VAL KILMER'S LEFT BUTTOCK AND GIANT IGUANAS: WRITERLY FABRICATIONS
People lie. Writers fabricate. True, writers are people, too. But they’re people who, like Hemingway, can observe a car accident and start scribbling notes about the details even while they’re trying to help the accident victims. They’re people like Vladimir Nabokov, who would publish a poem under a pseudonym, then write a letter to the editor blasting his own poem and then come to his own defense under yet another name. They’re people who, like Henry James, will stop someone at a dinner party in the middle of a story and ask the storyteller not to tell the ending so they can come up with a better one. Now, it’s true that “storyteller” and “writer” are sometimes two different vocations, but they do come together at times.
I don’t think writers do this just because they’re compulsive liars. I think it’s more a way of practicing for the short stories, novellas, and novels. I think it’s more a sense of play and a sense of liking a good tall tale. In other words, it’s usually pretty harmless. And if you’re lucky, you tell some yarn and the people you’re telling it to add to it, or use at their own.
So I thought it might be time to start a little internet meme about the stories we fabricate in real-time, in real life. If you do decide to follow on from this post, let me know and I'll post the links to your own fabrications in a future blog entry.
Anyway, here are the top lies…er, fabrications I’ve told in the “real” world. Not included is one pulled on me by my stepdaughter Erin, the oft-told Hannukah Bear Story, which I blogged about last year.
Val Kilmer’s Left Buttock
Several years ago Ann and I were visiting my dad in Gainesville. We were staying in a Cabot Lodge and one night we turned on the movie The Doors. Ann wondered why they’d gotten Val Kilmer to play the role of Jim Morrison and I casually said, “It’s because they have the same physical deformity.” “Really?” Ann asked. “Yeah—they both only have half of their left buttock. In Morrison’s case it’s a birth defect. In Kilmer’s case it was the result of an accident involving an arrow in gym class as a kid. They’ve both had to wear prosthetics their whole lives, and since the physical aspect is one way Oliver Stone gets into his movies, he cast Kilmer.” And this went on for awhile, until final Ann threw a pillow at me. I’ve told this story about ten times since and about half the time I get away with it for the first couple of minutes.
Brian Stableford’s Wooden Leg
After staying at Brian Stableford’s house for a day or two on one of our England trips, we met up with Mark Roberts, Keith Brooke, Neil Williamson and others in London. We were standing on a crowded street corner while Ann got money out of an ATM when they asked me about Stableford’s house. I told them all about his wall-to-wall books, his generosity as a host, and then about how he was especially generous considering he had a wooden leg. “What?” they exclaimed. “Yeah—he has a wooden leg. That’s why he’s often photographed with his hand in his left pocket—because the mechanism that animates the leg comes up through a cut in that pocket. It’s also why he seems a bit stiff from time to time.” Etc., etc. With that crowd, I only got about forty-five seconds of belief, though.
My Paper Plate
For some reason at my old job when people asked me about myself I kept telling them I was a former super middleweight fighter who had given up a national title shot to join the army and serve my country just when the Grenada excursion happened. As the story went, I was a paratrooper and landed badly and hurt my head. But the army was too cheap to give me a metal plate, so they put a new-fangled half-plastic half-paper plate in my head. That because it’s not a permanent plate and my health insurance won’t cover anything else, I have to have it changed out every three or four years. But it upsets my balance so I can never box again. A couple of people seemed to buy this, so then I’d launch into my Val Kilmer story.
The Giant Iguana
This is one that my stepdaughter and I used to create together when she was little and her friends would come over to play. Her friends would be petting the cats and I’d ask Erin, “Where’s the giant iguana?” And she’d say, “I think it’s under the bed.” Thus would start our little monologue about our pet iguana, rescued from a zoo. That her friends shouldn’t be worried—it didn’t bite much. Sometimes we’d vary this when she wanted to get off the phone with a friend. I’d shout out, “Erin—it’s time to feed the iguana!” Erin would say to her friend, “Sorry—gotta go. I have to feed the iguana,” and hang up. Over time, we created all kinds of subsidiary information about the iguana—how we took it for walks on a leash, how it ate a dog once, etc. Eventually, we had to stop because some of her friends actually got frightened.
The Frog Fairy
I got tired of being the tooth fairy where Erin was concerned, so she started getting money from the frog fairy. The frog fairy was always either short of cash or only had foreign currency, because of traveling all over the world. So, she’d get a letter under her pillow from the frog fairy that explained all the places he’d been that night and here were some Chinese coins because that’s all he had in his pockets. Sometimes there would be a long apology if the frog fairy hadn’t given her anything but the tooth fairy had. Usually it also included insults to the tooth fairy. Alas, one night, as the frog fairy was creeping up on her to put the letter under her pillow, she turned over, saw us (we had actually been creeping—I mean, like we were straight out of a comic book or Scooby Doo), gave a big smile, and then turned over again. So I had to retire that fabrication.
National Literary Bird Award
Ann and I were bored one day so we fashioned some stationery from some kind of national bird society and sent a letter to our friend Nathan Ballingrud via Joe Nigg, who has written several books on mythical birds. In the letter, Nathan was told that he’d won first place that year for his use of birds in his short fiction. The letter went on and on about the use of birds in various works of literature, from Faulkner to Hemingway, and how integral they were to the plots of various books. Accompanying the letter was one of Joe’s books. To this day, I’m not exactly sure what Nathan thought about all of this. But it’s not a fabrication we use very often.
Our friend Eric Schaller called us recently and told us we wouldn’t be able to handle the New Hampshire weather when we visit over New Year’s. So I told him it wouldn’t be a problem—that we’d bought this product called Penguin Phat while in Madison for World Fantasy. “It’s great. It’s actually made from penguin fat and you just rub it all over your body before you put your clothes on and it protects you from the cold. It’s a little messy because you have to put on a really thick layer, but it does the job.” “Really?” Eric asked. “No,” I said. But I’ve since been told that there may in fact be such a product!
P.S. One I haven't put on the list is a fabrication my friend and work colleague Paul Larsen and I came up with about us being a dance team--ballroom, interpretive, synchronized swimming, you name it. The reason I haven't put it on the list is that it's free-form: you have to experience it to believe it. Although the apogee of the routine probably came during a team lunch. I had just described our experimental interpretative dance routine describing the march back from Moscow by Napoleon. "What did you wear?" someone asked. "White unitards, over our faces, too," I said, "to symbolize the snow, and then to symbolize the hunger, over top of that we wore..." And Paul cut in with: "Horseflesh. Pounds and pounds of horseflesh." I just about died.
(Evil Monkey: "Did you see this article on Locus Online? Riveting stuff!" Jeff: "Naw, I haven't seen it. You liked it?" Evil Monkey: "It's like...it's like some kind of literary mystery. Listen to this quote: 'At this point, I made a key decision relevant to any effort to define science fiction. Shapiro planned to organize his book of quotations by authors, and I had agreed to follow his example, which would have made the task of editing relatively straightforward. Yet I now resolved to organize my quotations by topics, requiring me to create various topical headings and accordingly reorganize my thousands of quotations as part of the process of final editing.' " Jeff: "Hmmm." Evil Monkey: "It's not over. Then he writes, 'Admittedly, I was inclined to choose topical organization because I thought this would be more appealing to casual readers, who would more likely consult a book of quotations looking for quotations about "progress" instead of quotations by Ray Bradbury. However, I was also acknowledging the special nature of science fiction. If you group quotations by authors, you implicitly present your material as a collection of individual voices, each offering their own distinctive brand of wisdom. But science fiction writers are typically very much aware of their predecessors and colleagues, and their statements often are overt or subtle responses to statements by other authors.' " Jeff: "I can't believe I'm still awake." Evil Monkey: "What? Only you get to write boring, long self-absorbed articles about books you've done?" Jeff: "Point taken.")