Friday, November 13, 2009

Ain't nothin' but a family thing...

Family fascinates me endlessly. The examination of familial bonds and the burdens and joys that they bring is a theme that runs through most of my writing.

Because America is an immigrant nation, that extends back in time to the patriarchs who made the long trek across the oceans to join our squabbling and rambunctious nation, grafting themselves on to our Family. I especially like how age can wash away scandal. "Great great grandpa Morgan was a bloodthirsty pirate" sounds dashing, whereas "Uncle Bob siezed an oil tanker yesterday and is holding thirteen crewmembers hostage" might not be bragged about so loudly. Yet, they're essentially the same thing, separated only by time. Romanticized by the historical context, the pirate of yesteryear is the movie hero and the pirate of today is the blood-thirsty terrorist.

Blame Hollywood, if you like. I know a lot of people do. But that doesn't change the fact that it's equally true of "Uncle Bob ran numbers for the mob back in the forties, isn't he sweet in that funny hat?"

The most scandalous hushed-up events of the past become the badges of honor worn by the present. I think of it as a sort of psychic recycling. Relations and families are the incarnate stuff from which any story could be woven. Links to the old country, scandalous forebears, mysterious family heirlooms, vendettas handed down from father to son... these are the stuff that dreams are made of. All of them real, all of it perfectly plausible hooks to hang a story on.

On our money it says E Pluribus Unum... "From the many, one." A singular unit drawn from the plurality. One Family of diverse elements. And like our country, our families don't always get along, and aren't always cut from the same cloth, yet instantly unite against external forces.

I tend to view history as a familial connection stretching back into infinity. Every man may not be my brother, but they are my cousin. And I think it's more interesting that way, that it makes what is otherwise dry historical information grittier and more immediate. I pepper my novels with characters whose familial connections are interwoven into the plot, whose ancestors aren't always paragons of virtue, but blood is thicker than just about anything else. Which is part of why I refer to the things I write (when I'm not moving giant robots across the landscape) as "Literary thrillers" than anything else. Thrillers, because these are characters in peril and the stakes are wide-ranging, but literary because it's ultimately about the interactions between the present and the past, the familial elements that make history matter.

And if there's not a career's worth of writing to be found in that, then I don't know where else you could look.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).