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How I Came to Hell

Any writer who, midway through his publishing career, makes his way to Hell, the straight way of his life having been lost, must go there in the footsteps of Dante Alighieri and his man Virgil. I first read Inferno on the balcony of my room at the Metropole Hotel in Saigon in 1971. It was the splendidly odd translation of Dorothy Sayers, appropriate, I thought, since she commenced it underground during the Blitz. The horizon before me at night crackled in that season, and it was hard to say whether it was thunder or bombs.

I was struck by the celebrity culture of Hell. Dante filled the place with the famous, from history and from his own time. It has always been thus: celebs live lives writ large, and since their sins are the common human ones, regular folks’ similar sins seem loftier somehow, part of a larger cosmos. On the balcony of the Metropole, I pondered the contemporary cast bound for or recently off to the fires: Dick Nixon and Spiro Agnew, William Calley and Charlie Manson, Joplin and Hendrix and Morrison, Brezhnev and Mao. Heavy on the seventh and eighth circles. All of this was the first seeding of my own vision of Hell.

And then, much later, the 21st century happened. The inspiration of most writers is in some way a response to the zeitgeist. The political wars of the 20th century had quickly turned into religious wars in the new millennium. And it struck me that every human being who has ever walked the face of the earth has had millions and millions of others who devoutly expected that person to end up in Hell. I thought: okay, everyone’s right. And I knew I would overstuff the underworld in a novel to capture this present state of things.

But fiction is built on character. And that most crucial novelistic inspiration had to wait for a few years. In 2005 I wrote a screenplay for Robert Redford. He wanted to play an aging TV network anchorman. I got the job and for research hung out for a while with Peter Jennings and Brian Williams. That screenplay was my ninth for hire in twelve years, and though they were greatly admired, which kept me getting hired, not one of them has found its way to the screen. I’ve been in Development Hell for more than a decade. But this last time I learned a great deal about network anchors, and Hatcher McCord, the anchorman for The Evening News from Hell, started talking to me. And—crucial for fiction—he spoke to me of his yearning: to find out why he was there, to figure out, indeed, who he had been in life, who he was now. Fiction is the art form of human yearning, and Hatcher presented me with the nearly universal yearning in characters in literary fiction—the yearning for a self, for an identity, for a place in the universe. After that, I just had fun.

2 Responses to “How I Came to Hell”

  1. Winslow says:

    What you say here and write in your book (‘From Where You Dream’) about yearning – and equally important, about how that yearning manifests itself in terms of sensual experience and details – is one of the most profound insights into the writing and workings of fiction that I have yet to come across.
    It is a struggle to identify the right yearning in characters and then to put that to work, but that very struggle has been immensely useful in focusing and guiding and informing my own efforts in this difficult art form.
    I have found that the specific yearnings you cite in the book – for self, identity, a place in the universe/world, connection to the other, meaning and relevance, the truth – somewhat difficult to get my arms and mind around, but I suppose that is the nature of the beast. (
    I often wonder: Does one have to be fully in touch with one’s own yearning in order to grasp or create the yearning of another and, also, to avoid projecting one’s own yearning, as well as one might understand it, onto one’s characters? Or are we all yearning for more or less the same things and is the trick, therefore, to hone in one particular aspect of it and mine it for the sake of one’s fiction? In other words, write about what we know (to coin a phrase)?
    The yearnings that make literary fiction work are more universal and existential – more psychoanalytic, I would venture to say – than those driving the simpler characters appearing in genre fiction. Many books about writing fiction mention the importance of desire, and the obstacles to that desire, but this desire is always described as being directed at a girl/boy, the solution to a crime or other problem, or some other external object.
    In any case, I do enjoy reading your books and, dare I say it, yearn to read them all.

  2. C Y Li says:

    You’ve just spoken the universal truth about great fictions. (Now I get why your works were so affecting; but I still don’t quite get how you pulled in view such depth of emotions telling someone else’s truth.)

    CY Li

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