In a lot of cases, I might have taken the adage ‘write what you know’ a little too seriously. In my late teenage years I wrote a kind of novelised autobiography; a painstakingly true to life (at least insofar as my own biased recollections could be true) book that I for some reason thought would be super entertaining to anyone other than a nostalgic me looking back. It wasn’t.
I pretty quickly moved on from the idea of unaltered autobiography being something worth pursuing if you haven’t had a particularly interesting life, but that didn’t stop me outright lifting real events to use in stories. Or, in some cases, writing highly specific ‘what ifs’ populated with characters who were basically just people I knew with changed names (Hometown, Reunion, Regression).
Writers wouldn’t write if they didn’t have some stuff in their lives they wanted to work out to some degree or other. The challenge, of course, is making that stuff matter to anyone who isn’t us. Sometimes we do it by wrapping broad themes and ideas lifted from our own experiences in stories with far more action and excitement. Sometimes we do it by writing plays like Three Eulogies for Tyson Miller.
Three Eulogies for Tyson Miller tells the story of Quentin, a twenty-something journalist whose former best friend, Tyson Miller, has recently died in a car accident. When Tyson’s partner Jill asks Quentin to give the eulogy, he is initially reluctant but, thinking back on the good times, decides to say yes. Jill finds his first eulogy too sanitised, arguing that Tyson would have wanted honesty. So Quentin gets honest, in the process digging into what went wrong with their friendship and exactly who was to blame.
Structurally the play moves between the present-day conversations between Quentin and Jill, the three (spoiler) eulogies Quentin ends up writing, and flashbacks to Quentin’s friendship with Tyson that largely take place out of order, drip feeding bits of the puzzle as Quentin digs deeper and deeper into just how he feels about his friend now that he’s gone.
Quentin and Tyson’s relationship is less based on an old friendship of mine and more a direct depiction of it. Except, I should clarify, the real-life friend the play is based on isn’t dead. As far as I know, he’s actually doing very well for himself.
This friendship was something I wanted to write about for a long time. The issue, of course, was trying to find the hook that might make it remotely interesting to an outside audience. I toyed with a few different versions half seriously before stumbling on the eulogy angle. Immediately it gave the play structure and stakes; wanting to not screw up the last public word on somebody’s life is a pretty big deal.
The writing process was somewhere between cathartic and challenging. Personal stories always are; requiring you to hit a balance between honest and conscious of the fact that nobody except for you has any reason to care about this so you’d better work damn hard to give them one. Did I manage it? Honestly, I don’t know.
But I do know the reasons I wanted to write about this. Tyson Miller strays into new territory for me, as it’s a play specifically about the complexities of friendship. Especially friendship between young men. I think guys in their teens and early twenties can be destructive in their bonds with each other. Fuelled by insecurity, friendships can become ugly games of one-upmanship, figurative dick measuring contests that ultimately nobody walks out of happy. Because friendship isn’t a competition; it’s mutual affection and support. But masculine insecurity can destroy even the warmest of friendships, and that’s what this play looks at. It’s honest; uncomfortably so, at times. Like Quentin, I had to evaluate my own actions and, for the first time, admit fault where previously I had protested my own innocence. In re-examining a friendship, I eventually landed at a place where I realised that maybe it was for the best that it ended. On my last day of writing, realisation struck that in some ways what I had put together was both a play and a eulogy for a friendship that meant a lot to me once, but slipped away after years of hurts both real and imagined during which time we became different people and went in different directions. There were times, in writing it, when I felt really sad. Other times I found myself getting angry at decade-old slights. But ultimately I finished it with a weird sense of closure.
So yeah. Challenging and cathartic.
Will it work for a broader audience? I think so. I think it has a lot to say that will be relevant to a lot of people, and I suspect it gets to some ugly truths that are universal across our interactions with each other. I could be wrong about all of that, but if I am I’m still really glad I wrote this. The process was unlike anything I’ve done before; all the way through I challenged myself to ask whether this was what a real person would say, eschewing any kind of stylisation for an attempt at naturalism. I also identified any place where I was starting to feel uncomfortable and made myself face up to what it was that caused that feeling. The result, I suspect, could be something special. As always, we’ll see.
Saying goodbye to Boone Shepard had a much bigger effect on me than I thought it would. Before the release of The Silhouette and the Sacrifice I’d assumed that, given the manuscript had been completed for so long, I’d already kind of let go. But the day before publication it hit me hard; this was it for Boone. And while a few people who’ve finished the book have asked about the potential of a fourth instalment, I would put that in a box marked ‘extremely unlikely’. I wrote a little story to send him off into the sunrise, and since then there’s been a Boone shaped hole in my heart. His story feels finished, and it’s a hard thing to accept.
But maybe, in some ways, letting go of Boone has liberated me. Hindsight is very much 20/20 and it’s slowly become clear to me that, in some ways, the last decade of my writing life has been very much built around the twin pillars of Boone Shepard and Windmills. Without going into depressing detail, Windmills hit a couple of brick walls earlier this year that led me to put it on ice for the foreseeable future, while Boone came to his natural end. For the first time, I’m facing a slate of work that involves no variation on either property. And that feels bloody weird.
But at the same time, exciting. I can’t say much about a lot of the projects that have consumed my time in the last few months, but there has been some thrilling forward momentum for a couple of them. Nothing concrete, but enough to know that we’re on the right track. As for the stuff I can discuss, The Trial of Dorian Gray has no less than four different versions currently in production (a film and radio play in England, two stage versions in Australia) while I’ve been hard at work with an awesome team of writers developing Heroes into a web series, the pilot of which is scheduled to shoot early next year. The series will broaden the scope of the play/radio play over six ten-minute episodes. It’s been thrilling to see what different voices have done with these characters, and I can’t wait for people to see the finished product.
Meanwhile, my major literary project right now is the ongoing adventures of Maggie, the protagonist of Sunburnt Country around whom I’m planning a whole series of standalone novels. The first of which is an expansion of Sunburnt Country, the rest new ideas for crime stories shot through with horror. In some ways Maggie is a spiritual successor to Boone; the wandering nomad who stumbles into situations and rights wrongs, but in almost every way that matters they couldn’t be more different. Where Boone was fast talking and cocky, Maggie is laconic. Where Boone eschewed violence, Maggie’s quick to administer shotgun blasts to those who deserve them. Where Boone was weighed down by his past, Maggie doesn’t think about hers. At least, not until it comes back to bite her.
I love writing Maggie, and I think there’s a lot of potential in her stories. But it’s early days and it will take a long, long time to know whether this, or any of the other seeds I’ve been planting of late, will actually grow into anything.
But I’m optimistic. As I think you have to be. Pessimism hampers ambition, and honestly, I think working in this industry requires a willingness to be at least a little bit deluded.
This year marked the end of both Movie Maintenance and Boone Shepard, along with an indefinite hiatus on Windmills. I’d be lying if I tried to claim that these endings or pauses weren’t a mix of depressing and terrifying at times. It’s easy to rest on the laurels of proven successes. But nothing is permanent and if you rely too much on what’s already established you’ll find yourself at a loss when it’s suddenly pulled out from under you.
New horizons mean new possibilities. And, very probably, new failures as well. But you can't have one without the other.
Writing words about writing words.