Friday, September 2, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 3

Believe it or not, I’ve always had a hard time writing school stories, even when I was in school. I’d throw in a classroom scene here or there, but there was nothing especially scholastic about it—my characters could have been talking on a street corner as easily as in a classroom or a hallway. I never had any really good ideas for stories that could go on in a school, perhaps because I regarded school as a place to keep my head down so no one would notice me writing. But when you write stories about American teenagers, you have to deal with school somehow—either explain what they’re doing (or not doing) about their education, or why education is not a factor. Mention their schooling or homeschooling, or set your story in a post-apocalyptic world where all the schools have burned.

Or, in my case, set your story during summer vacation and have your characters be really weird people.

This chapter introduces the Hawkins Foundation, a scholarship program that will become very, very important in the lives of Rae, Trevor, and my other characters. It’s a lot more than an honors program, as you can see, and it’s a bit more than a school for superkids, too—but we’ll get to that later. For now, I’ll content myself with a little behind-the-scenes anecdote: in the first draft of this novel, Rae and Trevor were high-school seniors and going off to college in the next book, where they would meet Soleil, Tammy, and all these other characters. Then their ages got dialed back to sixteen, but I still needed the Walker University tunnels and other features, so the summer program was created and I got my main cast all together in the first "season."

This chapter also gives us our first glimpse of Rae’s family in the form of her remembered argument with her father. Rae’s parents will not be terribly present in these stories, but the fact that she has a family and is mostly estranged from it will be a big part of her character. Masks is very much about people building substitute families—Trevor and Rae, Golem and Moon, Soleil and Tammy, and eventually others as well—and so there’s some groundwork for that going in here. Masks are the kind of people who don’t quite fit in with normal life, and so they tend not to fit in with normal families, either. They build their own, eventually, and because these masks are young, they’re just starting that process.

Brief random notes on Rae’s new friends at Walker University …

1. Tammy is based on a real person, who is actually named Tammy and dates from when I used to randomly write my friends into my fiction, usually because they asked me to. The fictional Tammy is considerably more perky than the real Tammy, but no less loud and random (watch for the phrase “invisible clowns” in a later chapter). The real Tammy came up with the line about grubbies, partly as an in-joke—she is something of a fashion plate, while I live my life in black T-shirts and tatty jeans. I don’t think she’s ever had the bad grace or cluelessness to suggest I “change out of grubbies” when I’m wearing my favorite outfit, but she might have done it at sixteen, and that’s all that matters to me.

2. Soleil is also based on a real person, although she’s departed much more from her original. I knew a girl in high school who happened to look exactly like Snow White and who had, if not the wickedest sense of humor I’ve ever encountered, something very close. She was brilliant, sarcastic, and inclined to drum her fingertips together and say “Excellent,” in the manner of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. To the best of my knowledge, she was not a were-cat, but I’m not sure she’d tell me if she were. Her name was not Soleil. I wish to state for posterity that Soleil Faulkner is much meaner than the person she’s based on. She just turned out that way—another case of my characters having minds of their own.

3. Mike Glass is not directly based on anyone I know. Probably. In my head, he looks like a teenage Michael Chabon, and I’ve never been able to understand why. Keep an eye on him; he is not your average RA.

4. Robert Paine Hawkins will get his moment in the sun before the book is out, so I won’t spoil too much here … except to say that his name still makes me laugh. Years ago, I was a fan of a comic book called Marvel: The Lost Generation, which was all about a bunch of Marvel superheroes who lived and died before the ones we know (Spider-Man, the X-Men, etc.) became active. My favorite character in that comic was a gruff and cunning cape-and-gadgets guy named the Black Fox, who died in the first issue (not that that kept him out of the story, which was told in reverse chronological order—it’s complicated). His real name was Robert (Bob) Paine. The name “Black Fox” triggered my auditory memory, which is excellent but random. I have accidentally memorized hundreds of hours of random noise, especially music and dialogue tracks from movies. And I can’t read the phrase “black fox” without hearing this song from The Court Jester, one of my favorite movies as a child:

So now Bob Paine was inextricably linked in my head with Danny Kaye’s character, Hubert Hawkins (who was not actually the Black Fox, but the hero of the film, so there). After that I really wanted to name a character Robert Paine Hawkins, and when I needed to name a scholarship foundation, the name surfaced. My Hawkins doesn’t actually have anything to do with either of his inspirations—he’s just named that to make me smile and because I wanted a mysterious old man with three names. And no, he is not secretly a retired superhero named the Black Fox, although he does have a secret or two.

And then we have the program-within-the-program, the alpha track. This came out of a true story, more or less. I was a major academic overachiever as a kid, top of the class in everything, even the subjects I hated—which were pretty much all math. I was good at math; I just didn’t enjoy it at all. However, I did two years in junior high in an annual competition called Math Olympics, mostly because the practices got me out of P.E. The first year I took top honors in the logic-problem category, but in the second year I got seriously skunked by a boy about half my size—and the fact that it was a boy was especially irritating; logic was where young male math geniuses traditionally foundered in that competition. A few months later, I entered high school as a freshman and found myself in an English class whose teacher asked each student to bring in an object that introduced him or her. I brought in a small wire-frame horse I’d made from random craft supplies, mostly because I wouldn’t have time to read an entire short story. And a runty boy in the front row brought in a logic medal from last year’s Math Olympics. My nemesis and I had landed in the same high school. I whispered to the girl next to me, asking who this brat was, and she whispered back, “Oh, that’s ___. You know, the freshman who’s taking calculus?”

I was on track to take calculus as a senior. Suddenly I didn’t feel quite so bad about getting skunked, though I did feel pretty small all of a sudden. I think that’s where the alpha track came from—the idea of a high achiever discovering a level of achievement that’s completely impossible for him or her. I let Calculus Boy go academically unmolested, mostly because I still hated math no matter how good I was at it, but I think that if he’d been a writing prodigy, I would have set my sights on proving I was better than he was. That’s just who I was at fifteen. Anyway, that’s where Rae’s reaction comes from—and as you’ll see, it will get her in lots and lots of trouble.

This chapter’s track is the only Hoobastank song I like, “Right Before Your Eyes.” I decided when I first heard it that it was a great theme for the dramatic changes Rae goes through in Masks, and it eventually became a kind of theme song for her. I am not responsible for the Spider-Man fan video, although it does sort of rock. 

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