Dodge and Burn began as a short story I left unfinished and put away when I became heavily involved in writing a road trip novel I was tentatively calling Jornada del Muerto after the fabled desert trail from Mexico to New Mexico. The short story was a recollection of a short story I had written when I was seventeen – an attempt at magical realism with a maleficent Dr. Vargas, an attack of killer bees, and a heroine who succumbs to insanity.
With Jornada del Muerto I had abandoned magical realism and was aiming for a post-modern cocktail infused with Beat, most notably William S. Burroughs and Kerouac, as well as “gonzo” popularized by Hunter S. Thompson, of which Tom Wolfe’s Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test was also a pivotal work in the genre. I had experienced the nineties in the San Francisco underground psychedelic trance scene which felt like a continuation and evolution of the cultural revolution Wolfe had documented in the sixties. The warehouses these psychedelic trance “freaks” occupied were even in some of the same warehouses Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters had held their acid parties. I took up with a Swedish DJ and traveled the party circuit from South Africa to Europe where I spent two of those years in Amsterdam living in a very large squat turned art commune in the former Belgian Embassy. I wanted to use these experiences in creating my narrative as Wolfe, Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson had done.
At the time of writing Jornada del Muerto I was studying for a degree in Creative Writing at Kingston University and it had become my major project. At the end of the year I left myself little time before the final portfolio was due and panicked. I had no idea what I would submit for a module in experimental literature which demanded a short story and a critical essay. Because of my time constraints I had no choice but to revise and edit the aforementioned short story with Dr. Vargas and the killer bees because it was the most developed.
The result of the experimental assignment was “Hunt for American Heiress Continues…”, which was later published in The White Review. Shortly after I turned in the final portfolio for my degree at Kingston I was contacted by two of my tutors who told me I had had a breakthrough with the experimental short story. I was in the process of coming to grips with the fact that the novel was a failure. My closest friend’s verdict was: “Just the kind of pretentious bullshit I hate reading”. I was trying to capture the existential, mystical, psychedelic, dramatic and comical as the Beat and “gonzo” greats had done so masterfully and found myself like Icarus, flying too close to the sun, drowning in a sea of mediocracy, sentimentality, and confusion. The first step toward improvement was realizing this, which gave me hope. It was a clue that my frame of mind had shifted and I was seeing things more clearly.
I toyed with the idea of continuing and expanding “Hunt for American Heiress Continues…” into a novella but hesitated because it was a bit too close to the heart, too raw and difficult. I hadn’t ever intended for anyone see it, and now it had been published. I was still trying to come to terms with this. My father read the short story online and said it was, at its heart, autobiographical. My sister and I had been taken from our father at a very young age by our mother and stepfather and hidden in another state and town so that he did not have access to us. The only communication between us was a few letters we were made to write telling our father how happy we were without him in our lives and never wanted to see him again – an act which killed us and no doubt our father, in one blow.
Our stepfather was a highly intelligent academic with some form of psychopathy who was determined to control every aspect of our lives, forcing us to bend to his delusions in a horror-play of violence and abuse. This was our reality, in the case of my sister, from infancy, and I from very early childhood into our late teen age years when I managed to run away. After I escaped it took me several years to find and rescue my sister. Even though “Hunt for American Heiress Continues…” contained details and plotlines that were fabricated, there were still important similarities to mine and my sister’s lives, not to mention the entire premise revolving around two sisters in captivity, kidnapped by a malevolent stepfather. If I expanded the story of the heiress I would have to bite the bullet and remain in that world, and perhaps even expose it to the public if anyone ever wanted to publish it. In the end I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It haunted me. The onslaught of ideas as to how it could be expanded and what I could do with it eclipsed all else and gave me no peace. I decided to take the bull by the horns, wherever that led me.
William Faulkner famously said, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism”, which allegedly inspired Hunter S. Thompson in the creation of “gonzo”. Picasso’s ideas on the matter seemed to clarify the point further: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” And that is what I set out to do, to convey truth with the artistry of fiction. I planned on using a form of the cut-up method pioneered by Brian Gysin and William S. Burroughs and like this would pillage Jornada del Muerto, so that I could scatter its ashes all over the new material drawn from my life, the lives of others, and my imagination.
At the time of writing “Hunt for American Heiress Continues…” I was reading Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. The mastery – the compactness, intensity, scope, vision – astounded and inspired me. It was one of the tightest, most complex and vivid narratives I had ever read, similar in many ways to Heart of Darkness, another masterpiece that had deeply moved me. I decided I wanted to create something based on its structure and tone, to incorporate the horror, the ghost, the menace, the psychological terror, to make use of any and all tricks of James’ I could untangle. I read J.M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, was reduced to tears in the hands of yet another genius, and became obsessed with writing a novella.
I saw this novella incorporating all of the influences that had inspired my attempt at a novel – post-modernist, beat, and “gonzo” – but with the magical realism that “Hunt for American Heiress Continues…” brought, which would change everything. I wanted to create something like Guillermo del Toro had done with Pan’s Labyrinth. I had seen the film before and during the writing of “Hunt for American Heiress Continues…” and was taken in by, among many other aspects, what I called a ‘dark magical realism’ that pervaded the film, setting childhood innocence and magic against some of the most brutal adult worlds imaginable. This was, in many respects, how childhood had felt for my sister and me. I could express the truth in the manner Picasso had explained with the aid of the magical realism, and then also push the boundaries of the magical and the real with psychology and instances of altered states of consciousness, so that very fine lines could be created between the different realities.
Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor, was also a great authority that played heavily on my mind. In this, one of his later novels, Nabokov captures the shift of childhood into young adulthood and old age in the context of a love affair in a way that is remarkable, using structures to mimic the subjective passing of time in a complex world of his own creation with an alternate history taking place in the late eighteen hundreds where the United States is comprised of all of the Americas with North America having been settled predominantly by the English, Russian and French. Earth is called ‘Antiterra’ or ‘Demonia’. The belief in the existence of a twin planet called ‘Terra’ has inspired a cult. At the outset of the novel one of the protagonists is a psychologist researching and working with patients who believe they are in contact with Terra. For them Terra is the true world and the people of Antitera are merely the hallucinations and dreams of those who inhabit the original. So masterful is the craftsmanship of his cosmos, the reader forgets it is a kind of science fiction. Nabokov’s solutions to the different literary problems involved in introducing ideas such as these into the text sent my mind on overdrive. I wanted to find a way to spread the manner of this wondrous novel throughout my own.
At some point I picked up Carlos Castaneda and was blinded by the scope of his genius, even more so if parts of it were fabricated. The structure and tone of his works was very similar to how I had imagined Eugenie would communicate, scholarly, yet popular in a generally even tone. Castaneda is a master at making the mystical accessible and believable, which is no easy feat. If I could learn from him, perhaps something would rub off.
The idea of an heiress being one of the main protagonists came from an obsession with Edie Sedgwick. She seemed to me to be one of the last great, troubled socialites, a fawn lost in the woods, her power being in her innocence, grace, spontaneity, fragility and keenness of mind, which also made me think of Marilyn Monroe. I saw Eugenie like Edie, coming from privilege with its horseback riding and ballet, secluded on a compound throughout childhood, allegedly abused by her dominant and manipulative father, let loose on the world in a state of innocence, forever fighting, going beyond her capacity, never wanting to give in until she is devoured. Like this I envisioned the characters, the mood, taking a cue from “Hunt for American Heiress Continues…” and began a new manuscript.
It took nearly two years to write the novella with ideas and passages taken from the previous attempt at a novel, Jornada del Muerto. I was tentatively calling it Dodge and Burn after a conversation my father and I had had on a deserted beach in Northern California when he was telling me about Ansel Adams pioneering the process, how it had figured prominently in his work, allowing him to manipulate the exposure, to play with the light and shadows in such a way that characterized the power and magnificence of his photographs.
One of my tutors at Kingston, James Miller, had taken me under his wing and kept his eye out for any agents or small imprints he came across who might be interested in my work so that he could connect me with them. Like this I met the author Sam Mills who was beginning an imprint called Dodo Ink. After James directed her to “Hunt for American Heiress Continues…” she contacted me and showed great interest at taking a look at the manuscript even though it wasn’t fully formed. She and the other members of the imprint – reviewer Thom Cuell and digital marketer Alex Spears – all read the draft and offered me a contract. I could not believe my good luck. It was my wildest dreams come true. To be able to be a part of an independent imprint with an author I respected like Sam Mills, and then upon hearing the brilliant ideas and enthusiasm Thom Cuell and Alex Spears had for the project was the perfect scenario for the novella.
Shortly after I had agreed to accept the contract James Miller fielded an email query from an agent, Jessica Craig, at the Pontas Agency who had read “Hunt for American Heiress Continues…”, loved it and wondered whether I had anything else. I explained that it wasn’t finished or polished enough, but that she could see it as I’d already sent it to Sam Mills of Dodo Ink. Once Jessica Craig had read the draft she contacted me and agreed that a lot of work needed to be done, but that she was convinced enough by the sample to offer me a contract. Again, I could not believe all of this was happening. Jessica Craig’s understanding of the novella and where it might go were perfectly in tune with my own feelings. It was the same with Sam Mills of Dodo Ink. The outpouring and exchange of ideas led to great improvements and spurred my imagination.
It took several more drafts to arrive at what might be called a finished novel. I had gone through several breakdowns and fallen ill with the flu three times in six months by then. I had also accidentally set my laptop on fire with a compressed air duster and a flame from a lit candle on my desk. The strict adherence to the word count of a novella was abandoned, along with other ideas, passages, bits of dialog, sex scenes, descriptions I had held on to so dearly, which now sometimes make me laugh to no end with their absolute ridiculousness. There was a lot of cutting and inserting of paragraphs in what seemed like the most random of places, but which fit perfectly perhaps due to some kind of dyslexia in logic I was experiencing. Many passages and paragraphs were deleted altogether. Quite a lot of fleshing out throughout the entire draft was necessary. The ideas and guidance Sam Mills and Jessica Craig offered after each reading aided a great deal in propelling the novel forward and I felt very fortunate to be working with them.
The end took a long time to formulate and eventually came in a flash which I had to process, first drawing a kind of sketch, and adding to it. Throughout writing what had become a novel, I noticed I worked a bit like a painter, making sketches, then transforming them with color and other mediums to create the textures and the story, using tricks to cover things up, working all of the time to get the frame and the mood and the light just right. I thought I would never see the end of it. Thankfully, as the saying goes, it is darkest before the dawn. Suddenly I looked down at the words on the screen realized I had come to a kind of end.