The Author’s Lounge, conjuring up images of a quiet, darkened room with antiquated and perhaps slightly seedy, overstuffed furniture and hushed voices, sounds like a refuge for contemplation. When asked to contribute, I was thrilled. Contemplation is something I do. Even so, there is nothing so contemplative an activity as rehabilitating a twenty-five-year-old boat. I had built the skin-and-stick kayak from a kit while my son was in his early adolescence. Once completed and he discovered that I was unwilling and the boat unable to attempt an Eskimo roll, he lost interest in it. Puberty might have had something to do with it, as well. I have seldom used the boat since.
I do not know what caused me to take it up again—perhaps a desire to begin to make right what has been left undone. I have been washing, replacing, fixing, and redesigning for months now. One needs to be “in the moment” while making sure the glue sticks to all the right parts and not to all those other parts, while careful measuring straps to replace those shrunk by the heat of an Alabama summer, and while aligning the stringers which age have left without markers. Even so, it allows the mind to contemplate.
As a teller of lies (what fiction is, after all), one would think I had few restraints on the characters of my own invention. It is not so. All the characters I have ginned up over the last eight years while writing the series, Old Men and Infidels (Outland Exile (2015), Exiles’ Escape (2017), and Malila of the Scorch (2018)) have demanded their just due. My first two characters, Jesse and Malila, appeared nearly simultaneously and fully formed before scampering up my arms and into my head, there to live rent-free for the next five years. Many of the peculiarities of Malila Chiu seemed to come in an instant: blue-eyed with a drift of freckles, Occi-Oriental, with a foul mouth and a hefty dose of entitlement. She is not entirely likable. Jesse shows up in the middle of the night on page 50, merely as a voice and a knife at Malila’s throat. Come the dawn, he is revealed to be a huge, crude, disfigured, white-haired, barbarous, and perhaps the best thing to happen to Malila for which she never knew to hope. Jesse, thus, is also not terribly likable at first, either. He ties her up, hits her when she is bound, violates her privacy, is demanding, inexorable, ruthless, and merciful.
Jesse acquired his characteristics for me over time. He is only slightly older than I am—although I am catching up. Malila has never met anyone older than thirty-nine years. Thus, Jesse is always looking younger to the reader than his 76 years (because he ages very slowly), even as he seems immeasurably old to Malila. I was advised several times to make Jesse a “grandfather-mentor” for Malila by my beta readers. I chose not. From the onset, I wanted to explore the idea of “middle-age,” that great expanse of people’s lives from their mid-thirties to some undefined (or frequently redefined) marker for agedness. These two are both “middle-aged” in their respective cultures, despite their age difference of sixty years.
I chose to make them lovers. It appears that is the only venue left in this society where intellectual, moral, and sexual equality is allowed. Our enlightened age always presumes an asymmetrical but equitable relationship to be abusive. Teachers mislead students to their own agenda. Parents are dictatorial even as they are incompetent. Great leaders all have secret vices while spouting virtues. Heroes all have their Kryptonite. It seems that only in the realm of affection, where weapons are laid aside, defenses are lowered, and blushing eschewed that we as a society allow the possibility of an equality of souls. I am not fighting that; merely using it.
Malila, for her part, can be forgiven. She doesn’t know any better. Jesse is definitely a bit of a one-off, not just for her but for Jesse’s own beleaguered America of the 22nd Century, as well. Captive for weeks as they travel through a devastated upper Midwest, Malila expects Jesse to act as she has been told old people should act: a little dotty, incompetent, incontinent, and servile. When Jesse breaks the mold, easily thwarting all her escape attempts, rescuing her from herself and helping her become a better person, Malila, ignoring convention, tries to use sex
, the usual item of exchange in her utopian homeland , to gain a footing in the old man’s regard. Jesse refuses and Malila, after her dismay, begins to see real love in the “pale-gray eyes of the old man.” Even so, their romance is a bumpy one.
Jesse’s road to considering Malila a love partner is more problematic. Jesse has children Malila’s age. He is old-fashioned even for his own society and very much a loner because of his past mistakes. As the “first of the old ones,” Jesse is daily breaking new ground even as he tries to survive souvenir vendettas of the past. Accomplished, self-sufficient, and acutely aware of his own shortcomings as a man and a believer, he hesitates to follow his yearnings for a new love. Malila’s bravery, foolish bravery eventually demands he see her as a love partner.
Malila and Jesse remain two of my favorite characters, but I thought it ungenerous of me to call them out for my new series, “The Silence and the Gods.” The two have done yeoman work for me and deserve their “happily ever after.” They will make a curtain call at the end of the next trilogy.
Currently, I am contemplating a new villain. The care and feeding of a good serviceable villain is not to be done lightly.
You can get the books of Old Men and Infidels at:
Exiles’ Escape; https://amzn.to/2DmVSaC
Exiles’ Escape; https://amzn.to/2W3vQzB
Malila of the Scorch; https://amzn.to/2ZepmQG