in which I've set my books and try to imagine pitching them to an editor as if such moments in history hadn't happened (Imagine the voice of Joe Pesci as Leo Getz in Lethal Weapon 2 as you read these).
"Okay, okay, there's this couple. She's Black, and he's Italian, like Sopranos "Italian." They meet on the same night a Black kid goes to buy a car. What he doesn't know is that hours before where he's going, some Italian girl was talking trash to some Italian guys in the neighborhood that she was going to get her Black friends to come there and beat them up. The Italian guys mistakenly think that this Black kid is one of those friends the girl was talking about. A scuffle on the street ensues, and the Black kid ends up shot to death."
"Okay, okay, there is a group of folks living in DC. Some of them are making life changing decisions. Then all of a sudden, a sniper starts shooting up the area. But it's not just one sniper; it's two, working together. And they're both Black!"
"Okay, okay. There is this couple that's been chatting on line. They're thinking of becoming lovers. But one lives in London; one lives in New York. They decide to meet on August 10, 2006. She heads for Heathrow; he, for JFK to wait for her. But just as they get to their respective airports, they're both told that there's going to be a long delay, that 21 people were arrested in the U.K. for attempting the staggered bombing of nine U.S. aircrafts over the Atlantic. The couple might meet, but there's no way that she's taking her coffee, toothpaste, hand cream, or hair gel on the plane. The terrorists were going to use a liquid, which resembles the forementioned, as bomb making material."
In all three cases, I can just hear the editor's response in my head. "Nah! Way to contrived plot line!"
But history has shown that, yes, sadly, a Black kid minding his own business can get shot down by a fellow city dweller due to mistaken identity and racial hatred. History has shown that we Blacks have truly arrived -- that we, too, can be mass murders who terrorize a city of people for 23 days in autumn. And sadly, this morning, we all woke up to realize that air travel has changed for us -- yet again. And not for the better... and that, on a larger level, our years of being blissfully isolationalist when it came to the violence happening in the rest of the world are over.
So, sometimes, historical events are stranger than fiction. And I think that's why the concept of integrating them into fiction holds sway with me. In the back of my mind, too, I hope that people can see the simulated negative response to aspects of the human condition like racism (as in Back to Life) or violence (as in What You Won't Do For Love) and choose to just say no. But then, on that score, I wonder if I'm asking too much from a book...