The Making of The Blackguard

Blackguard Cover

I was 23 years-old when I sat down in a Starbucks in Sparks, Nevada, opened a notebook I’d stolen from the air conditioning wholesaler where I worked and wrote the first scene of what would become The Blackguard. From a broad, plot-centric point of view, The Blackguard covers an isolated community of white supremacists trying to fight off Marcus (the narrator), urban sprawl, their own cultural annihilation. It’s designed to make you consider just how important inherited identities are, to make you pick between supporting virulent racists, corrupt businesses and the uber-ruthless but also remarkably honest Marcus. I really hope that, by the end of the book, you feel at least an understanding for the humanity in each.

But on a more personal level, it grew out of the two central crises of my life at 23: the need to escape my destiny and a desire for vengeance like fire, consuming everyone and everything unlucky enough to get close. I hope you’ll pardon the self-indulgence.

***

When I was about 12 years old one of my friends’ fathers bought him a big knife. It was a foot long, serrated on the back edge with a polished handle made from antler and my friend used it to skin rabbits. These things all impressed me. Asking to buy a knife of my own was out of the question – I knew better than to ask someone else to spend money on my vanity – but I really did want one.

About this time I found an old kitchen knife buried in the sand in the backyard. Buying a knife would be a no-no but making one, that seemed somehow virtuous. I sat down in the driveway and sharpened the blade. I figured out how to take off the handle, how to get rid of the rust.

My dad arrives as I’m sanding and looks at me with a kind of half-smirk that I’d previously seen aimed at window-lickers, street prophets, aggressive bums. The words came out both sweet and aggressive, like pouring a jar of boiling honey.

“So you’re trying to follow your friend? I never thought of you as a sheep before.”

When I threw the knife away that night, under the cover of darkness and away from any possible witness, I did so determined to leave the flock. If it meant getting a new set of friends, I’d deal with it. If it meant a lifetime of loneliness, I’d nut up and endure. If it meant wandering off somewhere nobody could ever help me, that was simply the price of doing business.

This idea spread like mold through a wheel of cheese, indeed, going much farther than my father or anyone else had planned. I don’t wear the cowboy hats or Wrangler jeans so common in my hometown because that means melting and deforming so I can fit into a prefabricated identity group. I don’t speak during the pledge of allegiance because the uniformity of that activity makes my stomach turn. There are still very few things more disturbing to me than a night club dance floor, writhing in the strobe lights, indistinguishable from the heat and noise and sweat stained designer shirts – more like a colony of amoeba slithering across a petri dish than a group of human beings.

And it spilled over into the book. The 23 year-old me thought about the identities he’d lost or rejected, what did they actually take away from my life? When you can no longer be a cowboy, an American, a Muslim, what does that actually mean? If the black community falls apart and its members scatter to the wind, is that actually bad for the people involved? If the faith succumbs to heresy, if the language vanishes or the traditions die, must it be a bad thing? Marcus’ attack on the Enclavians is born from these questions.

***

Starting right around the time I graduated high school, I got poor. I don’t mean this in the “have to cut back on the partying” sense of poor either. I joined the cheapest gym in town so I could steal clothes out of the locker room. I discovered it’s possible to eat for a weak on $7.14 so long as you really, really like frozen peas and bulk Top Ramen and that holidays are best thought of as time when you can’t earn money but do have to feed yourself.

Aside from the stress inherent in strategically bouncing checks and the like, I was relatively okay with the material part of being poor. The thing that I wasn’t remotely okay with was the loss of respect. Cops, seeing my torn blue jeans and six month old haircut, treated me like a drug dealer. Professors, seeing the second hand Wal-Mart brand shirts and threadbare shoes, assumed I was the dumbest student in their classes. People I had considered friends let it be known how charitable they were being to let me in their presence. Even the purest hearted strained under the weight of my suddenly diminished social status.

I am a proud man. I always have been and so when I felt my social position changing, I fought back. When I saw people who didn’t work as hard, had less skill, achieved only in the sense of drinking games and yet still lorded their superiority over me, I broke a little bit inside.

The rage and revenge I felt between the ages of 19 and 23 beggars belief. I would walk down the street and hate everyone I saw. I’d fantasize about pounding their surgically enhanced noses through the backs of their heads. I humiliated people, showing them up in front of their friends until it got a little awkward. Then I’d say something like “we can stop if you’re scared,” and then I’d ignore their answer and keep going until everyone present wanted to explode from the awkwardness and shame. I discovered most people are incapable of disrespecting someone they fear, and for a while, I thought that was a good deal.

Then, sometime shortly before I wrote that first scene in The Blackguard, I realized how tired the hate made me. The struggle, the anger, the revenge, the daily fight to get respect even if I had to tear it out. It was like a fifty pound lead weight in my chest, pressing down on my lungs, pulling my trachea down from my neck. It was an emptiness that sucked at my extremities. It was drowning and it didn’t get better until I discovered an odd truth – it is possible to be utterly disposable and  unusually capable at the same time.

Once I accepted that people didn’t care about my personal qualities but did care about the brand name of my wrist watch, it made life much easier. Why should they care about me the person? Why should that matter? If I looked at it a certain way, I could even use it to my advantage. If I could kill off the emotional need for respect and be more rational, I could manipulate these people to my advantage. I could feign humility and curry favor. I could suddenly extend kindness to those people who feared me and, in doing so, gain respect of a much more durable sort. I could style myself a self possessed pillar of wisdom, even if I was nothing of the sort. I could be ruthless as all hell so long as I did it with a smile. I could do anything, so long as I canned the vengeance.

Marcus, who with neither malice nor moral justification, makes larcenous designs on Enclave’s water, was exactly what 23 year-old me felt he needed to become in order to survive. He was at once an absolution, a cleansing away of the monster of vengeance I’d been, and a retreat into a worldview that was, even if calmer, deeply cynical.

***

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we die and are reborn several times in a lifetime. My 30 year-old self, writing now to you, is a vastly different person than both the cynical 23 year-old and the rage-blind 19 year-old he was reacting against. I’ve mostly gotten the things those two were so desperate for. I’ve got my respectable job and nice friends. I’ve gotten a good deal of the self possession Marcus was designed to embody. I’ve got peace with my family and the re-discovered willingness to both love and be loved. I don’t want to go back.

But that’s not to say we should look back on our past selves too harshly. If we learn at all, then by definition those past versions of ourselves didn’t have the tools and knowledge we’d use today. Of course they will fail. Of course they have follies. But they also have virtues. That 23 year-old, sitting alone, writing the first scene of The Blackguard, he was tough as all hell and he was trying so, so hard. A desperate striving, a seriousness and focus and yearning. There’s a purity of exertion the older, wiser me can’t match, a more innocent desire to go forth and matter in the world. One of the things I really like about The Blackguard is that, in a sense, that 23 year-old never went away.

You can meet that 23 year-old and his 30 year old editor by buying the book here. 

Advertisements

15 comments

  1. […] If you wish to know more about this, and I sincerely hope you do, I’d invite you to read the story behind the story – the origins of The Blackguard. […]

  2. I’m about to go looking for “the Blackguard” on amazon to add to my wish list. Your writing is impeccable and your insights sharp and well-presented. Once I get “Figs & Pomegranates & Special Cheeses” happily settled in there, I’ll put your book in my basket. (I hope it is on amazon.)

    I was interested to find you telling the story behind the story. I am about to go to Office Max to pick of copies of my booklet with the back story to “Figs … “. Now I’m thinking about posting it on my blog as you just did.

    Bottom line. What has impressed me is your presentation. I really appreciate good, strong, well-controlled writing.

    1. Thanks Mona,

      It is most certainly on Amazon, and thank you for your kind words. Would you tell me a little more about your book?

      1. Thanks for asking.

        “Figs & Pomegranates & Special Cheese” was originally published under the title “Mrs. Job.” Problem, even the publisher pronounced “Job” as if it referred to paid employment, and besides, I made the mistake of leaving the Ph.D. after my name — a scary “No, No.” for fiction. So people apparently thought it was either a self-help book for married women seeking employment, or some kind of heavy psychological or theological tome. It is neither. It is the fictional story of the wife of biblical Job, including, of course, the account of the biblical trials.

        Plus, she was without a publisher since a year ago January. At that time a publisher told me to terminate my contract with iUniverse so they could work on a new title and cover. We went through a new editing process, and copy editing before they realized they couldn’t afford to publish it – ran out of money.

        So, it’s taken me time, but “Figs … ” is close to launching on amazon. I’ll be getting the proofs sometime around the end of this week. When I approve, it will be up and available.

        In the meantime, there are some really nice reviews of “Mrs. Job” on amazon. Unfortunately most are by people I don’t know, so I can’t get hold of them to ask them to repeat them for the new edition. I did figure out today, though, that I’ll get someone to write a review for “Figs …” referring to the fact that it’s an update of “Mrs. Job” and providing a link to the reviews there.

        I’d include the link here to the “Mrs. Job” reviews, but I can’t get at it right now since I’m using the web for this. (I’ll attach it in a separate reply.)

        Anyway, it is, I think, appropriately labeled “Historical Fiction.” I could call it “Biblical Fiction” but I don’t want to restrict the readership because, as one reviewer says, you don’t have to be religious or biblical in order to enjoy it.

        And here’s the blurb used to describe it.

        “Grow with Dara as she moves from a nomadic life to the heights of power and wealth with her husband Job. Share in the intimacy of her friendship with Adah, the excitement of her childhood betrothal, and the joy of her wedding to biblical Job. Live with her the beauty and threats of her desert environment. Suffer with her the anxiety of the choice forced on her by her husband’s faith. Experience the terror of the trials of Job and the aftermath. Bask in the endless loves in her life.”

        Oh my, much more than you wanted to hear, I’m sure. But thanks for asking.I suspect the topic is pretty far from yours, but perhaps writing style will attract you, as yours did me.

  3. “The 23 year-old me thought about the identities he’d lost or rejected, what did they actually take away from my life?”

    I am very glad to know more of your journey, as sad as it was, Ben. Yes, we do die and rise again time and time over in a lifetime. Not to disparage your irrefutable experience, but not everyone cares more about the brand of your watch than what you’re made of. I sure as hec don’t look at brands – or even what else people are sporting.

    I may be opening Pandora’s Box but at the risk of sounding unsympathetic – which I trust you’ll know to be otherwise – that grown kid struggling to refurbish the knife blade didn’t have to respond to his dad the way he did. I mean emotionally, not familiar with the contextual difficulties. I toss that out bc I think you can more than “take” it at 30 than you would’ve at 23 and you seem to like devil’s advocates.

    You’ve been through a lot and I am glad you’ve built a successful life – word by word, no less.

    Diana

    1. Hi Di,

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      I think there were two reasons the loss of respect hit me so hard. The first reason is that I had always been recognized and praised as an over-achiever, “such a good kid,” as a hard worker. It was central to my childhood and teenaged identity. I lost all of that when the family finances collapsed, and it tore my heart out. It even extends to small children. A 4 year old kid in cute, Osh-Kosh overalls is a treasure to the community. A 4 year old kid with snot running down their nose onto an unwashed Wal-Mart tanktop is trouble waiting to happen. If we do this to little kids, we do it in a huge way to teenagers and young adults. I was suddenly the person you hide the women and children from, in spite of the fact nothing internally had changed. It was just my circumstance, just the wrapper.

      The second reason, I believe, is that I’d been pretty well off until my early teens and sort of kind of respectable until my late teens. I had taken for granted the respect people automatically give to those with orthodontic corrections, nice shirts and respectable homes. In other words, I knew exactly what I’d lost when people started treating me as one step above homeless, which is exactly what I was. The humiliation I felt living that kind of life – I can still taste it.

      The 12 year old could have responded a hundred different ways, and the 30 year old me would have just laughed and told my Dad to get lost and leave me alone. That said, 12 year olds are different from 30 year olds, and that kid was doing the best he could under the circumstances.

      Thanks for the kind words,
      Ben

      1. “I knew exactly what I’d lost when people started treating me as one step above homeless,”

        “. I was suddenly the person you hide the women and children from, in spite of the fact nothing internally had changed. It was just my circumstance, just the wrapper. ”

        Powerful.
        Thanks for elaborating, B.

      2. Thank you for taking the time to engage so thoroughly. 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for visiting my blog! I really enjoyed this post, and I love the way you write!

    1. Thanks. I’m honored to hear that. 🙂

  5. You are a talented writer Ben…. Your post captivated me with your wonderful style of writing. Congratulations on The Blackguard!!! I look forward to reading it in 2015…. I find it fascinating how different experiences during our life shape us into who we become. At 53 when I reflect on all that I have experienced, endured, been confronted with and I can still smile, laugh, be healthy and be positive and express that towards others in a positive way. It’s a good feeling… You are absolutely right that negativity such as vengeance, revenge is exhausting. Best to leave that one alone and get on with life in a positive way. Well done Ben!!!! 🙂

    1. Thank you, I’m honored. 🙂

      How has your life experience changed you?

      1. Dear Ben, I have been off the grid for a short time and getting back into the swing of things with the new year. In reply to your question. It has changed me on many levels. Experiencing a variety of situations in life some good, some not so good and some very difficult can give a person a little time to think about who they are and where as a person they want to go during their life journey. In my case I confess it has toughened me a little and this has given me more confidence as I have aged. One experience that has really made me re-evaluate how I do things was the death of my mother. She was extremely ill for 10 years and my sister and I had to do the best we could to help her during those 10 years. My children were small at that time and spent a lot of time in Hospitals, Nursing Homes etc. Whilst our estranged father made our lives more difficult. In fact he made all our lives difficult whilst we were growing up and even when we left home. My mother finally left him when she became ill…. He still haunted us. I had to stop the rot and cut off contact with him. My children who are now young adults only met him twice. Once in the Nursing Home where my mother lived for 8 years and then at her funeral. This experience has given me the opportunity to be stronger and not afraid of standing up and saying enough! We all deserve the life that we want. To enjoy our passions and embrace what life has to offer. My son is now 22 and my daughter 19. They have a great dad who is always loving and caring. I believe that these experiences shape us into the people we would like to be, having said that you need to learn from your experiences and ensure that history does not repeat itself. PS: there are a few more experiences however, I will save those for another time. 🙂 Happy New Year. Milanka

      2. Happy new year and I look forward to reading the rest of your experiences. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: