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The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Words from the wringer

Like my previous bite-sized novels A Thousand Years Of Nanking and Tessellation Row, my new thriller Cheer Up Sleepy Gene uses a frothy technological horror plot as a framework on which to hang the dirty linen of human emotions.

I wrote Cheer Up Sleepy Gene alongside my novel Slow Wilhelm Exit in December 2014. The two share a medical thriller/body shock theme, but they don’t have anything else in common – except, perhaps, that one is about having too much of something, while the other is about not having enough.

The ‘something’ is life force, human vitality, male potency and, figuratively speaking at least, whatever it is inside us that compels us to create.

From the moment I first plotted it, more than a decade ago, the story was known as Cheer Up Sleepy Gene.

Yes, it’s a reference to the Monkees song, which is one of the tape songs I talked about in my previous post Let’s loop again. I couldn’t actually tell you how its composer John Stewart spelled the name. I always assumed it was a girl called Jean. And yes, I guess I could have used The Gene Genie instead.

I intended it to be both an extrapolation of, and stage rehearsal for, a section in a novel I had in planning, and which is still waiting to be written. It is the result of the huge amount of research I knew I had to do to make that larger plot work.

In 2008, not knowing when (if ever) the idea would be exhumed, I lifted the title for the name of Reyes Sadovy’s biological research facility in my novel Biome. This was on the strict understanding that Sadovy could borrow it but he didn’t own rights to the name in perpetuity. It was much too funny to remain hidden away in his backwoods meerkat torture lab.

Cheer Up Sleepy Gene, I knew, would be narrated by a doctor engaged in fertility research. I didn’t want to alienate readers. I didn’t even want them to pause on the way to the plot. I wanted to make it abundantly clear, from the get go, that this is a fertility research doctor. There he is, middle aged, white lab coat, pens in his pocket, receding hairline, growing paunch.

He’s not going to be Joni Mitchell with a limp. He’s going to be the man you expect.

He’d have a bitter wife and a teenage daughter he doesn’t understand, and his patient would be a baseball-playing kid who was geeky at the start but, wonder of wonders, as the treatment continued even his spots would clear up. By the end he’d be batting like a pro.

There’s a place for clichés in writing. The cliché signals to the reader: keep going. We’re just facilitating a story here. You know this guy already — now let’s get running.

Later I’m going to pull the rug out from under you. For now, let’s stick with the familiar.

Cheer Up Sleepy Gene was a joy to write, but it soon became seamed through with powerful emotions, just as A Thousand Years Of Nanking and Tessellation Row had been, and just as Slow Wilhelm Exit would be immediately afterwards.

It started out lightly enough. I was determined to answer for myself the question “Can you really have a sex comedy where everyone’s wearing lab coats and snapping on latex gloves?” Since I didn’t know, I just plunged in regardless.

In the back of my mind, I kept thinking about my favorite amorous encounter in a science fiction novel, T.J. Bass’s Half Past Human: “Her demand-type thrusting failed to initiate his pelvic-autonomic-cycle, for his granulating thoracic wound kept his parasympathetics depolarized by irritating the right vagus nerve.” Oh you sexy thing. Arguably it’s as passion-killing as the moment it describes, which makes it perfect. Arguably, too, Bass is having a laugh.

And then it happened — boom! The characters got their hooks in me, and Cheer Up Sleepy Gene dragged me into desperate times. It became a sex comedy with heart. The story would have gone on further except it put me through so vicious an emotional wringer that I decided to stop it short the moment it reached its most devastating point.

The last sentence of the story was never intended. It wrote itself, it made me cry, and slammed the door on the possibility of continuing the plot to its original denouement.

This, for me, is the point of writing. If it doesn’t make me bleed, it’s not worth the words. Writing is not just about breathing life into characters and then following them through whatever crisis you’ve stranded them in. It’s about falling so desperately in love with them that they make you howl in anguish even as you’re pulling their legs off one by one.

I tend to form a very strong emotional link with my characters, and care enough about them to obsess over the things they think and say and do. When I’m writing about them, they’re alive – truly alive. You know when your story stumbles, because a character is doing something that doesn’t seem natural. Characters are living people: they have an internal logic, as we all do, and an internal illogic, as we all do. They have goals and ambitions but they also have messy emotions and childish impulses.

Once I’ve put myself through the ups and downs of writing a story like this, I wonder why I go back. I know it will only break my heart again. But of course I do, as soon as possible. There’s a euphoria to writing that is akin to the first flush of love, and if the story is going well it continues throughout the creation of the first draft.

Naturally, I almost always hit a few bumps along the way, when things don’t go so well and I have to backtrack or fight my way out of a corner. But that euphoria is unexplainable. It’s not like a drug high. It’s not like skydiving either. It’s total immersion into a fantasy world of my own design. And if I’m a typical writer, then writers are psychotic – but spending all this time in front of the keyboard keeps us off the street, so it’s probably okay.

Naturally, with every high there’s a low, and I always find, every time I write something, that a sense of loss begins to creep into the final chapters, knowing it’s all about to end.

And then the draft is done. The fantasy is over. And I find I spend days, perhaps weeks, in a state of depression, all alone again.

One of my beliefs in life is: “The new love destroys the old love.” Indeed, I think it must do, as that’s the only way we humans survive. Pretty soon I’ve gotten over the depression and I’m back immersed in another love affair with another set of characters. And there’s the addiction, because only by starting a new love affair can you get over the last one. Only by writing something new do you cope with the fallout from the last thing you wrote.

If all my narrative voices have one thing in common, it’s that they are as pathetic as I am when it comes to dealing with the people they love or who are stupid enough to love them.

It’s not women who walk men around by their cock. We’ve got ourselves firmly by the root. In Cheer Up Sleepy Gene, as in its predecessors and companion piece, it is the women alone who come away looking good. The men approach redemption only when they first accept their own inadequacy.

Cheer Up Sleepy Gene-S

Robert Maas’s thriller Cheer Up Sleepy Gene is available to buy at Amazon.


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