Stuck in the Elevator with the President of the World
Still working on the snappy, one-phrase, brand-defining pitch you’re supposed to have ready when you find yourself riding an elevator with the CEO of Random House.
But all I have are concepts culled from various web interviews over the years, most of them for my novel CommWealth. Because these thousand loose words haven’t yet jelled, the only thing that might work would be … elevator malfunction.
Thus I find myself trapped between the 334th and 335th floors of the United World Building with the grim, barrel-chested, six-foot-eight President of the World. His Excellency’s infuriated phone call elicits the unwelcome response that repairs will require at least half an hour.
Alone with the towering, grunting, exasperated Präsident der Welt, I finally muster the courage to look up into his deep-set, icy blue glare, and begin:
What inspires me, as a writer, are plots that make deep emotional and thematic sense, like a dream or déjà vu; or the eerie feeling I sometimes get that I’m in fact living in a novel right now. I’ve always been drawn to the concept of the psychological novel. I’m not sure how well I’ve lived up to that genre, but I keep pushing on it. Somehow “humor” and “psychological novel” flow together for me; I don’t think I’ll be writing grim investigations like Crime and Punishment. Then again, never say never.
I have an odd mantra, dating back to my Rice University days as a shy introvert shrinking from interaction with an energy-sapping exterior world: somehow, in the middle of intense adolescent Sturm und Drang, this statement popped into my head: “There’s a super colossal mess jungle going on. It’s my business to get involved with it, any way I can.” I saw that I needed to observe, participate in, and process everything around me for my writing and visual art. My wife Nancy refined this later when she told me: “Everything you do in this life is for your art.” Whenever I feel oppressed by exterior obstacles, I just have to remember that they’re also fuel.
The world is an art supply.
My science fiction is a mashup of literary and space opera genres. My literary novels in turn are infused with science fiction and absurdist elements. My best writing is a solid investigation of “what’s been psychically going on recently,” and this includes even the fun, fast-paced SF plots. When it’s coming out well it opens up fresh inner territories to explore.
Science fiction films and books, absorbed since childhood, prompted my early writing, but they’ve also influenced the bizarre aspects that are part of almost all my work, including CommWealth, which after all has no spaceships or teleportation systems, just an outrageously crazed social order with hysterical, over-the-top characters. The Twilight Zone TV show, which produced much childhood terror, was a major factor as well. Later inspiration came from Franz Kafka, Robert Heinlein, and Stanley Kubrick, and decades of letters between me and my best friend Sabin, whom I’ve known since I was five, helped hone my writing style.
My best work begins with a good “What if?” For instance, “What if all private property were abolished? How would people live?” A detailed dream can also lend itself to that “What if?” question. Or looking at a flawed older manuscript, finally grasping its “What if? and seeing exactly how to fix it.
I love it when I see someone reading my work and laughing; I then demand to know exactly where they are in the book. And I very much enjoy drawing the characters, and the drawings often give me feedback on their development.
I try to parcel pieces of myself to all the characters, both male and female. The ensemble cast format of CommWealth, in which half a dozen main characters take equal turns on stage, allowed me to represent my best and worst qualities across a wide range of characters and scenes. Allan, the narcissistic playwright and actor who forces the Forensic Squad theatrical troupe to stage his mediocre play, who hoards an unbelievable amount of consumer electronics and sports cars and isn’t above crime to get even more, might be my psychological shadow. Oddly, it’s Erica, the betrayed girlfriend of the ruthlessly charismatic bicycle mechanic Richard, who represents my best self. A professional model who’s initially scorned as shallow and incapable, she surprises everyone with her maturity and courage, and it’s her practical insight that finally undermines the CommWealth dystopia.
The President, eyes glazed, sighs in relief as the elevator finally starts moving. Yet it’s heading to the topmost, five-hundredth floor and the Presidential Suite, which takes up two acres of open space, three hundred sixty degrees of floor-to-ceiling window overlooking a gleaming futuristic city extending to clear blue horizon. Wordlessly the President gestures to the twenty-foot titanium desk of the Executive Secretary of the World, who extends to me a thin, forest-green envelope.
A publisher’s contract?
A check for a million dollars?
The ideal elevator pitch incorporating all the above?
copyright 2023 by Michael D. Smith
More on CommWealth, in which members of a theatrical troupe find themselves leading a suicidal revolution against the CommWealth system, which has outlawed all private property.
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