As a writer one of the things that took me longest to figure out was “themes.” And I’ll be honest, I often still don’t get what themes I put in my books. For instance, when a commenter on my blog said that one of the main themes of A Few Good Men was “fatherhood” it was self obviously true, to me. But I wouldn’t have picked it as a theme of the book out of a lineup.
I set out to write a book about freedom, revolution, finding oneself in an oppressive regime, and finding the advantages and costs of finding a group to belong to.
Fatherhood? Sure, it’s there. It’s pretty insistent, actually. But I never thought about it when I wrote the book.
Which, btw, is why I hate with a burning passion twits who used to accost me at parties and ask what was the theme of my books. I mean, it’s not non-fiction. If I wanted to send a message, I’d use western Union. As it was, I was trying to tell stories.
I’ll be honest, I still couldn’t tell you what the themes are, say for the magical Shakespeare series. Or the Dyce Daring Furniture Refinishing Daring Finds mysteries. Yeah, I wrote them. They’re stories. They’re stories I wanted to write. I mean, sure, if I had to write a paper on it, I could make up something and make it stick. Sure. But it would be rather like when I made up bullshit to pass exams.
Which doesn’t mean there are no themes in them. An almost unavoidable themes of my writing is that each individual knows what’s best for them, and that people who try to impose their will on others are varying degrees of evil. Also I am to gather from comments made by my fans (some jokingly) that my characters don’t know how to give up. That they don’t know when they’ve had enough. Which, you know, might be a family resemblance to their creator.
This is true for everyone, I think. Oh, not the inability to lie down and die even if killed. I’ve seen people give up at the first obstacle on the road. It’s just not what I am, or what I do. Annd other people, also, tend to put who they are and what they do in their books. Sometimes despite themselves (and you know exactly what I mean. We’ve all been in the middle of some otherwise enjoyable book, and suddenly you hit something that reveals a weird or repulsive — and obviously unconscious — belief of the author. Used to be those books went into the trash. With kindle, they just get deleted.)
Perhaps it is a mistake — from us living in a universe saturated and shaped by fictional stories — that we also pick out themes in real life. Perhaps it’s an a-posteriori (yeah, PFA) thing. Perhaps we just imagine it’s there.
Or perhaps they’re spun from the fact we’re all human and the “spirit of the age.” Full disclosure, when I was in middle and high school, I could usually fake knowing the theme of some book I hadn’t bothered to read by knowing the movement the writer belonged to, and the general beliefs of the age. (Okay, sometimes it required my reading the first chapter and skimming the last couple of pages.)
Perhaps it’s something like that.
We talk about living in the world, or living in a certain place. But the material thing is that we live in certain times, too. And certain times have their own themes, imposed by what is going on at the time, and well…. where humanity in general and our country and culture is at the time.
Or at least so it seems to me. It could be a mirage, imposed by looking back. I mean part of the problem is that we really only experience a very short portion of the world’s history. It’s like looking out your bedroom window and hypothesizing the world. Sure we can imagine what was visible from other windows/what was going on in other times, but we can’t be sure. We weren’t there, we can’t see it. And the fact that we tend to interpret the past according to the prevailing theories of our own time doesn’t make it clearer in any way.
But I remember, on September eleven of 2001 thinking back to when I was almost ten and going “I should have known that would come up again.”
What do I mean? Well, when i was ten was the first time I became aware of the Olympic games. This was probably because my parents had finally got a TV when I was eight. (Tiny, yes, and black and white. And mom was still not absolutely sure it wasn’t a passing fad.) And Portuguese TV was broadcasting the Olympic games full time (which was strange and wonderful, since everyone knew that TV was only broadcast between the hours of 12 and 2 and then after 6 pm till midnight. Well, the main channel. Channel 2, the intellectual one that broadcast symphonies, British Mysteries and presentations by historians and such (yeah, I liked it, sue me.) was only one six to midnight.)
It was also the first summer that my brother spent away from home (in a beach house with his friends) so I was alone with my parents. It’s hard to explain but with my brother being almost ten years older than I, I had three parents, and arguably my brother was the one I was closest to.
Mostly he was responsible for feeding my addiction to books. Dad tended to have no idea what I was reading (well, he worked, you know) and either bought me fairytales, or, when he realized that was too “young” for me, bought me 1984. (Well, not at ten. At fourteen.)
My brother knew exactly what I was reading at the time, and what was I likely to read/want to read nenxt. And he had a way of “finding” me books by borrowing from friends and relatives. (Books were very expensive relative to our disposable income. Also, they weren’t easy to find. Because, you see, Portugal always did short-print-runs and once they sold they were no more. which meant anything published more than seven years before, and which was not a perennial could be hard to find again. Heck, even perennials, like, say Tom Sawyer, wasn’t available continuously.)
The funny thing is I don’t remember being forlorn. I remember mom talking to someone and saying I was like a ghost, walking around the house on my own. Maybe it was true. maybe it was one of mom’s misunderstandings.
I know before he left on vacation, my brother gave me Asterix and the Olympic games. And dad — who is a big sports fan — was big into the Olympic games, and gave me a history book about the Olympic games in Ancient Greece. I was heavily into Ancient Greece at the time, anyway. I remember the story of the rejected babies being thrown off a rock, and being convinced this would have happened to me because I was so tiny at birth.
I remember being very excited about it, and watching the fire lighting ceremony and….
Yes, 1972. that was the Munich Massacre.
Because I’d bought into the story of how the Olympic games were about international peace. I was young enough to believe in world peace, yes. And then the rearing of hatreds, the killing of innocent athletes. (And let’s talk about themes. Really, this had to happen in Germany. I don’t remember, but it might have been when I found out about the holocaust.) I remember being shocked annd horrified and having a dark stain upon the idea of Olympic games and a pal on the summer.
And then 2001, at the end of a very nice and peaceful summer– out of the blue — there was a massacre of innocents that made me see the world as completely upside down and sideways. Or perhaps as it truly was, though I didn’t like the look of it.
Well, I’m hoping the theme I’m afraid is coming is not …. true.
As I’ve said before, I was born under National Socialism, and I grew up under international socialism. I know what both of those are. I particularly know — not being that young anymore — what incompetent international socialists possessed of bizarre ideas that don’t match reality can do. And how fast. At that, we had it easy. If you want to know what the revolution I experienced in continental Portugal looked linne in what used to be the Portuguese colonies in Africa ask Peter Grant sometime. But make sure you have a strong stomach.)
At the same time, I read Heinlein. And then I read about America. I knew I was going to come to the States, one way or another. Falling in love with Dan and marrying him was just the way it happened, but I’d have come here anyway.
I wanted away from socialism and unfettered state power. I wanted to live to where the constitution was a protection on my natural rights. Truly, you have no idea how things can go South fast where the constitutions are redacted every few years, and no one believes in natural rights. The idiots who think the constitution is old and outdated and want to replace it with the shiny ones where rights are granted by government and pulled from ass, also have no idea. Worse, they’re in the grip of an illusion that they’ll be the ones in power forever.
They won’t. In fact the chances of their obtaining power only exist because they have absolutely no scruples. And have been laying the pathway of fraud forever.
I don’t think they can keep it even if they steal it, mind you. You see, their ideas are so bizarrely at odds with reality. They can destroy, but they can’t create. So I think they take it, they break it, and something else merges.
But the chances of what emerges being a constitutional republic which recognizes the individual’s natural rights, is bloody inexistent. And before we even reach the other side, we’ll all wade through rivers of blood. Let alone what emerges on the other side might very well be another variation of socialism.
I was born under national socialism. I grew up under international socialism. Well, it was the later half of the twentieth century and Europe. Some things are inevitable. Though the turmoil and revolution(s) were unique to that place at that time. Not twenty years before, though. I mean, I was born less than twenty years after World War II.
Or a juggernaut of history that was moving long before I was born, and which will trundle on long after I’m gone.
And my time, thank heavens, is not one of the craziest possible. I mean, I study the Tudors. (Shudder.)
But I chose freedom. I would very much have preferred freedom and individualism.
I wake up in the middle of the night, and stare at the ceiling, and wish I knew a magic trick I could do that would stop the deluded, the power hungry and the insane on their tracks. I wish I could make everyone see the future they’re driving us towards.
But, you know, even if my writing were a million times better and better known, yet it wouldn’t do it.
Themes. History has a momentum of its own, driven by immediate and distant events, by crowds, by the narrative that shapes our lives and which is more often than not just a story made up by a group of people who think they can control where history goes. That think history comes with an arrow.
Of course it doesn’t. And they can’t control the trajectory anymore than I can.
But in the dark of night, in the confines of my brain, that’s scant comfort.