Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Story genesis--A Song For the Yellow Prince

"A Song For the Yellow Prince" is my Hans Christian Andersen story. But I didn't know that when I wrote it.

I love Andersen for two reasons. First of all, he's a great writer. Second of all, he's a great writer whose work has taken on a life of its own. Stories like "The Little Mermaid" and "The Ugly Duckling" have become true fairy tales, part of the human experience. And that's why I find his work so inspiring.

Andersen is not an unknown, uncredited genius, like the neanderthal who came up with "Little Red Riding Hood" or these other Germanic fairy tales. He was a writer. A memoirist who turned to fairy tales. A failed playwright, a failed actor. A possible bisexual with a strong persecution complex. A fervent self-promoter. A flesh and blood human being who was alive less than two hundred years ago, and whenever you read his work, you can see the human he was in every drop of ink. The obsessions: childhood trauma, childhood love, unrequited love, underdogs, death, heavy duty Christianity. His work doesn't have morals. What's the moral of "The Little Match Girl"? That being poor sucks? What's the moral of "The Little Mermaid"? That Andersen was having an existential crisis about mortality? These are not fables. They are short stories, the same as any short story writer pens nowadays. Andersen put his quill to paper and let his obsessions take hold, and the whole world loved him for it.

His theme of unrequited love has always stuck with me. I remember the young boy who grows up to be the obsessive creep in "Ib and Little Christina." The woman he loves rejects him, then dies, and his final victory is adopting her daughter, who of course looks just like her. Creepy. These unavailable women pop up repeatedly in his stories, and usually the relationships lead to tragedy, like in "The Steadfast Tin Soldier." Many of his stories are sad. Not the nihilistic brutality you'll find in a Grimm Brothers story, but a sense of inevitable loss, like you get from Shakespeare.

"A Song For the Yellow Prince" is probably the most fairy tale-like of the stories I've published, and I think it's the saddest in this new collection. It's also the baby of the collection. I began writing it in August of 2012, after Six Gallery said I could put a fifth story in the book. I wrote it while I was crashing at my friend's loft in the Mission, and finished it on a horse ranch in Louisiana. It was actually inspired by a prompt from the San Francisco reading series, Bang Out. There's a theme for each reading, and writers are encouraged to "bang out" submissions. One of the themes from that year was "Mix Tape." I started thinking of a short story, something fable-like I could write around the mix tape idea. I knew I wanted to do something other than the traditional "these songs make me remember these good ol' times" idea that mix tapes were made for. I missed the deadline, as I'm prone to do, but now I had this idea of a pre-analog mix tape. Vinyl records broken and glued back together. The image stuck with me, and other images grew from there. A boy and a girl who looked like twins. A sick boy in a bed. I indulged my obsessions with language and music, particularly the history of black music. I let language guide the story, thinking first of what images I'd describe, then where it would go. And in a relatively short time, I had a story, with equal parts poem in it.

That's why I call it my Andersen story. He knew to sometimes let the story meander and see where it would take him. The fairy tale genre allowed for this. And in following his obsessions, he found beauty, every time.

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