Life slowly began to seep back into the large, marble-floored airport terminal. Bleary eyed, I looked back up from the printed page of the book in my hands. The zamboni-esque floor vacuums were shuffling away down the hall; the next wave of leather-jacketed, laptop-case sporting, matte-brown shoe shod businessmen was trickling in from the TSA checkpoints.
4:30 am. The rock-n-roll pub next to my gate opened it’s doors… finally, I could get some fries and a cup of Californian airport coffee.
I slipped around the corner into the restaurant and ordered, still tiredly holding Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I’d been reading it for the last three hours non-stop… The ‘night life’ in my terminal of LAX airport wasn’t what you’d call vibrant.
The idea for the trip was pretty perfunctory. A few weeks ago I came up with a plot for a locked-room mystery/thriller fusion novel, set in an airport. The fly in the ointment was that I’d never flown commercially…
So my wife and I talked it over. She liked my proposed plot enough to agree it was worth paying for the airfare, destroying my schedule to fit in the flights, and leaving her and my two kids on their own for a few days (something I rarely ever elect to do).
And so there I was, watching the early morning crowd of LAX shuffle into their early morning flights, drinking appallingly weak (bad) coffee, trying to stay awake (I hadn’t slept) with the help of Paula Hawkins’ haunting airport novel.
I’m a firm believer of Vera Caspary’s advice: “To be a writer you need to keep an ear and eye always at the keyhole, without malice.” Following this tip meant I’d been aggressively watching everything and everyone for the last day-and-a half… Interesting, but that much people-watching can start to wear on you after awhile.
I sipped my weak coffee and looked back down to The Girl on the Train as the restaurant’s music-video TV started blaring “Free Bird.” The day before I’d taken the bus out to Santa Monica… Walked the beach for miles, surrounded by runners, cyclists, teens practicing tight-rope walking, bikini-clad girls playing beach volleyball, dope fiends, bums, beach bums, street musicians, street magicians, and seemingly every other kind of the Children of the Sun, constantly playing beneath the palm trees down there in California.
Santa Monica was different than the airports. In Santa Monica I stood out. The guy in dress shoes, jeans, a nice shirt and sport jacket, my portfolio under my arm. My Oregon-ness stood out. I could sense the quick assessments from people I passed… “What’s up with him? Oh, out-of-towner.” But at the airport I was like the rest, keeping to myself, the same by being different.
I finished my coffee and walked back to gate 53B a few minutes early for boarding my flight back to PDX, Portland, Oregon.
Herge’s unequivocal character, Tintin, spent a lot of time in airports. This wasn’t a coincidence. Herge was fascinated by them… For many years he toyed with the idea of constructing a story that took place entirely in an airport, such was his confidence in their dynamic potential. That Idea’s always interested me, and it’s had no little influence on me now that I’m constructing my own ‘airport’ tale.
After spending only a few days in airports— paltry experience, compared to many, I’ll admit— I think I can say I understand what Herge saw in them.
It goes back to the strange sense of fitting by being ‘different’ like all the rest, to the point of disappearing. When everyone’s seated in quiet rows on their plane, or walking through the concourse halls, roller-bags trailing behind them, there’s really no noticeable difference. Travelers moving from point A to point B… businessmen, families. But the minute something incites them to interact— tripping someone with luggage, bumping into someone around a corner— it suddenly becomes apparent how diverse they really are.
That bland businessman? From England. The mundane teenager with the lime-green baseball cap? Traveling back to Germany, with his family. The pleasant looking girl in the pantsuit? Angry… apparently, by the fact she just swore out her phone.
I think it’s the quietness of this diversity that can give the airport such potential for drama. So many stories, so many motivations, so many fears, loves, anxieties, apathies, and judgements, from all around the world, packed tightly together, in polite silence.
Until something happens to make the silence break. For me, the writer, the biggest question is… what’s the “something?” Like I said, on the small scale it could be something as simple as bumping into someone. But on the larger scale…
In the end, Herge said it best to Numa Sadoul in his interview which later became the book, Entretiens avec Herge: “An airport is a centre rich in human possibilities, a meeting point for various nationalities; the whole world is to be found scaled down at an airport! There anything can happen, tragedies, jokes, things exotic, adventure…”
It was probably 2:30 in the morning. I was sitting in front of my computer screen, forcing myself to watch… He just slumped down, putting all his weight onto the electrical cord around his neck, struggling into the tightening knot of the homemade noose.
The disturbing thing about it was that he was only feet from the ground. He could have stood up at any time— ended it. And yet he pulled down harder. After a few minutes he quit struggling. His face got really red, his head dropping weirdly against the cord.
He actually died pretty quickly… I assume he broke his neck. (I’ve since seen many other hangings that didn’t end so… ‘easily.’)
Before that I viewed an execution with AK-47s. Before that a suicide with a handgun. After that Syrian prisoners beaten with a coiled cable. After that a prisoner being tortured. (They had skinned his legs while he was still alive, leaving the moving muscles bared.)
I spent hours watching that stuff. Just as I had done the night before, and just as I would do the next night.
They say “write what you know.” So what does the aspiring murder/mystery novelist do when it comes down to the effects of a 44 magnum on the human skull? Sure, there’s writing-resource sites that let you ‘ask a professional’ and get simplistic answers, but that didn’t seem good enough. That was what all the other aspiring authors were doing… how could I be different?
Conan Doyle… doctor. He saw it all. Michael Connelly… crime reporter. John D Macdonald… served in World War II. Michael Crichton… another doctor.
It seemed as if a lot of the ‘greats’ had experience in the area. Of course, not everyone fits into this mold, but many do.
So I figured I’d get as close to it as I could, with the resources I had. Watch some footage… See how the human body actually reacts to different physical traumas.
As a writer we often find ourselves moving our plots towards dark places… I had heard stories of writers dreading their writing sessions because of where they knew they would have to ‘go.’ I got the idea, but it wasn’t until after a few nights of research I thought I finally understood.
Going to dark places… Why? For me it was to understand the violence in such a way that I could write like I’d been there. Like I was the murderer and the victim. To understand the feeling of killing someone; the dread of realizing you’ve ‘lost,’ and will die.
And after nights of immersing myself in such footage I eventually learned a few things.
Firstly, I was quickly becoming familiar with the violence. Not ‘comfortable,’ per se, but a bit hardened. I suddenly knew what to expect when your face gets punched with brass-knuckles, or a machete’s taken to your fingers, or an extremist slices a dagger into your neck until your head twists off.
Jaded. Hardened. Grim. Weary.
Secondly, I started to empathize with what I was seeing… and not only with the victims. I remember the first moment I realized this I was studying footage of a gang of off-duty soldiers in Syria. They had captured two enemy fighters… It was really a party— they’d laugh, talk, joke, and then light the men’s hair on fire, beat them with sticks, lift them up and drop them, kick them. They just kept at it until the men slowly died.
The realization came when I suddenly wondered why I was viewing these captors as the villains. I didn’t know what those two men had done, nor how they had been captured, nor what was invested in that small slice of life and death… For all I knew the two men had raped the soldiers’ women and killed their children.
Suddenly I caught a glimpse of the wicked satisfaction… or righteous fury… that might have come from slowly killing those two. (Of course there are obvious exceptions to this ambiguity… I had no empathy for the terrorists beheading their victims, etc…)
I remember a story… When Alfred Hitchcock was filming Psycho, Anthony Perkins— who played the murderer Norman Bates— was having trouble forming his role. He complained to Hitchcock that he didn’t know what a murderer looked like. So Hitchcock took him to a little corner cafe.
And then they sat. And sat. Without talking. Watching the endless masses of pedestrian people shuffling past.áAnd eventually Perkins realized what Hitchcock was saying to him: murderers look like normal people. They act like normal people… because they are normal people.
At that point I felt I had what I needed, had gained enough familiarity with the ‘subject,’ to write my novel. So I quit the research.
Is this tortuous study really necessary, though? I believe it is.
I lost something doing that research. I felt the innocence leave the moment I realized that what I was seeing was also latent in all humanity. In those around me. In myself.
But in losing that innocence I also gained something: respect. Now when I watch a murder mystery, or read a thriller, there are actually times I’m legitimately angered by how flippantly violence is used.
A gun to the head does a lot of damage… To the victim’s family, to their friends, and even to the one pulling the trigger… Storytellers should understand the gravity of that before utilizing violence as an element in their novel or on the silver screen. If they don’t, the result is often inappropriate, unbalanced gratuity.
So would I rather cheapen the gravity of such a thing by watering down the reality in my writing? Or make my readers respect the violence that may or may not be coming in the pages ahead? Give it real meaning and purpose instead of sowing it across my stories like cheap wildflower seeds into weedy dirt?
Tough question to answer.