Daniel I. Russell is the author of Entertaining Demons, Samhane, Retard, Come Into Darkness, Critique, The Collector Book 1: Mana Leak, Mother's Boys and the huge collection Tricks, Mischief and Mayhem. Daniel is a HWA active member and represented by the Tobias Literary Agency, NYC. Daniel has also been the vice-president of the Australian Horror Writers' Association, special guest editor of Midnight Echo, associate and technical editor for Necrotic Tissue, and Shadow Awards judge.
On the Couch With... Rebecca Besser
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Wednesday, February 10, 2016The stories behind the story: RETARD
I was asked by a reader over on my FB author page why I chose to write this book. I'm never one to miss an opportunity to talk about the story behind the stories so thought I'd jump on the blog to reveal just how this novella was written and the reasons behind it. Hopefully spoiler free!
On the practical side of things, a publisher put the call out for stories of 30k words in length based on the theme of childhood fears. Now I'd wanted to work with the editor who at the time was employed by the publisher, as he had edited many of my horror-writing idols, so was desperate to have something to submit. With nothing I'd currently written fitting the bill, I needed to come up with something brand new...but here came the first problem.
I like deadlines and appreciate the motivational arse rocket they can provide. This project would need to be submitted in a month. 30k words in a month is relatively generous, even including time for editing and proofing. My issue was that this would add yet another commitment on top of my family, full time day job and full time university course. Where there enough hours in the day?
I can't write in the evenings anymore. I've become a crack of dawn writer. If words are needed, get them down first before the day has the chance to wear you down. Therefore RETARD was typed over many lonely mornings at the kitchen table from 4-5am until the krakens awoke, and in the backroom of the local pub Saturday/Sunday afternoons with several pints of Carlton Dry, or word lubrication, as I call it.
It was getting close to the close of the submission window, and I realised that I'd made a grave error and got the date wrong! I had even less time, and even came close to jacking in the whole thing.
Anyway, it was eventually finished, edited, and submitted with hours to go. Then a few weeks later, rejected.
I'll admit: that particular rejection stung, and it took me a long time to get over it and to get into writing again. But hey! That's the business, folks. Get back on the ol' horse.
I didn't know what to do with it. The manuscript was very personal and not easily categorised, plus the word count was just awkward in terms of trying to find a market. I just left it to rot; moved on to other things.
Some of my writer friends came to the rescue when I lost my way a bit. At the end of the day, having created a body of work that you are proud of is the ultimate goal in this very trying industry. RETARD was just that: another book I'd written in challenging circumstances that I held very dear. I felt I was cheapening it by letting it gather dust on a hard drive. So I made the decision to release it myself. I'm not normally one for that, so treated it as an experiment, convincing myself that at least I could control the price, the marketing, etc.
And that was how RETARD was born! It's currently well in excess of 3000 paid sales with 67 reviews, and more importantly, while polarising readers, it's doing what I set out to do and pushing the intended buttons.
But what about the story? As I said, this was a very personal book...but how personal? Did I live through the horrendous events in my own childhood?
In my original consideration of the childhood fears theme, I wanted to avoid the common tropes of monsters in the closet, clowns, the scary man who lives down the street, etc. I fancied something more universal and grounded in reality.
The character of Christine Stephenson came to mind first. Nothing supernatural or otherworldly about this woman: just a young single mother with enough problems to push her right to the edge of breaking point. Her son. What could be more terrifying than having this loving parent start to unravel, and being unable to escape? Having other grown ups not believe you because you're just a kid and a trouble maker at that.
It all boiled down to this thought: Childhood fear? What about not knowing just how far your mother would go?
Young Wesley is a part of me, definitely. I was diagnosed with Asperger's a few years ago, which certainly explained a few of my childhood traits, some of which Wesley shares in the book. His knack for 'mixing potions' is something I indeed did in real life, including nearly poisoning my great grandmother when I mixed her a new medicine and replaced it with her actual one. I got in A LOT of trouble for that concoction...but nothing like in the book. My parents are definitely not Christine Stephenson.
What concerned me on my diagnosis was that when I was at primary school, my life might have been very, very different. In the early eighties, words like retard and spastic were common place and held that easy label/insult combination. As outlined in the book, kids with low academics or mental issues would be grouped together to complete menial group tasks with nothing idiosyncratic at all. Things have changed now with better understanding of educational needs and a certain political correctness of terminology. With my label, would I have been placed at the thick table at primary school?
This climate of the time developed in my head further, especially having completed units in child and family psychological counselling. There's a tendency with a problem child to dump them in counselling for 'fixing'. Any counsellor worth their fee should know that a child can't be put back together like a broken toy. We are a creation of our relationships, and the family history and networks need to be addressed to change a disruptive dynamic or rut.
In RETARD, under an uncaring Thatcher government, Christine struggles with her current economical position, the responsibility of being a single parent and Wesley's increasingly erratic behaviour. With no help and little intervention, the focus of her strife becomes more and more apparent. Rather than simply make Christine a monster, I tried to round her out. In fact, most of her decisions come from a lack of experience and her own emotional issues. For most of the book, Christine is convinced her actions are out of love, and what is needed to be a good parent. She knows she is doing the right thing.
The beauty of this character is the response from readers! Some despise her, while others take a more critical and environmental attributive approach. One reader (you know who you are!) even confessed to finding her a little bit sexy.
So there you have it! RETARD in a nutshell. Thank you to Jypsy for her interest and to hopefully indulging me all the way through this post. As nothing is truly original, here's some author Easter eggs from the book:
David's Birthday party is held in the Brownie hut. Every kid in my home town probably still have parties there.
The Fabled Four takes elements from my favourite early 80s cartoons: He-Man and Dungeons and Dragons.
The guy who delivers the toy is based on a similar character from Child's Play, which came out a year later.
While the events of book certainly didn't happen there, Wesley's sanctuary, the thick, thorny bushies at the primary school, certainly did exist in my childhood! Boys would be dared to run through them, emerging bloody on the other side.
Top #100 psychological thriller for 4 months
"A mother and child, living alone, with the mother using physical means to discipline her child, would at least be heavily investigated and monitored today. Back then, it was par for the course, the situation attracting only gossip and disapproval, but of course everyone was too busy to intervene..."
Single mother Christine Stephenson watches with envy as the Birthday boy opens his present. A Fabled Four action figure. Her special son is obsessed with The Fabled Four but how could she possibly afford such a gift?
Not that he deserved it. Wesley simply couldn't behave.
She'd find a way, being such a good parent.