A friend of mine is a director. A few years ago, he came out with a documentary. He was eager to talk about it with me on a podcast. “This is my Star Wars,” he said. As in, this is my magnum opus. As in, maybe it’s all downhill from here. As in, this would be the one film for which he would be remembered. The movie is Where’s My Goat? It’s really good. You’ll laugh, think and cry. I recommend it. You’ll probably end up donating a goat to a third world country.
I must confess, the idea of anyone’s best work being behind them while they are still alive is frightening.
You can do a lot of amazing things but people tend to be remembered for one thing. I remember my grandfather for the one time he told me to shut up. I vividly recall the image of my mother chasing me with a wooden spoon (and smiling because we both knew I was running into a dead end.) I remember the last angry words I exchanged with someone who had been a friend since childhood. He ended the sentence with, “Bud,” but he said it ironically. I still want to hook that guy in the gabber.
If we, as writers, are remembered for one thing, what will fans choose?
Alan Rickman fans of a certain vintage think of him as Hans Gruber from Die Hard. For the younger generation, he’ll always be Snape. Rickman was a major star of screen and stage, but he’s one of the lucky ones in this regard. Despite all his talent, people will probably think of those two roles, first and last. That’s unusual.
Throw out any name of a writer, singer or actor and memory becomes reductionist quickly.
Prince? Purple Rain. Bogart? Bogart is always Rick, forever in Casablanca. Mohammed Ali? “Rumble, young man, rumble!” Hemingway? The Old Man and the Sea. Rick Astley? Never Going to Give You Up. (Still love that song and I don’t care if it’s become an internet joke.) Elvis? Dying on a toilet. David Carradine? It was Kung Fu for years, but autoerotic asphyxiation wiped that memory. Careful how you have sex and careful how you die, folks!
We can take a few of lessons from this phenomenon.
The first is, be prolific.
If you do a ton of stuff, it’s hard to boil your legacy down too much. Robin Williams comes to mind. He did so much that our memories of him are many and varied.
Second, don’t be a jerk.
People remember if you’re a jerk and that can put a serious dent in your legacy. If you are a jerk, do a lot of stuff that makes your fans forgive.
Case in point, Robin Williams had a history of abusing drugs and alcohol. He ripped material from a few comedians (and paid for it, after the fact.) He also helped a lot of destitute people financially, insisted the homeless get hired to work on his productions and worked tirelessly for many charities. I still tear up thinking about Robin visiting Christopher Reeve after his catastrophic accident. Superman was in a hospital bed contemplating quadriplegia when a crazed Russian doctor burst in. Robin stayed in character and was, predictably, hilarious. Broken and depressed, Reeve laughed for the first time since breaking his spine. Robin also paid his friend’s hospital bills. I remember a lot about Robin Williams, but that story sticks.
Third, don’t think about your legacy too much or it will paralyze you creatively.
My magnum opus, so far, is This Plague of Days. One of my works in progress is a new zombie apocalypse. People like zombies. It’s fun to write and, yes, I want a hit. I almost didn’t start the new book, however. It was intimidating. Hadn’t I said all I wanted to say on the zombie horror front? Thinking about the prior book stopped me cold on the new one.
This Plague of Days is a contained universe with epic themes. No sequels. No prequels. When I finished the trilogy, I knew doing anything more would be going for a payday instead of servicing the story or entertaining my audience. Could I write another without shivering in the cold shadow of TPOD? At first, I didn’t think so. Then I started writing it. Don’t think too long before you start writing.
It’s not just the zombie book, though. I worry that everything I write will be compared unfavorably to This Plague of Days. If TPOD is my Star Wars, shouldn’t I stop? I liked the first movie from 1977. I’ve liked each film in the franchise since a little less.
What if your best book is your first? That’s a fret.
I loved Jay McInerney’s first three books: Ransom, Bright Lights, Big City and Story of My Life. Then I thought he began to write more self-consciously. He seemed to be trying for a Pulitzer or trying to impress the New York Times book critic. The fun and lightness was gone. I wandered away from a writer I had idolized. I didn’t feel good about it, but he wasn’t writing what I loved anymore. Maybe he matured and I didn’t.
Starting Out in the Evening, starring Frank Lengella, is an instructive movie for writers. Langella plays an elderly writer who achieved success early, entered academia and remains iconic for the work of his youth. A young writer praises his first book but denigrates his second, saying it didn’t live up to the first book. The old writer replies, “You blame me for not writing the same book over and over.” Mic drop.
So, my next zombie apocalypse won’t look like the last one. It won’t be what readers may expect, but then, This Plague of Days wasn’t what they expected, either. For those who don’t know, TPOD is mostly about a kid on the spectrum watching the world fall apart. Jaimie Spencer is an unlikely hero. He thinks in Latin phrases. Killer viruses evolve to three strains with different effects. Bio-terrorists turn into vampires, sort of. The zombies aren’t really zombies. I offer a smidgeon of hope after a road trip through hell. Secrets of the universe are revealed. It’s surreal, gory, global, philosophical and insane.
In my new zombie book, the hero is just as unlikely, but he’s is more like Jeff Lebowski than Jaimie Spencer. If you like Kevin Smith’s style of funny dialogue and Shawn of the Dead, this new one will be your flavor. Ultimately, I have to write for me first and hope readers want a ticket on a new and different crazy train.
For readers of Stephen King, the fan favorite by a landslide is The Stand. (It’s my favorite King book, as well. I emulated the same structure and large cast in TPOD.) King has said that it’s a little disturbing to find that, with such a long and productive career, many fans’ fave is a book he published in September of 1978.
However, I’ve enjoyed many other books by Stephen King. You don’t write to outdo another of your books. You just write as best you can and have a good time doing it. In the end, I decided to put This Plague of Days out of my mind as I write the new zombie apocalypse, or any other book. No sense looking backward. We live forward. Sometimes we top ourselves. I hope to do so with every book.
Oh, and that director friend of mine who thought Where’s My Goat would define his career as a documentarian? You have to see his follow-up. It’s called Regret. If that one defines his career as a filmmaker, I wouldn’t be surprised. He should be proud.
Maybe being defined by one creation wouldn’t be so bad, after all. No regrets.
~ I am Robert Chazz Chute. Check out my author site at AllThatChazz.com. Create freely. Write bunches. Live large. Make love often. Have sex like you’re on camera.