My Favorite Bit: James Alan Gardner talks about THEY PROMISED ME THE GUN WASN’T LOADED
James Alan Gardner is joining us today with his novel They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Award-winning author James Alan Gardner returns to the superheroic fantasy world of All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault with They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded.
Only days have passed since a freak accident granted four college students superhuman powers. Now Jools and her friends (who haven’t even picked out a name for their superhero team yet) get caught up in the hunt for a Mad Genius’s misplaced super-weapon.
But when Jools falls in with a modern-day Robin Hood and his band of super-powered Merry Men, she finds it hard to sort out the Good Guys from the Bad Guys—and to figure out which side she truly belongs on.
Especially since nobody knows exactly what the Gun does . . . .
What’s James’ favorite bit?
JAMES ALAN GARDNER
On the spectrum that runs from Making everything up as you go along to Planning every detail before you start writing, I’m somewhere in the middle. My advance plan consists of a loose list of “set-pieces”. Each entry in the list gives a setting and the most important things the characters will do there. However, I leave a lot of wiggle-room; I know that as I write I’ll improvise a lot, so I don’t nail things down too tightly. Half the fun of writing comes from surprising myself with unplanned material. The other half comes from finding ways to make the surprises fit in with the planned story line, so that readers can’t tell what was and wasn’t built into the book from the beginning.
Because I write this way, my favorite bits are always things that pop up out of the blue: unexpected gifts that arise by serendipity. Stuff that arises organically often blossoms in interesting ways.
In They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded, my favorite bit occurs early on. But first, some background. The book takes place in a world like our own, except that most rich and powerful people are Darklings—vampires, were-beasts, or demons. The power of the Darklings is counterbalanced by the presence of superheroes: normal people who happened to touch a glowing meteorite or get bitten by a radioactive spider. So basically, the affluent 1% are monsters, and the 99% are protected by a diverse set of random super-folk.
The protagonist of They Promised Me is Jools, a university student who gained superpowers in a laboratory accident. In the book’s first chapter, she enters a Darkling hangout…and that’s where my favorite bit happens.
Jools is brought to this fancy lounge in order to meet a particular Darkling. However, I didn’t want the place to be empty except for the one guy Jools has to meet. I wanted it occupied by other Darklings, and I wanted to show a wide variety of them. Readers need to understand that Darklings are a diverse lot, representing folklore monsters from around the globe.
So I went to my reference books and eventually found Calon Arang, an evil witch-demon from the island of Bali. As is often the case with female “monsters”, some folklorists think Calon was based on a real woman: a popular leader who challenged the powers-that-be. Eventually, they assassinated her, then made up stories to demonize her—saying she ate babies, poisoned crops, spread disease, and all the usual smears to justify why they were right to kill her.
So, an ancient Indonesian witch who’s been unjustly slandered for centuries and is likely pissed off about it: I could work with that. Calon was a potentially complex character who’d be far more engaging than some clichéd Western menace. I could even use her as a “noble” Darkling, since I didn’t want to portray all Darklings as unambiguous villains. It’s more interesting if the Dark can be good as well as bad, and you never know which way they’ll go.
So Calon Arang became the first person Jools set eyes on when she walked into the Darkling lounge. At first, Calon ignored Jools entirely—Jools wasn’t in her superhero costume, so she looked like an unremarkable nobody. But Jools is always brash, and was unintimidated by her posh surroundings. She stood out; she took no crap from various Darklings, even the Dark usually scare the heck out of normal mortals.
In other words, Jools was Calon’s kind of person: a bold young woman who didn’t suck up to powerful people.
Eventually, Jools and Calon started talking. By then, I’d decided that Calon could be useful as a contact Jools could call on when she needed information about Darkling activities. But then, in the course of improvising this conversation, I wrote Calon asking Jools, “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
My list of set-pieces included a big Darkling shindig the next night. I had planned for Jools to attend, but until Calon asked her question, I thought Jools would just crash the party. Superheroes always barge into places they aren’t invited. I had no plan for Jools to go to the party as Calon’s “date”.
And yet here we were.
After that, I had to figure out why Calon asked—it certainly wasn’t sexual. Coming up with a sensible reason led to major plot developments I had never envisioned. If you read the book (as I hope you will), you may be astonished that all the ensuing plot consequences weren’t planned from the beginning.
But they weren’t. They arose because I was improvising a conversation between my heroine and someone I thought of as a minor background character. Then the conversation went somewhere that completely surprised me and rearranged the rest of the novel.
That’s why it’s my favorite bit. I love it when my plans fall apart.
James Alan Gardner is the author of ten novels and numerous short stories. His latest is They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (both from Tor). He has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Award (twice), and been a finalist for both the Nebula and Hugo. In his spare time, he teaches Kung Fu to six-year-olds. Pronouns: he/him; Twitter: @jamesagard