Ouch. Poor Phil. Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) are a really scary trend for corporations seeking to silence any consumer voicing their dissatisfaction with products/services. Was this story inspired by any lawsuit in particular?
Yes, actually. I had just read a news story about a couple who were billed for thousands, all for the grievous sin of giving a company a bad review online. The contractual provision that gave the company leave to charge such fines was not added to the boilerplate contract until several years after the couple and the company had concluded their business, but the company went after their credit rating anyway, to ruinous financial effect. This is the world we’re living in, the status quo we’re headed for; if there hadn’t already been some resistance to the more extreme trespasses, it would already be much worse.
Please tell me all the provisions after the first are made-up with no real-world examples.
There are some that are almost as bad.
This actually happened a few years ago (and forgive me, I read the story when it appeared in Harper’s but no longer have the citation; this is a casual interview). One company advised its employees that they had to submit a weekly report on the books they had read, the TV shows they had watched, the movies they had seen; that if the report was not on their superior’s desk by seven a.m. Monday morning, it was grounds for dismissal. They had to document that they had attended a church and they had been in bed by ten p.m. Certain newspapers not on the approved list could harm one’s employment.
Another company, rather than cleanse its workspace of substances that were dangerous to pregnant women, declared that all of its female employees had to either seek hysterectomies or seek employment elsewhere.
Some HR Departments are already searching your Facebook statuses to make sure that you have the correct opinions.
This is not only anti-corporate ranting. It happens to be a function of the human animal that when people are given power over you, whether as employers or governments or even as condo associations or family members or lovers, they continue to test the limits of that power until you say, “No, that’s all you get, no more, the line is drawn here.” It is possible for such a negotiation to be friendly. It just also needs to be firm.
I found myself wincing as each new provision went into effect. Do you find it hard to put your characters through such suffering or is each new idea to add a source of creative glee?
Fiction writing has always been acceptable sadism, and one of the first lessons I ever learned, taught me by a very successful editor and novelist, was that when you worry that you’ve gone too far, that’s when you know you’ve gone far enough.
No happy endings, right? Was this story always going to end badly for Phil, or did you consider other endings?
I can’t imagine any happy ending, for this story, that wouldn’t be a lame cop-out.
The story details a horrifying spiral in a very effective way, but with a brisk, almost clinical detachment. What made you choose this approach over, for example, a deep third-person POV where Phil’s emotions and reactions would be more deeply plumbed?
Form follows function. Stories dictate the voice. I tried to tell this one in precisely the POV you describe, including a long Monty Pythonian opening scene where Phil and the tow truck driver have a conversation of rapidly increasing absurdity, but the results were ghastly; I realized that this was the kind of tale that needed to be a thundering drumbeat of injustices, in as brief an interval as possible, and that left little room to give Phil the necessary personal agency.
You’ve said that the way to make readers care about your characters was to “Make the characters hurt unnecessarily. Make them harder on themselves than they have to be. Make them fail at some elemental element of human interaction. Make them less than fully competent in at least one way.” Phil doesn’t seem to fit this mold, but I still cringed for him. Why?
Because in this particular case, when you take away everything that makes Phil a highly specific person who collects stamps and watches Law & Order: SVU and has a trick knee, he becomes an everyman, and your own point of view intrudes. Neato-keen, huh?
I kind of wished you made Phil a Mr.-Shnodblatt-type character. A little schadenfreude to ease the pain of watching his travails.
So readers know what you’re talking about, “Mr. Shnodblatt” is my name for a real-life son-of-a-bitch who I had to deal with on one very bad day working retail over a quarter of a century ago. I don’t endorse what I did to him, but yes, one possible approach to this story would have been to make Phil deserve everything that happened to him. If that helps you, please make him a total piece of crap, in your head. In the meantime, I offer this link to the Saga of Mr. Shnodblatt—tinyurl.com/shnodblatt—as I told it some time ago.
Any new projects you want to tell us about?
I’ll point out a certain story appearing in Nightmare’s May 2014 issue: “In the Temple of Celestial Pleasures,” which is extremely nasty. Less nasty: the latest volume of my middle-grade series about the adventures of a very strange young boy named Gustav Gloom, Gustav Gloom and the Cryptic Carousel, coming out in August. Prime Books just published Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories. I am working on a number of other projects that are not yet ready for big reveals, but those reveals are coming.
Spread the word!