The Terrible Theft on Tiberius Train
Lately I’ve been having a ton of fun writing a bunch of silly Boone Shepard short stories, all set in the months before the novel takes place. My plan was to release them intermittently in the months before the second book hits shelves, but instead my publisher and I decided to release three at once. Below is The Terrible Theft on Tiberius Train, and you can find links to The Perilous Piracy of Promethia Peters and The Audacious Avarice of Avery Arbogast at the bottom of this post.
I’m really proud of these shorts, both as fun little larks and as explorations into new corners of the Booniverse. There’s another story that will probably come out in a few weeks to coincide with the conclusion of the Sanspants Radio release of the audiobook, and doubtless more to come after that. Until a release date is confirmed for the second book, these will hopefully keep the characters and their world alive and kicking.
Anyway, enough out of me. Enjoy.
Boone Shepard and the Terrible Theft on Tiberius Train
We humans have a lot of habits that you’d think we would gradually grow out of but never really seem to. These include, but are not limited to, making children study maths at school, hosting expensive award ceremonies for people who pretended to be other people, strapping one long piece of wood to both your feet to slide down a snowy mountain when it is significantly easier and more practical to use two, attempting to hang journalists for meddling and, potentially worse of all, naming inanimate objects.
Inanimate, as a word, implies that something doesn’t move, and while trains certainly move they don’t have thoughts, feelings or any reason whatsoever to give them titles of their own, but apparently no-one told this to the genius who decided that the train I was taking today simply had to be called Tiberius. Oh it certainly sounded noble and important, but considering we were talking about a large contraption that’s sole purpose was to move from one end of the country to another, noble importance seemed a little misplaced.
Still, while the name irked me, it was hard to dwell too much on a day like today. I sat by the window, looking out at the bright green country racing by beneath the clear blue sky, watching the orchards, rivers and occasional disgruntled cow all race past. I found myself smiling. It was a beautiful day and this was not a bad place to be.
‘When all the countries were given their identifying traits, England missed out.’
I gritted my teeth and tried not to take any notice of the other person in the carriage with me.
‘Every other country has something about the landscape to make it stand out; mountains, deserts, huge lakes, enormous forests. It’s like England was designed to not put anyone’s nose out of joint. We just settled for the milder versions of everything.’
I didn’t know his name and I did not care to ask. He was a little old man dressed in tweed with large glasses, no hair and a face that looked like if had been left in the sun for a hundred years before being stretched out of shape, scrunched back together then plonked on the front of his head. I had chosen this compartment as it was the least occupied, and at first he had simply sat in silence. Then, about fifteen minutes into the journey, just as I was settling in, he had started making his opinions known. Without introduction or greeting or anything. A glance at my watch told me this had been going on for the last hour. It felt like three. I returned my attention to the window and hoped for the best.
‘Australia, now there’s a country! It’s got individuality pouring out its ears. In fact, it has just about everything!’
That was quite enough. With an attempt at a smile that probably came out as a grimace, I left the compartment, leaving my bag behind me. If the old man was offended by my abrupt departure, he said nothing, which suited me just fine. Glad to be free, I hurried down the corridor towards the dining car. I wasn’t exactly falling over myself with excitement at the thought of train fare, but anything was better than more time spent in that compartment.
If I had my way, I wouldn’t be travelling by train at all. I had a perfectly good motorbike and it made for a far better way to appreciate the countryside as one moved through, but time was of the essence today. I had in my possession a top secret map that led to a top secret location that held a top secret item that people who were not top were secretly trying to get their hands on. Naturally my editor, Lord Rasputin Huxley VIII had thought to send along one of the journalists in his employ, and if they managed to stop the dastardly acts in the process, well that was okay too. So off I went, travelling the quickest way possible to try and get to the location before the villains did. It was all very scary and exciting, but until I arrived there I had other issues to deal with. Namely, the coffee served aboard the train which was all I could bring myself to buy. One sip made clear my mistake but I held on to the cup as, moving very slowly, I made my way back to the compartment.
The old man did not look to have moved a muscle in my absence. He smiled at me as I sat down and instead of smiling back I took another brave sip from my cup. Instinctively, I reached for my bag, opening it and slipping my hand in to make sure everything was still in place.
Heart beating faster, I placed the coffee on the ground, pulled the bag on to my lap and looked through it. Notebook, spare glasses, change of clothes, mountaineering equipment; all present. But the map was gone.
I looked up at the old man, who was staring out the window with a mildly unimpressed expression. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, trying not to sound frantic. ‘But did someone come in here when I was gone?’
‘Hmm?’ He looked at me as if surprised I’d spoken. ‘Uh, no-one except the conductor I think.’
The conductor. I should have known never to trust a man in a silly hat. I got to my feet and without so much as a thank you to the irritant who had got me into this mess, I ran out the door and down the corridor. I could see the shape of the conductor down the far end, just emerging from one of the other compartments. I came to a halt just as he looked in my direction. Our eyes met and his went wide.
‘Stop!’ I yelled.
He didn’t. He turned and opened the door at the rear of the carriage. The whistling sound of wind filled the carriage as I ran towards him.
The conductor, however, wasted no time. His grip on the door frame was hard and he pulled himself through, outside the train. The door swung shut behind him, the wind stopped and in the sudden silence I heard the unmistakeable click of the lock.
I reached the end of the carriage and through the window set in the door I could see him, struggling against the wind, unlocking a similar door in the next carriage and slipping through. In vain I tried the handle, but of course it was no use. He had my map and I had no way of getting to him.
I looked out the window to the side. The country that before had seemed so pleasant now just appeared to be mocking me. I closed my eyes, rested my forehead against the glass and tried to think. His reasons for taking the map didn’t matter so much as the fact that he had done it; without the map I was essentially stranded with no idea of where to go next or how to handle this situation.
I opened my eyes, looking out the window again. I thought back to my map-free bag. And then a terrible idea struck me and suddenly I was hurrying back to my compartment. I burst through the door, ignored the old man trying to tell me something, snatched up my bag and ran back down the hall. Kneeling, I opened the bag and withdrew a coil of rope I had packed in case of having to scale any sheer cliffs. For the same purpose, I had with me a small, hooked ice axe with a wooden handle. Perfect.
I tied the rope around my waist then tied the other end around the doorknob of the nearest compartment. After checking to make sure both ends were at least somewhat secure, I turned to the window.
Usually I don’t condone vandalism, but the reality of being a good journalist is that you often have to resort to it and the more you do the more you realise how fun it is. This particular case was less fun and more frightening, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t thrilling to swing the ice axe into the centre of the window.
The glass shattered and the carriage was filled with the roar of wind. It was an effort not to be buffeted off my feet. Using the axe, I cleared the remaining glass from around the windowsill, then, taking a deep breath and checking the rope around my waist one last time, I dove through.
For a second, the world was crazy. For a second I was spinning in mid-air, the sky and ground and side of the train all racing around me. Then, with a sharp jerk around my waist and a snap of rope I saw the side of the train racing towards me and I braced myself for impact as I slammed hard into the metal of the next carriage. I took a moment to gain my bearings and then with all the strength I could muster, my knuckles white around the handle, I smashed the ice axe into the nearest window.
It shattered inwards. With no time now to clear the remaining glass from the frame, I pulled myself through the now open window into the carriage.
It wasn’t a dignified entrance. I hit the ground hard and for a second could only lie there, breathing heavily. There was no way I should have survived that. No way at all.
Then I remembered why I was here and I sat up to be greeted with the barrels of five rifles, all aimed directly at me, behind each of which was the snarling, silly-hat-wearing face of a conductor.
I had to remind myself not to laugh. Instead, I gave my most polite smile and asked them who had my map.
‘What map?’ the conductor in the middle looked to either side. Only bewildered expressions looked back.
‘One of you took a map from my bag,’ I said. ‘Look, please don’t pretend. I didn’t get a good look at who it was, but he ran when I yelled and now you all have guns so it’s pretty obvious you’re up to no good. I know you have the map. You know I know you have the map. I know you know I know you have the map. Just hand it over and we can all get on with our days.’
‘You vandalised our train and now you’ve broken into the private conductors’ quarters,’ the man in the centre said.
‘You stole my map,’ I replied.
‘We didn’t–’ he stopped himself and took a deep, hopefully calming breath. ‘Nobody stole your map. We’ve got no need for maps. Henry here was just minding his own business, preparing to rob the train, when you came yelling and running after him like a madman. Anybody would have bolted in that situation.’
‘I was not yelling and running like a madman,’ I said. ‘I was – wait. You’re robbing the train?’
The conductor rolled his eyes. ‘Yes, that’s why we have guns. We would have done it already if it wasn’t for your interfering.’
‘For the passengers’ money of course. You’re not very bright, are you? No wonder you pulled a stunt like that.’
With some difficulty I got to my feet, swiftly placing the ice axe through the back of my belt as I did. ‘No, suppose not. Okay, robbing the train. Fair enough. You know what will really help your case?’
The conductor’s eyes narrowed. ‘What?’
‘A hostage,’ I said, untying the rope around my waist. ‘Look, meaning no offense, but train conductors aren’t very scary. It might be the hats, but chances are that people won’t take this robbery very seriously. However, if you have a hostage, one who goes ahead at gunpoint looking scared, then they’ll know you mean business.’
‘And I take it you’re to be that hostage?’
I nodded. ‘Saves me being shot, right?’
The conductors glanced at each other.
‘He has a point,’ one of them said.
‘Less talking more robbing I reckon.’ I grinned. ‘Shall we?’
In answer I was poked in the direction of the door by one of the rifles. Hands in the air, I backed towards it.
‘You’ll have to unlock both doors before I can go through,’ I said. ‘This one and the entry to the next carriage.’
‘Obviously,’ the apparent leader said. ‘We’re not stupid. Move aside.’
I did. One of the conductors opened the door and stepped through. He returned a moment later with his hat still firmly on his head.
‘Both doors unlocked.’ With his gun, he gestured through. ‘Lead the way hostage.’
‘Aye aye captain,’ I said, then stepped through, grabbing a hold of the edges of the door as I did. The wind outside screamed. I looked across the slight gap between carriages to the next door, flapping back and forth. I looked down at the coupling between the two carriages. I only had seconds, if that.
‘What are you waiting for?’ a voice from behind me barked.
‘Good question,’ I muttered. My heart was like a drum now. My hands were shaking. I forced myself to be steady. Then I reached around behind me, grabbed the ice axe from my belt and knelt just as a gunshot went off over my head. I jammed the blade of the axe into the coupling between the two trains then, moving faster than I really should have, I jumped forwards. The heel of my boot slammed into the axe handle, driving it through the couplings, then I was up again, diving through the door of the next carriage. With a screech, the couplings broke apart. I hit the floor, eyes tightly shut as more yelling and gunshots came from behind me, at first deafeningly loud then quieter and quieter until there was only the wind.
I opened my eyes and rolled over. Through the still flapping door I could see the shape of the conductor’s carriage disappearing further and further down the line until it was only a speck framed by the green fields and blue sky.
I let out a long breath then slowly, unsteadily, got to my feet and closed the door. There was still a lot of wind coming from the broken window, but at least now it was slightly less. I turned and looked up the hall; all along compartment doors were opening as people stuck their heads out trying to figure out what was going on. With an apologetic smile I walked, weak-kneed, past them all until I reached my compartment again. I walked through and, ignoring the old man who was still exactly where he had been before, slumped down in my seat.
‘Oh, you’re back,’ he said, after a moment.
I nodded. I didn’t trust myself to speak.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Here’s your map by the way.’
It took me a few seconds to realise what he was holding.
‘You had the map.’ My voice sounded dull and flat.
‘Well you left and I had no-one to talk to so I thought I’d see what was in your bag. It was a pretty boring map anyway. Hope I didn’t cause you any trouble.’
I took it from him, well aware that my mouth was hanging open. I looked from the old man to the map then back again.
‘Anyway, where was I?’ he said. ‘Oh, that’s right. What a boring trip this is! I’ll tell you now–’
Shoving the map in my bag, I leant back and looked out the window. The scenery rolled past and I wondered whether I would experience such a thing as a truly peaceful journey.
Movie Maintenance, the podcast I regularly appear on and possibly the closest thing I have to a claim to fame, is about to turn two and I could not be happier with where it is at. We haven't exactly had the smoothest run and there are plenty of episodes that make me kind of cringe when I think back on them, but right now we're in the midst of a bunch of episodes that I think are probably our best ever, we have a solid revolving cast of talented writers who also happen to be great behind the mic, and we regularly make appearances in the top ten most popular episodes on the Australian film and TV podcast charts. By all accounts we're doing alright internationally too. We're not exactly huge, but as far as podcasts go we're doing pretty bloody well.
There is, however, one thing that never quite sat right with me. The best Movie Maintenance episodes, and the ones that tend to get the strongest responses, are the 'pitch' episodes, where somebody essentially tells us their ideal version of/sequel to a film. This idea is ingrained into the very DNA of the show; after all the first few episodes were a roster of people pitching their dream Star Wars prequels, but the longer we've gone on the more and more the pitches steer away from being an actual 'fix' and end up being something closer to the realm of fan fiction. Case in point; our two most recent episodes were based around my ideal Psycho and Nightmare on Elm St sequels, while the next five will be a selection of dream films set in the Harry Potter universe. Not one of these is really an explicit 'movie maintenance' as such.
One of Joel Zammit's initial inspirations for the show was Belated Media's 'What if Star Wars Episode One Was Good' video and indeed the original working title for the podcast was 'Fuck You, We Can Do Better'. Personally, I think the idea of a show based around the premise of pitching improved versions of flawed films is one of the best concepts for a podcast I've heard, and at our best we always strive to replicate the same feeling that that Belated Media video evokes in most viewers, a realisation of missed opportunity that hopefully makes you yell "aw shit, that was this close to being a classic!" And maybe if we were all analytical storytelling geniuses that's what we'd have. Unfortunately, reality doesn't make it that easy for us.
Look, every now and then we've had a fix episode that I think captures that feeling but the fact is that coming up with a stellar idea that turns a previously shit film into a potential classic isn't something that comes along on a weekly basis, even between all of us. Like any kind of storytelling, it takes inspiration to strike and it takes passion; it's very hard to write a whole new version of a film you don't care at least a little bit about. And sometimes the flaws in a film don't constitute a whole pitch, which means we end up with episodes that are more just a round table discussion of a film's flaws and where it might be improved. Technically those episodes are more true to the title of the show than most pitches and a few people online have expressed a preference for them. But, and I'm totally willing to be corrected on this, I don't think episodes like that are what makes Movie Maintenance special. Episodes like that aren't very different to every other film review podcast out there, and to offer something worth coming back to week after week it is imperative that we give our listeners more. And so, as the show has developed and we all got giddy at the prospect of being told a cool fan fiction story every time we record, we've deviated more and more from 'fixing' and fallen in love with pitching.
In recent months we've even had a few pitches that aren't based on any particular film. Sean Carney had us all on the edge of our seats with his left-of-centre and utterly compelling take on Dracula while Tom Reed turned Guess Who? into a thrilling and gasp-inducing spy thriller. These episodes are barely linked to the show's premise at all, and when we get the snarky comments on YouTube and Facebook about how these aren't 'maintenances', we can hardly get defensive considering they're right.
But ultimately, it's hard to feel very bad about it when you've just spent twenty minutes on the edge of your seat listening to a gripping yarn, and that's decidedly not something that any other film review podcast can offer. It's pitches like this that mean I'm excited to get into recording every week and see what my brilliant friends have come up with this time. And I tend to think the only way the audience can be excited about the show is if we are excited ourselves.
Earlier in the year we had a bit of a slump. We were behind on recording and whenever we desperately tried to get something together for release within a couple of days, the quality was predictably not amazing. There was even talk of reducing the episode output or cancelling the show considering the amount of work required to come up with quality stuff and the pressure that put on all of us. But since then we've brought in a whole bunch of great new talent and consequently we're currently several months ahead of schedule with episodes recorded, and most of those are episodes that I'm confident can stand shoulder to shoulder with our best. And while only a couple of those are distinct 'maintenances', it's a continuation of what I think is a hot streak.
So with that in mind, can the show really go on being called Movie Maintenance? Absolutely. Because if you think about it, most of our pitches are a fix in one way or another. Pitching an ideal sequel to any given franchise is in and of itself a 'maintenance' of that series. A great idea for a Dracula film is an inherent antidote to all the bad ones we've had over the years. A good Where's Wally? concept is not only a preemptive fix to whatever Seth Rogan ends up doing to the property, but a fix of the whole trend of adapting picture books that don't really lend themselves to engaging narratives. Basically, even when we're not fixing, we're sort of fixing.
Have we stretched the premise? Sure. Are we totally outside it? Nah. And unless there's a sudden drop in popularity or outburst of fan anger at what we're doing, I can only be happy with the position we're in. For those listening, I hope you are too.
Yesterday I caught a train up to Benalla for a writing workshop I was running at their library. Naturally I had left all my planning until the last minute and decided to finalise it on the two-hour train ride. This seemed like a reasonably solid plan, at least by my poor standards, and I was all set to go until I sat down on the train, looked out the window and started imagining Boone Shepard sitting on a similar train.
When I stepped off at Benalla station I had finished a 3000 word short Boone adventure.
This is not remarkable. The last few weeks I’ve seemed to be perpetually smashing out these little stories, all with silly alliterative titles and all involving Boone getting caught up in some absurd peril. And I’ve been having a great time with them. They’re the kind of adventures I can come up with fast, make up as I go along and have a hell of a lot of fun writing. The problem, however, is that they are literally the last thing I should be doing. Currently I have no shortage of important writing commitments and I do not have the time to be writing these dumb little adventures that serve no purpose other than being put on my website on the off chance someone wants to read them. In fact, every time I sit down to actually, y’know, fulfil an overdue responsibility my mind starts drifting to what adventure Boone and I can run off on.
There are a couple of reasons for this. I wrote the Boone Shepard series over 2013/14 in a marathon writing session that yielded five novels, in which time I barely worked on anything else. Consequently, I didn’t really think about Boone Shepard again until over a year later when I was in America and felt this sudden inclination to revisit him in a short story that I wrote in one night in a bar in L.A. And damn it was fun. Everything else I tried to write in America had the pressure of a deadline or being for some important purpose. But this story was something else. It was just me making up a little yarn designed to amuse myself. And that, I think, is why I keep coming back to these. Almost everything I write nowadays is either to be performed or to be delivered to someone or is a redrafting of something that’s been sent back to me. Everything I write has some greater importance. But these Boone shorts just don’t. And that is very liberating. Without the pressure for them to be good, they seem to flow in this natural, carefree way that feels kind of rare for me now.
The other reason is that, after finishing the novel series, part of me feels like I’ve earned this. Boone Shepard was always supposed to be my Tintin or Indiana Jones, a heroic character who goes on a whole bunch of disconnected stories, but the novels didn’t really go that way. Instead they became a much bigger, more sprawling saga that meant the book series ultimately took the shape of one story divided into several parts. I don’t regret that; I’m very proud of the way they turned out, but now that I’ve told that story, the pressure is off and I can take Boone on all these silly, small scale adventures. I see it like how the Sherlock Holmes stories worked; there were four novels but the bulk of the character’s outings were in short story form.
When I finished that story yesterday, I still had two and a half hours in Benalla before I had to head to the workshop, so I went down to the café at the art gallery overlooking the river and I got to work on a different project, one I’ve been procrastinating for weeks now. In one intense writing session I finally finished the first draft of that script and it left me buzzing as I walked into the workshop (which went fine despite my lack of preparation). And I sort of think part of this was thanks to that Boone story. I’d gotten writing, I’d had fun, I felt good and that left me with the energy and excitement to commit to actually finishing something of relative importance. So while initially it may seem like a counterproductive waste of time, I’ve reached a point in my life where writing is basically my job, which is where I always wanted to be so I can’t complain, but every now and then it’s refreshing to write something that has no purpose other than entertaining myself.
These stories will all eventually find their way online. Currently The Californian Catastrophe and The Haunting of Haddock House are on the Bell Frog Books website, with The Photographer’s Folly, The Perilous Piracy of Promethia Peters, The Audacious Avarice of Avery Arbogast and The Terrible Theft of Tiberius Train still to come, along with whatever other story ideas with alliterative titles I come up with in the weeks, months and years still to come.
So am I going to break the habit? Not at all. Do I think it’s getting in the way of more important projects? If anything it’s kind of helping.
Regarding The Critic
Last night my new play, The Critic, opened at Voltaire in North Melbourne. I’ve been pretty separated from this one, only checking in periodically but otherwise leaving the whole process in the hands of the cast and director. That’s kind of my favourite way to operate; there’s nothing quite like the thrill of seeing your play come to life for the first time and experiencing that without even a glimpse of the rehearsal period is the purest way to get that.
That said, my first viewing of the show was actually the final dress rehearsal a couple of days ago, which I figured was a slightly less stressful way to see the play than surrounded by an audience, and that made for a fairly relaxed opening night knowing that the show was, in my opinion, pretty damn good.
My biggest fear with The Critic was that it would feel repetitive; after all, in my head it rounds out a thematic trilogy with We Can Work It Out and The Lucas Conundrum as three dialogue driven hour long plays featuring a cast of four dealing with themes related to art. Aside from the different dynamic that an all-female cast would bring, I did have to wonder if people who had seen the other two plays would just roll their eyes at yet another Bergmoser script predominantly featuring people swearing at each other and discussing the meaning of art.
But the biggest surprise for me was how different this play feels. Aside from the obvious, it doesn’t have all that much in common with either Lucas Conundrum or We Can Work It Out; The Critic is faster paced than either of them, a little meta and self-aware, less funny but surprisingly more emotional and makes its point with strength and clarity. Obviously this is coming from the person who wrote it, so take all that with a pinch of salt, but I tend to be critical of my own work and I was honestly surprised by how little I found to take issue with in The Critic.
So much of that is down to the execution. The cast is probably the strongest I’ve ever seen do one of my plays; there isn’t a single weak link (and thank god because in a small cast those are very obvious) and despite having done my usual thing of not really trying to make anyone especially likeable, I found myself actually liking all of the characters on stage in a way I didn’t on the page. There’s a good chance that The Critic might feature the first legitimately likeable Gabriel Bergmoser protagonist, although I feel like the credit for that has to go to Louise Cox who plays Jamie with a perfectly judged mix of vulnerability, manic energy, and steely resolve. It’s a colourful, dynamic performance where she never does the same thing twice. And while the rest of the cast are all equally brilliant in their roles, it’s Louise’s show, as it rightly should be.
At the time of writing I’m yet to read any reviews of The Critic, but I’m extremely curious to see how they turn out considering this is a case of critics responding to a play specifically about them. For the first time I’m actually more curious than nervous to see how they feel about it. But I’m at peace with the idea that they might not like it because, in a very rare case, I’m totally satisfied with how the show turned out and can take comfort in the fact that it is exactly the play I wanted it to be when I wrote it. So if the response down the line turns out to be negative and I try to blame the cast or director, consider this me going on the record and stating that any issues you have with the play are totally on me. The creative team brought the script to life perfectly.
So yeah, go see it. I’m pretty proud of this one.
Writing words about writing words.