What do you do when you are asked to take a song from 1989, combine it with an historical event from the same year AND make it speculative fiction? This was the brief given for the latest Literary Mix Tapes’ anthology, “Eighty Nine.”
You can do one of two things. Firstly, you run screaming in falsetto tones like your favourite hair metal band. Imagine your testicles squashed into a pair of leather pants 2 sizes too small.
Secondly, you can dig out your denim jacket, black t-shirt, acid wash jeans and hair gel; grab a roll of gaffer tape, Swiss Army knife, some matches and take it on MacGyver-style.
The authors from “Nothing But Flowers” submitted a song from 1989. By process of random number generation, Jodi Cleghorn (editor) allocated each writer to their song. I received Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands On Me.”
The next step was to research the historical events of the year. I was only in Year 9 in high school at the time, so a refresher history lesson was in order. There were so many events from that year, not only of historical significance, but also of cultural/social significance.
As a writer, one event piqued my interest: the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. What if the fatwa had been successful, creating a group called The Book Burners? This became the launching point for an alternative history. Would it have sparked a cultural or social, or even a theological revolution? Would books have been affected, regardless if they were sacred or secular, theological or pornographic? The Book Burners sought moral integrity, but the indiscriminate nature of their acts calls into question their motivations.
In part, my story has echoes of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” A quote attributed to Bradbury was spoken by Father Jim:
“There are worse crimes than burning books,” Jim said. “One is not reading them.”
In my notebook I had two characters: a priest, Father Jim, and his best friend, Robert Forsyth, a publican. They are old friends who represent two different perspectives and became the focal point of the story. Jim is a priest and scholar and understands the value of books, even having a collection of novels and comics. Rob is his good friend, trying to understand the philosophical reasons for burning books. I had written one line of dialogue in my notebook, which I had to include in the final version of the story: “I’ve had more shags than you’ve had belts of communion wine.”
But, how to include the song into the story? I decided to use the song as a part of a scene. For Father Jim and Rob, it was a light comic moment; another way of exploring the characters’ relationship and their ideas.
For a few months, there were times when I loathed my story. It read like the scrawling of a madman, written in litres of rancid custard on vellum made from baby seals. I considered ditching the whole thing and starting again, but thanks to the input of Jason Coggins, Icy Sedgwick and Rebecca Dobbie, they rescued me from drowning in the vat of rancid custard.
I was not consciously looking at religious fundamentalism as the focus for the story. At its heart, the story is about ideas. Are ideas, even controversial ones, to be dismissed simply as unorthodox? Is cultural homogeneity to be prized about discourse and dialogue? I may not agree with someone’s ideas or perspectives, but I respect their right to express it. I should also seek to learn from it.
In the modern technological age, the rhetoric of those who shout the loudest becomes the static that fills our ears. We need to listen more carefully before we open our mouths.
The pen is mightier than the sword.