The text dings me awake. I look at the message on my phone.
Who is this?
It’s from him. The guy with the made-up author name.
I stare at my phone and it doesn’t make sense. It’s almost seven in the morning and it’s November 29.
I was literally about to do something and now boom it’s a new day.
Why are there huge chunks of my memory that just go blank? As if I’m being shut out—
Or maybe turned off. Like a computer.
I let out a breath. I was hoping that if this did happen, if I did actually wake up and find it was a new day, I could claim that my big twist reveal was all some dream or fantasy. But the text from Travis Thrasher makes it clear that I’m either still in that dream or that this is a very real nightmare for me.
I think about texting him back, but decide that I’m going to do something very old-fashioned: I’m going to go out and find his office and knock on his door. Then I can see if I’ve lost my mind or if he lost his by creating someone like me.
I kill time by drinking several cups of coffee.
Of course you do, Nolan. Characters love to drink, don’t they? They drink coffee and alcohol, and then they put alcohol in their coffee. It’s part of the life of a character.
I open my fridge to make some breakfast, but I don’t find anything inside it. I mean—there’s almost nothing. Three bottles of beer, some milk that looks suspicious, some creamer.
All stuff you drink. Of course the milk is spoiled. So predictable.
I just can’t believe there’s no food. I know I went to the grocery store sometime recently. I think. Right? I think I’ve eaten something in the apartment in the last few days. Or maybe I’ve just summed it up in a sentence, but haven’t really actually eaten food. I don’t know.
Writing out a paragraph description of a character eating breakfast? Nope. That would get cut.
Part of me almost can hear the voice inside my head that I’m talking to. Almost.
Why no food? It doesn’t make sense.
When I look back in the fridge, I realize there are a few more items. Items that just magically appeared out of nowhere. Let’s see.
Come on . . . Get this over with.
I can take my time with breakfast. I don’t want to go visit the author too soon, do I?
There’s a carton of Eggland’s Best large eggs, a package of Land O Lakes unsalted butter, and some Sargento 4 State shredded cheddar cheese. I take out all of these and then grab three of the eighteen eggs, gently cracking them with one hand and gracefully tossing the shells in the sink.
Dear Lord this is terrible. Adverbs? Really? Gently cracking? This prose is gently cracking.
I laugh as I open the pantry and find the can of La Costena pickled jalapenos and the Mission super soft flour tortillas.
So very descriptive. Are you trying to be funny?
Soon I’m standing eating my breakfast burrito and watching the scrambled eggs starting to spill out onto the ground.
Where’s your dog? You need a dog.
I guess someone should have added a trusty man’s best friend a long time ago. Now it would just seem wrong.
Just as I’m about to say something with interior monologue, I realize I can’t. It’s almost as if it’s been shut off. I can share my thoughts, but not those inner thoughts that come out with italics. For some reason, it feels like someone else is using my self-talk. Shouldn’t that be off limits?
No way. Nothing is off limits here, Nolan. And cool way to talk about interior monologue. I love it. If we lost someone with the boring description of a breakfast burrito, then they lost out on the creativity of me hijacking your inner discourse.
“Get out of my head,” I say out loud.
Is there any other way to say something? In quiet?
I’m telling myself to shut up. Or I’m telling my writer to shut up. So do I have to actually go see him in person to talk to him? For him to hear me? For us to have a two-way conversation?
Most certainly, Nolan. It will make for a far more interesting scene. We’re coming to an end pretty soon. Hope you enjoyed that very yummy breakfast.
I look around the kitchen but don’t see the burrito anymore. Nor do I see any of the food that I used to make it. I do however see a coffee mug on the counter. I take a sip, then look next to the Keurig and see the bottle of Baileys.
I guess this will be my real breakfast. I sure need it.
Before I leave the apartment, I look around at the bare space, so blank, like a canvas that’s simply been framed with an understated color.
Where are all the pictures? Photos of others, photos of a life?
Maybe if that was a decorating choice, it would be acceptable. But this is not some minimalistic design I’m going with. It looks like everything has been hobbled together at the last minute without much thought.
Like my life.
“At least I’ve got my interior monologue back,” I say. “My inner mojo.”
One of the biggest problems I have had all month is the lack of memory, the absence of a history, a barebone backstory.
Even if it’s never put down on the page, a character needs to have a past. The writer must create with this knowledge close at hand.
I imagine it looks like an iceberg with 90% of its mass unseen underwater. It should be the same for that people we create.
Whatever. Singular, plural. I get it. We get it. You get it.
David Bowie’s Low plays in my CD player. My 2007 Mazda CX-9 has seen better days, and I haven’t set up the ability for my iPhone to play through the stereo. I know it’s an easy thing to set up or hook up, but I’m fine with my Bose system. I burn a new disc every month to blast while I’m driving. I don’t remember buying this Bowie album
of course you don’t
but the case sits on the passenger seat next to me. I listen to a couple of the songs, but I’m not feeling it. The wrong mood. The soundtrack needs changing. The song needs to set the scene. Maybe not for the reader, but for the writer. I switch the disc since it’s a six-disc changer (and those used to be cool) and David Byrne’s “ahh!” greets me. Talking Heads’ Remain in Light starts to play.
For some reason I must have had Brian Eno on my mind. He produced both of these albums, just in case you don’t know and maybe slightly care. I put on track two.
“Lost my shape, trying to act casual
Can’t stop, I might end up in the hospital
Changing my shape, I feel like an accident
They’re back to explain their experience”
If I was writing a novel, I could never put all of this into the text due to legal reasons. Unless I was a personal friend of David Byrne or had written something the band loved. The frantic, frenetic sound matches the lyrics of the song, “Crosseyed and Painless.”
“I’m ready to leave, I push the fact in front of me
Facts lost, facts are never what they seem to be
There’s nothing there, no information left of any kind
Li-lifting my head, lo-lo-looking for the danger signs”
Ah, yes. This is my song.
“The lyrics discuss a paranoid and alienated man who feels he is stressed by his urban surroundings.”
So says Wikipedia. Thank you for that instant cut and paste definition.
As I get to Appleton
or should I just called it Batavia?
I turn up the volume. David Byrne is my life coach.
“Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts aren’t lazy and facts aren’t lame
Facts don’t come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Facts are nothing on the face of men”
Facts. I’ve seen so few of them lately.
Snap out of it and back to the fiction.
I decide to drive around a little more. Maybe I’m avoiding meeting with someone who I still don’t fully believe exists, someone I can’t fathom actually exists when I don’t. It’s like the expelled student avoiding the meeting with the principal.
As I park at the stone building, I’m wondering what a movie scene should sound like where I knock on the door of the guy who actually invented me. Should the scene be ominous and have some sort of brooding Cliff Martinez score behind it? Or maybe it should sorta sound like Nancy Wilson’s work in Sky Blue.
Um, that’s Vanilla Sky, and don’t you see how unoriginal your writer just so happens to be?
It’s weird to walk around feeling like each step needs to have a soundtrack scoring it.
I recall Nancy Wilson’s exquisite guitar-drenched anthem called “We Meet Again” which was the theme for Jerry Maguire. A personal favorite film.
His or yours?
Doesn’t matter if he’s saying how much Nancy’s theme for Jerry Maguire meant to him or if I’m saying how much it means to me. I hear the song playing.
“I know the language of your laugh. Tripping over circumstance. I know the story of your walk. I taste the sugar and the salt.”
The sugar and the salt.
And here I thought I would be hearing and listening to “Elevator Beat” from Vanilla Sky.
Maybe this story won’t end with me jumping to my death off a roof.
Crap. Sorry if I spoiled an ending. But seriously, you can’t spoil something that screws around with your head.
Thrasher’s office sits inside a building that looks a little like some kind of prison building from Shawshank Redemption. Tower Business Center. Batavia, Illinois. Not Appleton. There’s a record store across the street and I remember the write-up on The Books of Marvella series (lame-OH series name). There’s a Fascination Street Records in Appleton. Ah, how original. He only had to look outside his building to come up with an idea.
That’s called laziness.
I climb out of my car and walk to the entrance of the building, and I almost miss the vehicle a couple cars down from mine. When I spot it, I stop and then start examining it.
It’s a black Mazda CX-9, and it looks exactly the same. I spot broken passenger seat mirror.
Does mine have the same thing?
I’m not even going to bother to check. I’m sure they’re identical. Or practically identical. His Mazda just seems to have more nicks on it, and more noticeable flaws and features.
Facts. Not fiction but facts.
I open the door and enter the office building. This should be very interesting.
On the list of businesses on a board right as you walk inside, there’s a listing that says both his name and his publishing house. Seriously? How can a publishing house exist inside this prison-like office building? It’s actually quite swanky and retro inside, but still. Travis Thrasher as a tenant is fine but Lucas Lane Publishers? What have they published anyway?
I climb up the set of stairs and head to the office door on the corner before the hallway splits in two. Sure enough, his name is on the door. I knock. Laughing. I’d pinch myself but that’s corny and clichéd and actually I’m not sure if I’d feel anything.
There’s a slight delay and I think about taking off, but then I hear shuffling. The door opens and there he stands.
The first thing I notice are the eyes behind his glasses. They look tired. Serious. And a bit annoyed. He’s dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt.
Is this the writer writing about himself through written-out thoughts?
I don’t even try to make sense of that last question.
“Hi,” he says.
I see a large office full of books. A bookshelf, another, and another. His big desk with the computer and another monitor on it. Another desk full of. . . books. A corkboard full of random different things like photos and bumper stickers and quotes and magazine pages and snapshots. And more books.
“Are you Travis Thrasher?” I ask.
Of course he is and of course that’s a stupid question.
“Yeah,” he says.
He no longer looks bothered. He looks a little how I feel.
Bewildered. Baffled. Bewitched.
“I think we need to talk,” I say.
To him? To me? To us?
I don’t know how this is supposed to go. How it’s supposed to be told.
“Talk?” Travis says. “About what?”
“About me,” I tell him. “About your little story.”
“What story?” he asks.
He’s not a very convincing liar. I can tell his mind is going a million miles an hour and he’s trying to hold on to every thought.
“Your story this month. The character you’re writing about. The one called Nolan.”
“How do you know about that?” he asks.
The office smells like coffee. I just smile. Surely he has to know somewhere deep inside. Surely I resemble the guy he’s picturing deep inside.
I sorta resemble him.
“My name is Nolan. And this month has been really, really crazy.”
He doesn’t flinch nor does he look at me like I’m lying. Instead, he gives me a goofy sort of grin, nods and ushers me into his office. I hear the door shut behind me.
The strange thing is that this office—this space—feels familiar. The stranger thing is that he doesn’t doubt that I’m here. Travis doesn’t question why I’ve showed up.
“Have a seat,” he says.
I sit down in a dark wood chair across from his desk that doesn’t match anything just like the rest of the furniture.
“You know who I am?” I ask.
“Of course,” he says as he sits in his leather armchair. “You’re taller and better-looking than I thought you’d be.”
“I don’t look anything like you,” I say. “If that’s what you’re getting at.”
“Of course you don’t. I’m not blind.”
I laugh because this is kind of funny. The whole thing.
“I’ve been a bit lost this month,” I say.
“What a crazy month” he says. “The Cubs. Donald Trump.”
“So Trump really won? Along with the Cubs? I thought surely that was something you made up.”
“Truth is stranger than—you know.”
“Stranger than your wonderful writing experiment?”
He laughs and leans back in a chair that squeaks. “Mine? No—it’s not mine. It’s the world’s experiment. And experience. Someone came up with NanoWrimo so that you have motivation to write.”
“So all this . . . This has been part of that NanooNanoo thing? Did you really need motivation to write?”
“I joke and say every month for me is a NanoWrimo,” Travis says. “Not that I’m writing fiction. Lately I’ve been doing more collaborations. This was a fun outlet.”
“So how does your story end, Mr. Thrasher?”
“It’s a real name, by the way,” he says.
“Fine. A real name. Where’d mine come from?”
Of course, I already know. But the conversation we’re about to have is all between me myself and I.
“Christopher Nolan,” he says.
The chair I’m on feels loose, as if it might fall apart any second. I look at the legs and then back at him. I think he knows what I’m thinking.
Of course he knows. Because he’s thinking the same thing.
“You want to go get a beer?” I ask.
“Sure. I don’t have a boss to ask. But I hope people don’t see me talking to myself.”
I chuckle. “Ah—unreliable narrator humor.”
Picture an ordinary pub, any sort of pub set anywhere and decorated in Irish pubware, and that’s where we end up at. We sit at a table in the back. I guess the fewer people who can see him talking, the better. Since I’m not here.
Except you just ordered that Guinness, so . . .
“Where’d you come up with the idea for the story?” I ask.
“I have lots of ideas. Daily.”
“So where’d this one come from?”
“I was corresponding with a guy on Twitter. A writer named Tom Farr. Someone I know via the social networks. And he’d posted something about NanoWrimo, so I sent him some encouragement. What I hoped to be encouragement.”
“The Disney wish?” I ask. “The ‘if you wish upon a star?’”
“I was being honest. Telling him he could do it. And I was going to start Tweeting him story ideas when I came up with a really unique one.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
He looks at me and laughs.
I know but still need to ask. “How so?”
“I thought of a story about a guy who’s inside a NanoWrimo story and how he gets out.”
“Does he get out?” I ask. “Is this The Shawshank Redemption and do I have to crawl through a hundred yards of shit to get out?”
Travis bursts out laughing. “Yeah, that’s what I’d call most of the manuscript. A hundred yards of shit. But honestly, I don’t know how it ends for you. I just know that things are a bit better for him. He learns the truth.”
“Ala right now?” I ask.
“Can’t he change things? Can’t you?”
“Yeah,” Travis says. “But the goal has always been the same.”
“How far are you?” I ask.
“Last I looked, I was just over 36 thousand words.”
“That’s only two-third there,” I tell him.” And the month is practically over.”
“You know who’s going to be completely disappointed?” he asks.
“The hero might be sad,” I say.
“Is there a hero in the story?”
Ah, yes, we’re both being clever.
The writer drains his beer. It’s some fruity IPA thing I wouldn’t spend ten cents on.
“I need to know something,” I ask. “How do I get out of this?”
“That’s not the goal,” Travis says.
“Then what is?
“To finish. To–””
“Yeah, Yeah. Finishing something. So what about this and you and me?”
He shrugs. Those tired eyes say a lot.
“That was the point. To get you here.”
“And then what?” I ask.
He chuckles. “I don’t know.”
“You haven’t figured it out?”
He shakes his head. Then adds “I figured you’d be nicer.”
I laugh and so does he, but it’s a bit scary, this statement.
Shouldn’t my own writer want to keep me around? What if he gets bored with me? Or worse, what if he becomes downright annoyed?
Some strange, ominous, synth-sounding soundtrack begins to play in the background. It’s Tangerine Dream. Circa 1984. “Horizon” off the Poland album.
Of course I know this because Travis knows this. Because he just put the song on.
Is he listening to this right now at this very second while I’m thinking this?
My brain hurts.
“What do you want me to do?” I ask.
“Whatever you want.”
“But you’re the boss. The one in control.”
“I didn’t force you to come here and knock on my door and come on in,” Travis says. “You had a choice.”
“But you made that choice for me.”
“No. You made it.”
“I’m a character,” I state. “I’m made up. Right? I don’t feel like it—I feel real—but I also don’t know crap about my life and a lot of parts of me life seem a bit—”
“Forced?” he asks. “Like you’re trying to hard? Or like you’ve seen this scene before?”
“It’s not easy writing a book, Nolan.”
“Yet you’ve written over 45 books.”
“Published books,” he says with a mixture of pride and defiance. “I’ve written a whole lot more that will never be actually published.”
“So where are those stories?” I ask.
“In a file on my computer or zip drive. Or printed and sitting in my closet.”
“And nobody will ever read them, will they?”
He shakes his head and looks at his empty glass. “Probably not. But they served their purpose. They were practice. They helped me get to the next book I wrote.”
“What about this story? What about me?”
“I love the premise,” Travis says. “That’s the most interesting part of the process for me.”
He’s about to go to the bar to order another round, but I stop him for the moment.
“Look—just tell me the truth. Is this really happening?” I ask. “I mean—for you. Is this real? This right here. Or are you imagining this? Or writing it?”
“Good question,” he says.
“I’d love a good answer.”
“And I’d love a good beer.”
Crap. Another transition. Another pair of asterisks to separate time and space. What more did I learn, what more did we talk about? What happened? How’d I suddenly get back here in my car driving back home?
And holy crap am I not fit to drive. Thrasher got me drunk.
The rain pelts my windshield as one of the songs on the playlist Travis sent me begins to fill my SUV. Vangelis plays his synths in the way only he could. The maestro himself, the man behind the epic Chariots of Fire score. The sound that could only be Vangelis.
As the song starts, I hear a voice speaking.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.”
Suddenly I get goosebumps.
Are those real or imagined?
That voice . . .
“I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.”
I shake my head. And laugh. And curse. And feel the emotion glossing over my eyes.
“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
Lost in time.
Like tears in rain.
Like words on the page.
Like a deluge suddenly disappearing and becoming dry again.
The voice is from the dying replicant Roy Batty from Blade Runner. And just that alone is enough to make me get a weird “Isn’t it ironic?” quote from Alanis Morissette and also a déjà vu. But . . .
The guy who acted in that part is Rutger Hauer. The same actor who played John Ryder in The Hitcher.
This makes no sense, yet at the same time it kinda makes all the sense in the world. In this world existing simply in the form of words on the page or on the screen.
You’re not made of DNA, Nolan. You’re made up of vowels and consonants.
I just hope I don’t have a lot of adverbs inside of me, because I know those really are bad things. At least according to Stephen King.
In the dark shadows of midnight, passing through the secrets of Appleton, I wonder if Stephen King is real.
Maybe he’s made up. Maybe it’s the stories he wrote that really and truly exist.