Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Thank you for Not Killing Elvis."

     The origin of the novel Shady Neighbors by Thom Powell began long before the idea of writing this book ever occurred to me.  I always lived in cities and suburbs, but always felt drawn to the woods for relaxation and recreation.  I finally made the move from Portland to rural Clackamas County in the late 1980’s. During this time, I used the bigfoot phenomenon every year in my science classroom as an example of pseudoscience.   Unbeknownst to me, I relocated to the county with the most bigfoot sightings in the state, and it wasn’t long before I met people who were claiming sightings that they had never reported to any website.  
     The first one was Bill Reed, a neighbor who described a vivid encounter near Bagby Hot Spring in the Mount Hood National Forest.  Later, I noticed a sign on a bulletin board outside the nearby county store advertising for sighting reports. I decided to initiate an informal scientific investigation of my own.  By responding to this advertisement, I met local Estacada researcher Frank Kaneaster, who generously shared with me the results of his decade-long information gathering effort.
     Meanwhile, emerging computer and internet technologies in the early 1990’s paved the way for a vast increase in available information on every subject imaginable, including bigfoot.  In fact, no subject seems to have benefitted more from internet technologies than that dubious pursuit we call ‘bigfoot research.’ 
     By 1998, slick search engines like Netscape Navigator enabled me to use the internet to gather information on the use of trail cameras in my quest for answers to the bigfoot mystery.  In my search for bigfoot hotspots, I aligned myself with the Bigfoot Field Research Organization shortly after its formation.  It was there that I noticed an amazing consistency to the admittedly unverifiable sighting reports.  It became increasingly clear from a purely statistical point of view that the phenomenon had some basis in reality. The camera work I conducted never produced the high quality photographic data I sought, but it did put me in touch with people and places where bigfoot activity happened on a very consistent basis. To my surprise, many of those places were near my own home.
     By 2001, I had accumulated so much unique and sometimes surprising information that it seemed like a good idea to put it all down in a book, even if nobody ever read it.  At the time, the field of sasquatch research was dominated by strong personalities who advocated the simplistic concept that wild apes were at the heart of the bigfoot phenomenon.  The bigfoot subject, even back then, was saturated with books that were very uniform nature: dry litanies of sighting reports that went on and on with very little insight or interpretation.  
     There were a few exceptions. Kewaunee Lapseritis, in Wasington,  Peter Guitilla in California, and Robert W. Morgan, in Ohio published books that suggested a very different interpretation of the sasquatch phenomenon.  These books were dismissed by the armchair researchers of the time as rants from the lunatic fringe.   It didn’t help that one particularly strong personality, Erik Beckjord, seemed to be doing everything in his power to foster internecine squabbling within the ‘bigfoot community.’.   Beckjord had many unique insights but his contentious personality marginalized, even invalidated his contributions to field research.  Guys like Henry Franzoni who had just as much insight and experience as anyone were keeping a very low profile during this time when the actual research took a back seat to clashes of titanic egos.
     Even while I was noticing strange events like cameras being dismantled, ultrasound, and telepathic contacts, Beckjord’s contentious personality had almost singlehandedly rendered ‘paranormal’ into a dirty word. To me, this represented a golden opportunity. It meant that the bigfoot field was still wide open for a certain revisionism if I could only articulate these new ideas more tactfully than Beckjord.  In The Locals, I undertook to bring a bunch of new ideas to light, even though they  were not really that new to other experienced but low-profile researchers like Franzoni and Lapseritis.
         Like most scientific ideas that break with the accepted dogma,  The Locals was not well received when it was published in 2003.  It didn’t help that a few other books appeared at the same time that claimed to thoroughly debunk the phenomenon. In the face of strong public skepticism,  The Locals was not widely read when it was released. The fact that it was well-written and featured many new sighting reports, rather than the familiar Bluff Creek, Ape Canyon, Albert Ostman stuff, meant that it did slowly but steadily find favor with those who were looking for new information and new ideas.
      As bigfoot field research steadily increased between 2000 and 2010, a growing number of researchers were gathering sightings and even personal experiences that contradicted the conventional wisdom that sasquatches were apes. As the thinking changed, The Locals was right there to bridge the gap between the now untenable position that bigfoots were apes and the even more troubling view that sasquatches may bear some kind of connection to extraterrestrial matters.
     To this extent, it is often said that The Locals revolutionized sasquatch research.  While this may be true, this quiet revolution occurred only within the insular and inbred world of ‘bigfoot research.’ What The Locals did not do was break out of that realm to gain any kind of wider audience outside the small world of bigfoot researchers.  The bigfoot topic just wasn't of interest to a wider public.
     Beginning in 2007, a fictional story began to coalesce in my mind that might serve to advocate for the genuine existence of sasquatch creatures in a way that was not as tedious to read as the typical non-fiction bigfoot book.  People like a story, and a good story can be powerful medicine if it entertains the reader while it also informs them.  There are already many fictional stories with a bigfoot theme,  but most of them rely heavily on weaponry and violent encounters with hairy monsters to make their plots interesting. It seemed that there was still a wide open niche for a different kind of bigfoot story that portrayed bigfoot in a more honest, less sensational manner.  But the story also had to be good.
     Shady Neighbors is my attempt to build the same kind of bridge in the world of bigfoot fiction that The Locals built in the realm of non-fiction bigfoot books. It’s kind of an ambitious goal: to construct a plot that speaks to the true nature of the phenomenon, but one that might also find favor among those who never had any interest in the whole bigfoot thing.
     In practical terms, presenting the subject to a wider audience means first ridiculing it, because, face it, that’s the overwhelming tendency of the general public when first confronted with the bigfoot topic. Later in the story, one can take things in a different direction, once the stroy has validated the readers' initial tendency to think of bigfoot as baloney.  You construct a straw man, only to tear it apart, but you do it amidst other plot twists.  Too much focus on the bigfoot angle alone is a fatal error.  The tale has to be balanced and varied. Something else has to happen, lest the book be seen as singular in focus, doing nothing but presenting the hackneyed theme that bigfoots are real. 
      That’s the basic idea behind Shady Neighbors: present a user-friendly concept of bigfoot that is accessible to a wider audience. Start with a main character who is a skeptic and a non-believer.  Drag him or her, kicking and screaming, into a wider realization that their own scientific concept of reality is incomplete and flawed. Work in some of the new information that we have gained through serious study of habituation cases.  Raise some of the new ideas in bigfoot research but make them  work as plot twists.  One interesting item that I gleaned from habituation cases was the fact that the children of rural families are the often first ones to become aware of the bigfoot creatures that  inhabit the surrounding woods.  Now there’s an idea that a writer can have some fun with! 
     But rule number one must remain: Don’t oversell bigfoot.   The book has to be about something else.  The shelves are already full of bigfoot stories that fail to explore themes of relevance to a wider audience.  Greed, jealousy, pettiness, ambition, and love are emotions and motivations that resonate with everyone. Beyond that, cultural touchstones like, popular music, sports, television, cell phones, classrooms, and science ought to have a place in any literary effort that is intended to find favor in a wider readership.
     Stitching all these other elements together into a coherent plot containing life lessons for all of us really was the challenge I took on.  As a matter of necessity, bigfoot took a back seat in this story for the sake of the plot and the readership, but also because, I feel that is the true nature of the phenomenon.  Even when they are there, don’t expect a bigfoot to step out of the shadows and shake your hand. The big reason they’ve been so hard to scientifically verify for so long is that they do such a wonderful job of keeping to the shadows.  To portray the phenomenon any other way, then, would just be untrue.
     One final trick that makes fictional plots more vivid and realistic is to put real place names into the story.  Experienced fiction writers also know that this tactic is employed by less experienced fiction writers (such as myself) who are challenged by the daunting task of creating all those scenes and characters from pure imagination. This is a bit of a literary short-cut, but it can have the benefit of creating interest in the real places that bear these same names.  In the case of Shady Neighbors,  the places used are all located in an economically depressed area that could probably use a little more recognition of its unique attributes. In truth, the place names I used are also places where the bigfoot phenomenon really does exist, even while it remains in the shadows.  And, after reading the story, if you decide to go find Squaw Meadow and see what’s really there, you won’t be disappointed, even if a bigfoot doesn’t step out of the shadows to greet you. If you go there, say, ten separate times, I’d bet something unusual will happen that will leave you wondering for a long time.  It’s a great spot.
      Which brings us to phrase used to entitle of this blog post. A few reviews of Shady Neighbors have surfaced so far, but my favorite comment was one posted on my Facebook wall so I used it for the title of this blog post.
      Writing a book of any kind is a tedious process but the fun of writing fiction is that you can create any character or situation you want.  In fiction writing, you are not hamstrung by fact or truth.  It should work for the plot or it doesn’t belong in the story, but that still leaves the author with considerable leeway.  You own the characters like slaves. You can turn a character into a transvestite or an axe-murderer and there’s nothing they can do about it.  If I want to kill Elvis, I will. But I didn’t, and one particular reader of Shady Neighbors was grateful that I didn’t, even though I could have.  Yep, in this story, Elvis lives.
     If you don’t get the joke, it’s because you haven’t read Shady Neighbors yet.