“I feel like we need to get emojis printed and put them on sticks so we can pull them out in real life so people know how we really feel.”
This is what my friend Emily says to me the other day over Facebook chat. Emily and I spend a lot of time chatting over Facebook. Intermittently through the day, and sometimes for long periods at night. Sometimes hours will pass. Sometimes we write in words but mostly we communicate via screenshots and emojis. The average conversation goes something like this:
[screenshot of something funny]
[laughing crying emoji x ten]
[screenshot of someone posting annoying status on Facebook]
[knife and hammer emojis and crazy face emoji]
[snake and spider emojis]
[screenshot of one of our animals – my cat or her pugs]
[heart eyes emoji, heart emojis, sparkle emojis]
Would you agree that she breaks all these subconscious rules you had about being a woman? You can have the worst thing in the world happen to you, and you will still be loved and supported, and people will still think you’re amazing and you can hold your head up high. In some way she’s a kind of feminist icon. She’s enjoying the freedom men have enjoyed since forever. Arguably one of the world’s most famous women, Kim K raises more questions than provides answers. Alex van Tonder & Milisithando BongelaRead More
I’m subtweeting you, online Valentine
I’ve uploaded a brand new selfie online
Go on and give it a double tap-tap
If you do I might just #follow #you #back
But wait up V, I won’t stop there
I’ll add your gf - she has such blonde hair,
I’ll add your friends, and I’ll add your mom,
I just know from your albums we’ll all get along
It’s been a dream of mine since we met yesterday
For you and me to elope one day,
Our connection is special, know how I can tell?
‘Cos we both like Californication AND Bates Motel
You accepted! You did it! Now we are ‘friends’
This is where our adventure begins
We’ve become so close since I’ve had access to your photos
It’s like I was there on your soccer tour to Lagos…
I was there when we kissed on the top of that mountain
And made wishes and threw those coins in that fountain
Sure, some other girl’s face is in all those pictures
But I’m here now, V, and that’s all that matters…
Now something has happened and I'm having doubts
My head says I should reply STOP to opt out
I snuck into your room while you were in the shower
You got a saucy sext from a “pink flower”?
I’m not saying that something’s going on
but I’m going with my gut and my gut’s never wrong
(Except for that one time it thought it would be fine
To drink balsamic vinegar when I ran out of red wine-
that was a terrible idea)
You ask any stalker who sneaks into her crush’s room
And she’ll tell you that this disrespect is just not on, bru
Don’t even get me started on the brunette on Snapchat
Yeah V old buddy, we are having that chat!
I was going through your DMs and I happened to see
A whole bunch of them came from Cindy-Jessy-Sandra-Lee
I see she’s in your top friends and you @ her lots on twitter,
I’m hashtag #justsaying and I don’t wanna sound bitter,
You protest too much, yeah sure, she's your "sister"
You can't fool me with that same-last-name bluster
No, I'm not a stalker for following her home
She's the one creeping me - girl, leave me alone!
Oh sure, yes, maybe you don’t know me,
And maybe we did just have that “one” "coffee",
But I know all about you voting for Mitt Romney
You think you can just add-'n-walk, homie?
Guess again, I know you better thank you think
Where you live, your Google history, your Klout score, favourite drink...
Don’t get angry with me, it’s all in plain view!
Put the gun down, please? Er... Roses red, violets... blue?
What’s that you say about objectification?
How I’ve made up a fantasy projectificatiganficiation?
Aw bae you’re even sexier when you don’t make any sense…
Enough with this charade, what’s the point of this pretence?
Just give into my pitch for my grand idea of us
We’ll take photos of our holidays and selfies on the bus,
We’ll have our own hashtag and we’ll get our own show,
They’ll ask why we’re famous, and nobody will know!
Oh now look what you went and made me do…
How on earth do I get blood out of white suede shoes?
Never mind, smile before the rigor mortis sets in
That’s right V, alive or dead, you better fucking grin,
This selfie of will to have to last a long, long time
Around 25 years to life, my online Valentine.
Image: Helmut Newton
“Yeah, I don't really read much fiction.”
This is something I hear a lot. It makes me sad, but not surprised. There are a lot of easier things to do these days. Tap your phone for a quick hit of dopamine. Check to see if someone liked your post or pic. Check your mail. Scroll through ‘The Stream’. It’s a pity - because as personalised search takes over, we’re going to start seeing more and more of the same thing. As Google & Facebook track your activity, they’re going to start serving up stuff that they think you’ll like. In other words, soon enough we’ll all be living in confirmation bias bubbles. Worlds that reflect our own ideas of life and what’s right back at us.
“If you like this, you might like these articles / tracks / videos” referrals can be useful but they also herald the beginning of an unparalleled cultural myopia.
The more we ‘like’ these view points, the more they’ll be shown to us. And on it will go. This intellectual future is the opposite of stimulating. It’s the opposite of growth, and is discussed in length in this article by Zygmunt Bauman.
“But I’m too busy. I have too much real-world stuff to deal with.”
This is usually the excuse for not reading fiction. It’s a similar excuse many make not to exercise. And there are parallels. Fiction is like exercise for the mind: it poses hypothetical situations and - without telling you how to think - allows you to grow intellectually and emotionally, because you draw your own conclusions about right and wrong. It helps you develop empathy and imagination, by helping you understand different points of view. Through empathy it challenges ideas you may have had about the status quo, and it broadens your mind. It allows you to understand people and places that aren't familiar to you. It also helps you realise that whatever you're going through, you're not alone in the world. And most importantly, it encourages dreaming. In a world where everything seems to be going wrong, stories, dreaming and empathy seem more important now than ever before. We need to cultivate a spiritual and empathetic fitness if we are - all fifteen billion of us - going to figure out a way to live in relative peace together on this planet.
"Fiction is like exercise for the mind: it poses hypothetical situations and - without telling you how to think - allows you to grow intellectually and emotionally, because you draw your own conclusions about right and wrong. It helps you develop empathy and imagination, by helping you understand different points of view."
I do believe we live in a time where we need our artists more than ever, but we appreciate art less than we ever have. Instead, we process our art, make it palatable, attach it to brands. But artists - being the instinctively disruptive and curious among us - help us transcend the cultural and social barriers that are responsible for so many of the issues we face as humans trying to live together peacefully while we fight for increasingly-scarce resources. And while our STEM professions are invaluable - they have alerted us, after all, to the fact that the earth is running out of resources - we need to develop our emotional, intellectual and ethical resources now, quite simply, to survive. Through art we find emotional common ground; we find out we're the same, after all. For a great video on this topic, watch screenwriting guru Robert McKee talk about the role of the artist in modern times here.
“I prefer to read non-fiction books that teach me something. Or thought-provoking essays.”
A good piece of fiction will do just that, and more. It’ll do it while entertaining you, while engaging both sides of your brain. It won’t give you a ready-made list of opinions that you should adopt, or actions to follow - it does one better.
It gives you the ability to discern for yourself how to form opinions, how to judge words against actions, how to understand people through character development.
Stories and characters contain the subconscious archetypal blueprints for human psychology - read enough and you’ll see all your favourite characters and narrative arcs play out in life around you. Read enough and you’ll find that the world becomes less unpredictable, people less difficult to understand, struggles less hard to overcome.
Fiction teaches you about yourself. Whether you love a book or you hate a book, an emotional reaction always reveals something about you. It brings you back to your truth. This is something an essay or an instructional manual can’t always deliver, because they tell you how to think. Us humans don’t love being told what to do. Our brains are made for play, for enjoyment. Multiple studies have shown that we learn better when we’re playing than through instruction. Fiction engages the rational mind in play. Learning happens when we read fiction, just not the way ‘learning’ is packaged to the masses today.
I, too, am guilty of struggling to find time to read fiction. Mostly I feel guilty because I should be writing it. And, of course, social media. But I made time for it the way I make time for exercise. I see it as ‘brain investment time’, and thanks to the Kindle, it can now happen anywhere. Waiting for my coffee, eating lunch, a half hour before bed - it all adds up to about 45 minutes a day. Sometimes I even go old school and drag a book around.
The reward is that I get the pleasure of consuming content that’s been carefully crafted, as opposed to content that’s been smashed out on someone’s phone, while being spared the incidental trauma of random content, for eg a tactical ad for baked beans. I get the satisfaction of watching a long-form story unfold and seeing a writer’s genius at work, which is more inspiring ultimately than a video compilation of cats whacking dogs on the head (okay only marginally ;).
I also get that take-your-breath-away feeling at the end of a good book where you feel like your whole brain’s been turned inside out, and your view on the world will never be the same again - a feeling I have never yet got from anything on the internet. And certainly not from a business motivational book.
So there are a few good reasons to make a point of reading fiction. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to write a scene in which a writer fails to hand in her novel because she’s writing a piece on why we should read fiction. Which I will write right after I watch this video of a cat whacking a dog on the head.
I wrote a piece about the gorgeous Art Deco apartment in which I lived when I wrote This One Time. It gets a little sentimental. Forgive me. It's in the August / September issue of Visi mag, on sale now.
While researching and gathering inspiration for the This One Time I collected images, ideas, scenes and quotes that evoked feelings or emotions I felt resonated with the characters, their motivations, the plot and the setting. Jacob - chained to a bed and faced with himself, with no phone or internet to distract him from himself - has to face some hard truths. Firstly, he's been living a double life, and he's made some mistakes. He's got caught up in this revenge-porn and blogging and half-truths and half-naked photos and full frontal photos and sex tapes and smile-for-the-camera-with-a-product-in-your-hand and another day another party another girl in another bathroom pass the cocaine, do it all over again tomorrow, Instagram or it didn't happen, don't Add me on Facebook, I'll add you, break all the rules and give no fucks lifestyle.
Except he does give a fuck. A lot of fucks. Everything he does he does for the approval of an audience - his blog following, his blog sponsors, his advertising agency, his agent, his publishers. He needs their approval, their support because that is his power. So he courts their likes, their budgets, their shares, their Tweets, their regrams. He serves them what they want: what will get clicks, likes, shares. It's a sordid buffet. Revenge porn. Frat jokes. Party pictures. How To Be A Professional Dick manuals. Dan Bilzerian-esque selfies with bitches and beer, tits & guns. Sordid Tucker Max-style tales of sex, drugs and bastardry. The likes come in as his integrity seeps out. He sells his soul for money and fame, and in the process becomes an anti-hero, living the good life in a positively Crowlian Do-What-Thou-Wilt kind of way, a poster boy for the idea that 'Evil pays better'.
While Brodie Lomax is a worst-case scenario, the idea of this kind of anti-hero becoming this famous and powerful is a commentary on how the mass media, internet, reality shows and TV do at times reward if not glorify the worst in human behaviour. Honey Boo Boo child, anyone? The Duggars? The Good Ol' Slut Whisperer? And then there's this incident that got SA buzzing on social media where Marie Claire put a suspected domestic abuse perp in their 'anti domestic abuse' campaign. Said suspected perp then went on to insult his ex girlfriend and insinuate that she cried wolf, in public, on the magazine's Instagram page. Draw your own conclusions. (*update: After immense social media pressure, the magazine later issued an apology. Follow the debate with the #MCinhershoes hashtag.)
Not to mention bigger, more collective-psyche related problems - see this article on feminist writers that have 'chosen to retire' because of the 'psychic trauma' of speaking out in an unmoderated forum, and Twitter's leaked internal memo on how much they suck at dealing with abuse. Let's not even get into the Reddit mess. And of course, who can forget about The Fappening.
He finds himself mixed up in a life he might not deep down agree with or have wanted (initially, Jacob wanted to be a 'real writer', for magazines and newspapers, but resorted to blogging. Cue the whole recession-meets-age-of-the-internet and how there's no work for media writers anymore tangent), but because by superficial standards he appears successful - he's making money, he's got millions of followers, he's been on the cover of Time magazine - he kind of just goes with it. He uses the support and the clicks and the views he gets to convince himself that there's a place for what he's doing. After all, how can so many followers be wrong? But deep down he knows what he's done isn't right, that the character he's created has become a monster. In his head he still sees a line between who the character is, and who he is, but the question This One Time poses is, is there a difference between his real self and his projected self when the consequences of his projected self are very real?
There are a bunch of themes that I explore in This One Time related to how the arrival of social media has affected our behaviour. The idea of losing yourself to approval, of shaping yourself to other peoples' opinions - in his case, his following - thousands of opinions of people he doesn't know and will probably never meet. Of choosing and expressing opinions according to what will get your more likes. Not a new idea, but it's a new context - the world of social media, where getting approval is easier than ever. You don't have to go out and having a meaningful exchange with someone to get your dopamine hit. And likes do deliver a hit - check out this link. You can just post a picture and wait for your 'friends' to like it. For Jacob / Brodie, this feeling of instant power becomes a rush. He gets addicted to it.
I also wanted to explore the illusion of control that social media offers. We think we know what we're getting into, filling up these sites with our lives, our businesses, our families, our dreams, but do we really? Is it good harmless fun, 'just the way things are these days', or are we contributing to a giant advertising campaign for Facebook? This we are technically doing - Facebook and Instagram can use anything you upload in their advertising, without paying you or asking you, and you've already given them permission to do that, and every time you interact with the sites you're 'tacitly complying' with this agreement. The idea that with social media, it's all too easy to lose yourself to it, that you can do it without even realising that you're signing yourself into a show. The notion that we are all a part of a giant reality show these days, and we all upload 'episodes' - every time we tweet, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat. Mark Zuckerberg thanks you for his new Porsche - it looks great next to the other three.
We document everything, we shoot every aspect of our lives. We are becoming very good at being professional posers. Meals, events, occasions are planned around 'the photo op', because having good pictures is not just important, it's crucial. Everything is filtered, cropped, curated. We show the version of our lives we want people to think we lead. Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage" has never rung so true. Like. LOL. We've all been at a restaurant and seen a table filled with bloggers elbow-bashing each other, trying to get the best Instagram and 'live the best life'. This ultra-filtered New York world of bloggers and media and social media climbers is the context in which Jacob creates his alter ego. So though he is an asshole, we can't completely hate him because he is a product of his environment. He is an opportunist of his age, in a sense not only surviving but thriving within his time. We can't really hold that against him. In this way he reminds me of another character I am very inspired by and have a lot of sympathy for:
I wanted to explore the idea that what you put online can develop its own momentum and become its own thing, that you can lose control over it. That your projected self can have more power and seem more real than your real self. If you are going through a tough time, your projected life can become more rewarding than your real life. Jacob uses it like a drug. He tells himself stories about himself that are delusional, but look - photographic evidence! I am happy, see? People do like me - look how many likes this selfie got. We are smiling, we must be having fun. Millions of people follow me, therefore I must be a success. Victor Frankenstein had to physically make a monster to make a monster, but Jacob just makes up a fake persona on the internet.
On the internet, good doesn't rise to the top nearly as much as bad does. Or rather, scandalous more than bad. Emotion drives much of what gets viewed on the internet, especially emotions like outrage, and Brodie Lomax gets a lot of that directed at him. It drives his view counts higher and higher, so the more outraged his protestors get, the more he provokes them with increasingly sordid content. As his clicks go up so does his power. He sees being hated as a fair exchange for the VIP rooms and the book deals and the Reality TV Series and the cash in his bank account. He tells himself that it doesn't get to him, but it's clear from the amount of drugs he has to do to get through every day that it does. The chilling notion that - on the internet - a mere idea unleashed into the world with vague or unclear intent can be dangerous instantly. An idea blurted out without thought of consequences can call forth monsters. How, these days you can set your world on fire with a tap of your iPhone. Just ask Justine Sacco or Trevor Noah.
Jacob, aka the infamous revenge-porn blogger Brodie Lomax, wants to change. He just doesn't know it consciously, or he feels too trapped in his situation to be able to acknowledge it. So he numbs himself through drugs and sex, and pushes on, pushes on. But he's not present. He's trapped in a 'fame cage', that is his own making, but even still he rebels against it. He doesn't read his emails, which in the story becomes symbolic of him not reading the fine print, not thinking things through, not facing reality. He has started to identify more with his projected playboy image of himself than with who he really is, and he cuts out anyone who doesn't reflect this idea he has of himself back to him - his best friend, his family, pretty much everyone except his agent and drugs.
He takes huge risks with the situations and people that he supposedly values, giving little or no consideration to the consequences. He hits rock bottom screwing his best friend over, and wonders if he's too far gone to change. He knows he's unhappy, but he resists knowing this because he's not sure he can change. He's caught tight in the tides of his various addictions, except he'll do anything but admit he needs to go to rehab. He'd rather first finish the book, and then he'll go to rehab and fix himself. Then he'll start again. His internal dialogue goes something like, 'If I can just finish writing my memoir, then I can be done with all this and my problems will be solved, then I will be free. In the meantime I'll just do another line to get through today. I'll read the email tomorrow,'.
Since he's heading for a cliff anyway, he might as well run. Far away from the temptations of New York, he figures a stay in a remote hunting lodge in the middle of nowhere will be the perfect place to finish writing his memoir. Once he's done, he will be free. Free from what? Isn't he living the dream? It sure looks that way. But living a lie has caught up to him. As you might imagine, revenge porn hasn't exactly been good for the soul. He hears the phrase 'You've ruined my life" so much it's like a ringtone to him. He knows that somewhere there's an attic with a painting of him that's rotten to the core. He knows he can't live like this forever. He longs for what most people long for - to be loved and accepted and successful for who he really is, not this character he's created. (And rich, of course. This is 2015.) With the completion of the book will come the cheque that will give him the freedom to stop pretending to be someone he's not, the true freedom to not to care what people think anymore. He, like many people, believes that money will buy him that freedom. This is why finishing this book is so important. This is why Alaska and its far awayness seem so... perfect. It's as far away from himself as he can get.
The Denali Park in Alaska in the middle of winter is deadly. Snow, glaciers, ice and wolves. I loved the white-out, the blank canvas promise it offered Jacob - start again, get clean, write your book, a fresh beginning. But. It's also a bit like he's walked into a giant mound of cocaine, and in a way Alaska turns out to be the definition of a 'bad trip' on more ways than one. But it also gives him a whole new chance at life, via making him fight for his survival. What a combo. The isolation is so important. With no access to wifi, he has no access to Likes. The withdrawal hits him hard, both physically (he's been an addict up until now, remember?) and mentally. He needs those likes as much as he needs his drugs.
But the whole point of the story is that you can't run away from the messes you've made, and you can't run away from the truth. Often, in your attempt to run away, you run towards the very thing you have to face. Because of Brodie Lomax's "overconfidence", shall we call it (okay, he's become an egomaniacal asshole with rampant delusions of narcissistic grandeur, there, I said it), he is in no way suspicious of the setup at the Delphine, that he'd be invited to stay as the only guest, "you'd be getting a secret preview, before it opened to the public, if he would so much as do them the great honour of possibly writing about them on his blog... He thinks he deserves nothing less than this sort of treatment, and so he accepts the invitation, and off he goes, into the wilds of Alaska on his own. He doesn't tell anyone where he's going.
In Jacob's attempt to get away from his out-of-control blogger persona and find some peace to finish the book that will buy him freedom from Brodie Lomax once and for all, he walks right into the lair of a monster that Brodie Lomax has created. His monster creates its own monster, and her name is Alicia. She's not letting him shrug off Brodie Lomax any time soon. And she wants revenge. The things we create have the power to create, too...
The Delphine Lodge is a kind of gothed-up hunting lodge. I had something in mind that felt a mix between Shelley's writer's retreat, where she wrote Frankenstein, and The Overlook Hotel from Stephen King's The Shining. It's also a sideways tribute to the Dolphin Hotel, from King's short haunted hotel story 1408.
The name is also partly inspired by Delphine Lalaurie, a New Orleans Socialite who lived in the 1800s. Sidenote: She was also a psychopath and serial killer, and tortured many of her slaves before she was found out and then fled (and pretty much got away with it - her family had some good connections). So it's infused with a whole bunch of ghoulishness. When I read the story of Delphine Lalaurie, I was chilled to the bone and couldn't get her out of my head for days, weeks. So now you know.
There is a lot of animal imagery in This One Time. The setting - a hunting lodge filled with taxidermy animals - gave me this opportunity. And boy did I go wild (intended). At the edge of Jacob's bed there is a stuffed black wolf, frozen in a snarl. Because Jacob spends so much time alone, he starts talking to the wolf, and he imagines (or does he?) that the wolf speaks back. I loved being able to use an animal as a 'tool of awakening' for Jacob, as he comes to terms with reality. The wolf represents truth and intuition, his common sense coming back to life, his sense of self getting a grip once more. As he comes off the drugs, and 'comes off the likes' so his voice of reason gets stronger. I like that the wolf scares him at first because even though the truth presents here as something scary and terrifying, it is ultimately what will set him free. Yes, I did just write that. *rousing violin*
When I started writing the book I had no intention of having a 'spirit animal' guide to help the protagonist. But she just arrived, and I tried not to get all judgmental on myself (Talking animal? Really? Pull it together, girl) and then I thought I'd see where it went and she became such a big part of the story. That's writing fiction for you - one day a talking wolf arrives and somehow you have to make it work.
The stuffed eagle mounted on the wall above his head in one sense represents all the hope that the American Dream-two-point-oh holds: in the new promised land of the internet you can create your own opportunity, any man with an internet connection can make his way, from his garage if necessary (and as is the current trend). The internet is the new Land of the Brave (behind the Anonymous label), Home of the Freely Spoken. But there's also something threatening about its yellow gaze. This eagle is less 'Live the dream' and more 'I'm here to eat your liver'. He feels like Prometheus, but in place of a rock he's chained to a soiled bed. His punishment is perhaps worse - he has to spend time alone with himself, something anyone the social media generation would struggle with but Jacob / Brodie in particular, because he needs validation from his followers to keep feeding the story he's told himself about himself. The story about how it's okay to humiliate people for entertainment and make money off it, and to use them as part of your show without them knowing or agreeing to it.
Now he has to think about what he's done.
You can get a copy of this one time at pretty much any SA book store - just call one that's most convenient to you and ask them to set it aside. Please not that it's no longer available on ebook outside of the US - for now... You can also puchase a copy on Loot.
I often get asked what my favourite line from This One Time is, or what my favourite scene from the book is. And I guess it would be the last line, because it's the final twist, the part where it all falls together for the reader, but I can't say what it is because it's a surprise. But my next favourite scene would be early on on page 23 - 24, where Jacob acting as Brodie Lomax condescendingly remarks that he wouldn't have taken Sarah for a 'Spiderman fan' after she cites the infamous "With great power comes great responsibility" quote. She then corrects him and informs him that it was originally Voltaire who said it, which takes him by surprise. I love it because it's a distinct foreshadowing of what's to come. Here's a snippet:
‘CGC, people. Consumer. Generated. Content. This is the new way, this is what makes or breaks brands today. Anyone can make a TV ad. Can you influence an entire group of people to make it for you? Making people think something – that’s mediocre shit. Making people do things, that’s where the power’s at. And with great power comes …?’
He paused, looking at the room with expectant eyes, his hands up in the air as if he were conducting a choir. He watched Wilkes watching their faces, trying to read the mood. It was Sarah who broke the silence in the end, her voice clear and calm to his right.
‘Comes great responsibility?’
Jacob turned, pointing at her with his finger.
‘Bzzzzz, sorry, wrong answer. With great power comes great money. But good for you, sweetheart. Wouldn’t have taken you for a Spiderman fan.’
He winked at her.
‘It’s actually Voltaire,’ she said, smiling.
‘Voltaire said that. Not Spiderman —’
Wilkes jumped in.