Friday, October 7, 2011

MASKS Commentary Track: Chapter 12

This chapter goes all the way back to one of the stories that got me into graduate school. Seriously.

In 2006, I got an interesting offer from the scholarship foundation that had paid my tuition at USC. They would pay for me to get a master’s degree as well as a bachelor’s—if I could find a California university that would accept me into a master’s program within the next, oh, three months. There followed a completely insane period of midnight research, intensive soul-searching, and frantic test-taking. I registered on Monday for the Graduate Record Examination (like the SAT, but for grad school) and took the test that Friday. My official CD-ROM containing my official test-prep software didn’t arrive until after I’d taken the exam. (Luckily I’m one of those people who naturally test well—yes, we exist, and yes, I agree it’s unfair.) But the only part of the application process that genuinely worried me—not the tests, not the transcripts, not the thousand-and-one forms—was the writing sample. To get into a master’s program in writing, I had to submit professional-quality writing in my intended genre. Because I wanted to major in fiction writing, that meant short stories or a section of a novel.

I can bluff my way through a test. I can bluff my way through an awful lot of bureaucracy, and I can sweet-talk department secretaries until the cows come home. But you can’t con a writing sample like you can con a department, and I didn’t have time to write something especially for the application. I had to pull stories out of my files and polish them up in the hope that they would be judged worthy, and I knew the stories would receive more scrutiny than any other part of my application. Since Masks was the largest, richest, most complex thing I’d ever written, that meant picking the best Masks chapters.

One of those chapters happened to be about the Masked Rider—a short story told in terms of a stack of comic books read by a young boy. Stories from different eras of comics had wildly different takes on the Rider, and the few commonalities between the different mini-episodes explored his character in ways I found interesting. I don’t remember all the details I stuffed in there now, but I do recall that the Teddy Roosevelt sequence also included a cameo by Annie Oakley and a reference to the fact that the Masked Rider limps when he walks, which is why he so rarely gets off the horse. He tells Oakley that he’s had the limp all his life, but it got worse after the Battle of Gettysburg. Make of that what you will …

Oh, and the whole thing was inspired by this letter which I read reprinted in some random old book. The chance to combine T.R. with Buffalo Bill Cody and superheroes was just too good to pass up. And I was quite astonished when I actually got into the program ... especially when I met my fellow students and realized I was almost always going to be the only "genre fiction" writer in any class. It makes me wonder sometimes what the admissions committee saw in my ghost cowboy.

Then we come to Rae’s confrontation with Mike. I’ve heard from readers with two different interpretations of why Rae says these things to him. Some people seem to think that she’s conning him, crying crocodile tears to get him to back off and leave Trevor undiscovered. Certainly the fact that she starts crying so suddenly indicates to me that she’s faking it, at least a little. But I’m mostly in the other camp—I think she genuinely is upset about the way the alpha-track kids are privileged over the normal kids, and she draws on real feelings to scare Mike off here.

Part of that, I’m sure, comes from my own upbringing and the way it worked into Rae’s character. I spent a goodly portion of my childhood in one of the richest counties in the United States—but in one of the less affluent parts of that county. I went to private religious schools, where I was usually on the low end of the socioeconomic scale. My family wasn’t on food stamps or anything, but I was the kid who wore K-Mart clearance clothing instead of name brands, the one who never bought hot lunches because they were too expensive. I was the scruffy one, the one from the blue-collar hometown, and at least among girls, it didn’t matter that I was a probably-certifiable genius—I just never measured up to their standards.

It didn’t matter at first, but as I got older and met classmates who had access to pricey private tutors and extensive test-prep programs, I felt like I had to work twice as hard at my studies to overtake the kids who were far above me on the social ladder. I had to compete with people who, in my mind, got to cheat—so I competed extra hard. I was a straight-A student, the girl who won more academic honors than she could carry, and that was my ammunition in the class wars. “What I did over the summer” essays, for my classmates, were about vacations to far-off places; I would go to the public library, pick a random subject I didn’t know much about, and read every book in that section until I was satisfied. I was the classroom expert on everything from carousel-horse carving to Aztec human sacrifice. It helped that I genuinely enjoyed learning, but when my classmates complained that I blew the curve on tests, I apologized for spoiling their day—and then went and studied even harder for the next test, because unlike them, I couldn’t afford to get a B.

Now, Rae comes from a relatively wealthy family, what with her father being a well-known televangelist, so I applied my class anxiety to her dealings with superpowered heroes. I met enough kids growing up who thought their parents’ money made them my natural superiors that I enjoyed blacking bullies’ eyes; considering Rae’s history with bullies, it only made sense that she’d attack powers snobs with the same ferocity. And so she uses her one real advantage—her intellect—to keep up with the superhuman Joneses. I think she does pretty well.

And then there’s Rae’s missing friend. She’s based on a true story, as it happens, but I think she deserves a blog entry of her own. Maybe someday soon …

This week’s soundtrack is Johnny Cash’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On Up the Road”, one of the songs I use as the Masked Rider’s theme. (The other is, of all things, Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Pony Man.” I never said I was sane, guys!)

By the way, guys, time's running out to download "Talisman," the short story I wrote in 48 hours to raise money for some needy kids. I need to actually buy the stuff for them, so the sale will be closed and the story taken down on Sunday night. I have no plans to reprint "Talisman" in any future collections, so if you want to know what Trevor was doing in the middle of the Night Lords' War, or you want to meet his mentor face-to-face, or you just want a bonus Masks fix for this week, you have until the end of the weekend to pony up a whole two dollars for a story twice as long as a typical Masks chapter. All proceeds go directly to buy much-needed school supplies for the children of a needy local family ... who, by the way, don't know yet that I'm doing this, because the teacher who told me about them is going to surprise them with the goodies. :)

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