The Big Picture

To understand why I started writing Author X Audience, first you have to understand a few things about me. First, there are two things I always return to when under stress: books, and a night owlish sleep schedule. Second: when the world feels unfamiliar to me, I start looking for stories that I can relate to.

Studying abroad in Japan, I was under a lot of stress and I couldn’t find any stories that I could relate to.

First, let’s talk about the stress part. Japan had kind of been my pipe dream after my family had imploded through a combo of four deaths and my father having an affair. Studying abroad there was supposed to give me an edge on getting out of my book publishing program with some credentials that would make me attractive to some manga publishers back home in the states. Being there was supposed to be a breath of fresh air, something to make me feel like I was making progress in my career and not just a good-for-nothing college graduate with a Creative Writing degree who went back to grad school because she couldn’t find a job. Instead, being there made me feel more isolated than ever. I was starving for some real human interaction and a way to express myself. I missed being able to talk easily and fluently with people I met on the street. I missed being able to communicate eloquently in my coursework and with my classmates. And, on top of all that, I had been told by my counselor to lie to my host family about my sexuality. Being bisexual is a big no no in Japan, even though they have the coolest word for it ever. (The word ryoutoutsukai means both “dual sword wielder” and “bisexual.”) I was tired all the time, speaking Japanese both in class and also at home. My only respites were when I could get one of the other exchange students to come hang out with me—and half of them spoke English as a second language to begin with—or when I got a rare skype date with one of my friends from home. The only person who was ever awake and had time to talk during my evenings was my friend Ainsley. She had a night shift at a computer company where her job was essentially to chill, make sure the databases didn’t mess up, and do some light data entry. This meant she had plenty of time to chat with me over IM after I was done with my day.

But I was still restless. All I did whenever I had the attention of someone who spoke English was complain about how much I missed speaking English. Japanese was a fascinating language, and I loved every bit of it I learned—especially the kanji. It just took so much out of me to speak it all the time; at school, at home, on the streets. This is the experience that anyone living in a country where they don’t speak the language has, and it was an eye-opening experience. But on top of having to hide my bisexuality and other aspects of myself from both my school environment and my host family’s home, I was cracking. My anxiety was back, and there was no easy way for me to see a therapist. Even when I explained to my counselor what I was dealing with, she didn’t know how to help me. I tried to find media that could help me through those feelings, but everything accessible to me was either in Japanese or didn’t encompass all of the things I was dealing with.

Then I had a dream. The dream was really nice, and really warm. In this dream, a story teller that I looked up to met me accidentally at a movie, and then we had a really weird conversation, and when I woke up, I felt more hopeful than I had in months.

The dream inspired me. I told Ainsley about it that night when I was talking to her over IM. When I got to the end, Ainsley said, “So what happened next?”

Then, instead of telling her that’s where I’d woken up, I started making the story up from where the dream had left off.

The reworked version of the series of messages I sent Ainsley over the next two months became the story that I’m telling you today. I say reworked, because the first version was definitely a lot more personal. For those of you that know me, you’ll instantly recognize some of me and my life experiences in Alexis. For those of you in fandom, it won’t be difficult for you to figure out who the story teller from my dream was. That said, I feel it’s very important to specify that Alexis, while much of her comes from me—the Greek family, the bisexuality, the family trauma, the glasses, the cat, etc—she isn’t me. She’s a character. A really personal one, and one who allowed me to write a hopeful future for a person like me who got away with a once-in-a-million chance, but a character nonetheless. The same goes for Terry Walsh, and Lizzy. All of them are based loosely on real people, combined with other characters I had to cut from the first draft, and then fleshed out until they grew into the characters they are now.

More than anything, this story and these characters were a way for me to work through my own trauma and express myself. Telling it to myself and to Ainsley over the first two months of its initial creation, and then the next three months of its first edit, comforted and stabilized me while I stayed in Japan. There are a couple of aspects that helped with this more than others.

To pick an example that’s visible from the beginning, the story takes place in first person, and in present tense. The reason for this is that it’s honestly the only POV that I feel really captures what living with my anxiety is like. Alexis talks in a lot of run on sentences, with a lot of swirling thoughts. She’s dry, sarcastic, jaded, and always always aware of just how sideways things could go at any given moment. At the beginning of the story, we see a lot of this. Even though Alexis looks up to Terry, she’s constantly thinking about how bad it might be if he’s untrustworthy. It takes a lot of coaxing from Lizzy to get her to even take a chance. Especially with all of the men in show business who use their status to take advantage of female coworkers and female fans, I really wanted to highlight what a trigger point being alone with a man she doesn’t know could be for a character with anxiety—especially when that man is someone she looks up to. Alexis knows that she doesn’t know anything about Terry as a real person—because no one ever knows celebrities like real people except other people who live in their world.

There’s a quote from the first Welcome to Night Vale novel that I feel really encompasses what it’s like to look up to someone whom you’ve never met but have interacted with extensively through their work, interviews, and other public facing persona: “How do you say everything you’ve wanted to say to a person who has been a big part of your life and doesn’t know you at all?” (pg 354, paragraph 1)

There’s actually a name for that kind of connection to a person. It’s a parasocial relationship, or, in layman’s terms, a one sided relationship. The thing is, according to the research of Dr. Karen Dill-Shackleford, those relationships are as real to us as our relationships with our close friends and family. The brain doesn’t categorize them differently.

Meaning, that even though we know that characters and the public facing personas of people we don’t know in real life are fictional, our brains often don’t care to parse such silly details when forming empathetic connections.

With how accessible creators are now due to the internet, and how involved fandom can get in a story’s creation/direction/success, those connections are now easier to form than ever. So we have plenty of instances where you could meet someone you look up to, who has been a big part of your life, and who has no idea who you are.

That was kind of the mood I wanted to capture when moving forward with Author X Audience—and Alexis is very aware of just how presumptive she might come off as a fan who knows too much about Terry Walsh and his personal life. It’s both funny and liberating to watch her take that awareness and have her anxiety shuffle it into her own personal emotional whirlwind.

There’s also the question of how much of a story belongs to a creator these days. Of course, the stories that are told are always going to be decided by their creators, but WHO should be allowed to tell those stories? Certainly not people who don’t care about women. Certainly not people who don’t care about people of color. Certainly not bigots of any kind. So, if that’s the case, what does a creator owe their audience? Do they owe them the ending they want? Or do they owe them the story that is truest to the characters? Or do they owe them the story that will get the biggest reaction?

What creators owe to their audiences isn’t a theory that feels like it’s being applied in big Hollywood at the moment, and even those creators who are trying to make media that does justice to one part of an audience might find themselves bartering or taking great personal risk to do it (let me remind you how Rebecca Sugar had to threaten to walk from Cartoon Network in order to get Ruby and Sapphire’s wedding kiss included on her show). Creators often owe their publishers marketable content more than they owe their fans anything—at least in today’s world.

While writing Author X Audience, I kind of got to ignore that fact, and focus more on the philosophy of the argument. If creators did owe their audiences anything, what would it be? The relationship between Alexis and Terry really builds on that—how they come from different stand points, but both have strong feelings about a story they love; one as a creator, and the other as a fan. All goes well while they agree about a direction, but when they start disagreeing, we get into the meat of the argument.

Creators are human, just like the rest of us. It can be kind of easy to forget that, since we constantly think of them as larger than life. But since they’re human, their experiences and the environments they create in can have a lot of influence on the final product.

Anyway, I hope the story I told myself to get through Japan can offer you some of the warmth and safety it gave me. I hope it makes you think, and above all, I hope you love it as much as I loved the idea of it loving you.

Thanks for coming along for the ride!

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