Offstage Time, and This Weekend’s Research/Writing

I’m into some heavy research right now, trying to make some headway on a story of mine that ties together the lives of HG Wells, Moura Budberg, RH Bruce Lockhart, Constance Coolidge, Gorky, Stalin, a Malayan woman of the time named only Amai (Lockhart’s first “wife” if common-law marriage had applied to “natives” in the Empire), and many more figures, locked together with questions central to the later work of Wells, SF and nonfictional futurism alike.

(It’s a story I considered attempting at Clarion West, before going, but which I realized, after I’d arrived, I would have to research a lot, and which I knew was probably beyond my abilities at the time. However, I’m glad I was thinking about it then: I managed to pick up, at the University of Washington bookstore, I think it was, the newly-translated biography by Nina Berberova titled Moura: The Dangerous Life of Baroness Budberg.).

So anyway, blogging is going to be a bit scarce this weekend, as I tear through a few books I collected while considering taking on this project:

Not all of those books, mind: I’ve had Seven Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells since I was a kid–my dad gave it to me after buying it from the Library discards table–and I’ve already read all of Berberova as well as The Last Books of HG Wells and the short story thing, as well as lots of chunks of the others. But still, I intend to read the relevant parts of everything remaining this weekend, while drafting this story (working title “Moura” though this may change) as I go along.

I’m doing the research not so much because I’m obsessed with historical veracity, because no matter what I’m going to get things wrong. I’m trying to be faithful to the time and their lives, of course–that’s just basic respect–but I know I’m also taking liberties and that’s the nature of the beast, really. This isn’t truly a story about Wells, Lockhart, Moura, and the others, as much as it is a story about futurism, history, imagination, the mysteries of human nature, disease, and (maybe) love. Oh, and the nature of SF, if I can manage it, too.

No, I’m reading it for the color, the details. Lockhart’s account of his first real love scandal in Malaya has become much more useful now that I know what he wrote of it. The differing opinions of various authors on Moura Budberg’s status in Russia (cling-on? spy? something else?) and the clearer sense I have of her as a constant fabricator, lend a certain kind of thickening to the stew of the story. Details, details. Color and weirdness. The story of Budberg’s life, and of Well’s love for her, is much odder than you might imagine.

The interesting thing about this story is that, unlike my other featuring Wells (1), in this story Wells doesn’t actually appear much at all, as it is set some time after his death and it is not (ostensibly) an alternate history. He’s a focal character, but primarily his importance is communicated in his absence.

Which reminds me of an interesting post I ran across a few weeks ago. I was googling around for a link to give my students, to define “puff piece,” when I ran across a blog post which, while not really useful for that purpose, had an interesting series of observations regarding how it’s easier to miss something or someone when you don’t see them much. She cites a number of examples from media, especially TV, but the one that got my attention was Spike, from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series.

(And much as I love the series, and much as I actually though the Spike/Buffy liaison was handled relatively well in many ways, she has a point. I did kind of get tired of Spike once he was a major character; no matter what they did with him, I was hoping he’d just sort of go mad and wander off for a season before showing up again.)

For me, this is going to be an interesting experiment: how present and significant to the tale can I make a character who is already over a decade in the grave, yet whose ideas and fears and frustrations form the central philosophical and speculative thrust of the piece? This reminds me of how, at Clarion West, and afterward, we sometimes would issue challenges to one another. It also reminds me of an exercise Guy Vanderhaeghe gave us when I studied Creative Writing with him in Saskatoon as an undergrad, the basic idea of which was as follows: Write a scene where two characters interact about something. Powerful emotions are beneath the surface, but whatever is going on is not explicitly discussed. It’s a great exercise.

(My attempt worked pretty well, I must say. It was violin teacher and his student. The teacher was insisting the kid play some passage again and again, a bit brutally; his own issues of having failed as a performer were part of it, but so was a genuine concern that the kid was wasting his family’s money on lessons. The kid, meanwhile, was on the verge of quitting violin. But when you show, instead of telling, there’s a kind of taut energy that comes from the unspoken. Great exercise, well worth trying if you’re looking for ways to master giving great depth to what seems like an ordinary interaction.)

Anyway, I’m looking forward to this challenge. Which I’ll only really meet if I stop blogging and get to work, so off I go to finish The British Agent and Shadow Lovers.


(1) As, yes, “Vortex Inverso” is the new working title of that other “H.G. Wells story” of mine. The main character is Ezra Pound, but H.G. Wells shows up to accompany him on a hurried and dangerous train ride across a steampunkish alt-Europe on a desperate mission. It needs to be edited into shape, mostly the inevitable and painful cutting of unnecessary and unuseful warm-up information. The problem is, as one editor pointed out when kindly rejecting it, anyone who doesn’t know anything about Ezra Pound is unlikely to truly appreciate it, and I’m afraid I’m probably in the minority of SF fans who are also into Pound to any degree at all. Which is too bad; I’d like to think Pound fans would get off on seeing him scrawling ensorcelments on bits of loose paper with a brush and a thaumaturgically-infused Chinese inkstone, and using Greek coins to work spells on a night train to Istanbul, and even glimpsing, ever so briefly, a reimagining of the slightly tense situation between Dorothy Shakespear and Olga Rudge and himself during the time when they lived en ménage-à-trois in Italy (which at least happened in my alt-history), and of course the true reason and meaning of the inclusion of the vortex image in the issue of Blast Pound and Wyndham Lewis put out years earlier, and so on… but I think basically the crossover appeal of this story is just way, way too limited.Not sure I’ll ever manage to sell it, since neither audience seems likely to “get” it.

Tell me I’m wrong. Go on. Do you think, if it’s well-written enough, it could actually appeal to non-Poundian readers?

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