Sunday, May 8, 2016

ASMODEUS backstory #1 - the personal

Asmodeus is not, in fact, brand spanking new. The thing proper started about six or seven years ago when my son received, for his birthday, a dragon encyclopedia from either his maternal grandmother or his aunt. These claims are now in dispute and not mutually exclusive, but the book itself was an inarguably non-narrative, but very descriptive, charted, and illustrated faux-leather compendium of all the different kinds of dragons there are, with all their traits, personalities, breath weapons, lair preferences, favorite treasures and so forth.

I never really went through a dragon phase as a boy. I definitely thought they were cool, but not so cool that I ever sought them out or established any real expertise. This encyclopedia – which became my and my son’s bedtime reading for three or four months there – was my first official dip in the pond of dragon geekdom. I probably shouldn’t have been, but I was pleasantly surprised by the solemnity and complexity of thinking that had gone into the subject, and I was, as usual, drawn to the organic and ongoing quality of inquiry it represented. Like Atlantis, say, or mermaids, or what-the-heck-let’s-just-admit-it John the Baptist, dragonology is a field to which people from all over the world have been contributing their own imaginations, innovation, inspirations, and maybe even memories for literally thousands of years, and they’re still going strong. Obviously. Dragons are a still-evolving legend, which is a very appealing thing to a person such as myself.

CUT TO one day in parking lot at Vons. This would have been maybe two months into Theo’s and my crash course. My wife had gone into the market to buy some milk and bread, leaving me in the car with the children, who were then six and four. And not that they’re not perfectly behaved under all circumstances, but just to fend the possibility that being trapped in the backseat of a hot car in the Vons parking lot might make them a little fidgety, I turned around and started telling them a story about a dragon, now that I knew a little something; I laid what we in the trade call a brief “inciting incident” on them, which, looking back on it now, strikes me as having been breathtakingly unoriginal – but maybe not in such a bad way. Mythically so. When my wife returned to the car with the milk and the bread, Theo and I did look at each other and seem to agree: enough of this encyclopedia crap. Let’s find out what happens next.

So we did, and so began Asmodeus, which developed and evolved the way most works of fiction probably should, with the author – or in this case, co-authors – awakening each day with the question, “I wonder what’s going to happen next?” and using at least part of that day (and most often the final, darkest part) to figure out the answer. A pleasing delivery as these things go – mid-wifed, if I can say that without sounding obscene, by my son’s interest, which went well beyond the mere listening. He did, on several occasions, presume to enter my sacred writing space, the shed, to confer with me and share with me some of the ideas he’d been having about how the story was going. And I can say, having worked with a number of storytellers and collaborators in my day, he was pretty sharp. A very canny balance of intuition and craftiness.  I highly recommend him to anyone out there who might need an adult in the room.

(Speaking of which, the question arises, rightly: who – or whom – exactly is this book for? Well, um, er, that’s the problem, see…or the beauty part. Though this is a story about a dragon and a maiden on the cusp of womanhood, and though my seven-year-old son was very much in on its development, Asmodeus is not exactly YA, but not really adult either – which strikes me as being a spot-on description of the American electorate at the moment, so not that bad a demographic. In any case, there is a sophistication to the language, the themes, and the content, that would definitely recommend that a chaperone be present for any reader under the age of, say 12. But who(m) the book is really for, I think, is the graduate of those good old  YA dragon/fantasy tales – someone who liked that sort of thing quite a lot when it was age-appropriate, misses it, and has a hankering to return to the guilty pleasure, but would maybe like to see what happens if someone pushed the envelope a little. That's who it's for, and admit it, you are legion.)

I think the whole thing got writ in about a year and a half, which isn’t bad for me. What happened then, once the first draft was finished, enters us upon chapters of the story that I frankly find irritating and so won’t share, but through no fault of its own, the project wound up being shelved for a bit. These things happen. Then a little less than a year ago, my son found himself without a book to read at bedtime. We brought down Asmodeus to see how it was holding up. We treated it as a read-aloud for however long it took – two or three weeks – in the course of which I encountered no good reason not to share the thing, and a lot of good reasons to…

What those reasons are, I’ll keep to myself, except for maybe this. Despite that almost comically “resonant” opening chapter, Asmodeus was borne and fueled by one crucial and not quite so orthodox perspective, at least to judge by the more popular dragon portrayals we’ve been treated to in recent years – and that is that the dragon is a clearly superior being to the human. Not a pet. Not a friend. Not a weapon, or a minion, or a menace or a beast, but – evolutionarily speaking – a being possessed of several attributes that clearly place it above the human. In terms of its longevity, its concomitant sense of perspective, its flight and fire-breathing faculties, even its intelligence, there is a definite touch of divinity about the dragon, but a divinity marked by one apparent blind spot that may account for its endangerment and/or apparent extinction. Asmodeus is, among other things, an exploration of that blind spot, dedicated to the premise that the dragon, properly understood, is no supporting player, prop, or special effect, but should be treated as the magnetic and complex central charisma of its own drama. If my collaborator and I had not sensed this from the get-go, and all the rich and nutritious possibilities that this idea proffered, trust me, the whole undertaking would have dissolved as mere fancy in less than a week. It did not. It became a book, which you are hereby invited to read and judge for yourself.