Michel’s ghost has haunted me for eight years
Eight years ago, I had been inspired to write a travel epos. I still remember reading a friend’s book that included beautiful descriptions of traveling, and I began to wonder what it would be like if I tried the same. I have, after all, traveled extensively in my life. I figured that I had plenty of imagery and emotions to draw upon. That’s how Haakon’s story begins, his longing for travel, focusing on the smells and scents we encounter while elsewhere. But something happened on Haakon’s first trip abroad that wasn’t planned. He fell in love, with the perfect guy, and my pantser brain began to panic. I pressed on, and given the era, Michel’s fate was quickly sealed by my subconscious: he’d have to go, and AIDS would the tool to rid myself of this interference so early in the book. I just couldn’t imagine a book where a couple traveled the world together. No, Haakon would have to do so on his own, especially given the first chapter. Different partner, no Michel.
Michel’s death scene impacted me deeply
Laugh at me, but I have never written anything like Michel’s death scene again. Maybe it was his way to make sure I didn’t forget about him. Even eight years later, I am unable to read that scene about November 29, 1986, the “glorious day”, without my voice breaking. I can’t. It took me five years before I was able to read it in public for the first time, and yeah, I couldn’t get through it without tears. And somewhere in the depths of my subconscious, Michel’s ghost took up residence and began to plot his revenge. After finalizing the manuscript for Matt, I wasn’t sure what would be next for me, but I had this weird dream about Michel. I saw glimpses of his youth, and I decided to go with it. However, the pandemic and my work kept me from focusing on my writing. Progress was slow and I was ready to just give up more than once. The pantser in me was suddenly jogging down ideas of chapters, things I’d need to write about, plotting, and planning for how the book would have to be structured. For someone who’s used to trusting his subconscious, and who was never really disappointed by that trust, plotting was distressing.
Alas, suddenly last summer, inspiration struck and the bulk of the story wrote itself in days. In fact, I was almost frantic, having to steal a moment or two to write even with the family around me. It was almost feverish. I have never experienced anything like it before.
The hybrid writing process led to a long and arduous editing process
At the end of the day, I had a manuscript that required a lot of editing. Some chapters didn’t work with others, the timeline was off, and I have never added so much to a first draft as I have in this story. Changes were necessary in a great many places, and I also had to make sure to place the story within a plausible arc because there were things that I couldn’t address within the context of the “diary” main story. How could I address questions that Michel obviously wouldn’t have the answers to? The arc story allowed me to explore that, and to provide answers, and closure. I had to make sure that I didn’t abandon Michel one more time. I had to make sure that his death would be explained, and that he was laid to rest as he deserves. Obviously, the diary wouldn’t have been able to do that. Therefore, Haakon appears in the story again. And all the answers were right there, in the original book.
One sentence in The Fallen Angels of Karnataka kicked off Michel’s story
In order to prepare for the narration of Michel, I asked my friend Michael Bakkensen to narrate The Fallen Angels of Karnataka, and as we were editing the audio files the other day, it struck me that I had specifically mentioned Michel’s diary in the original novel. Sure, I always knew that Haakon had it, but I had forgotten that I had actually put it into the story back then.
Michel’s book is stand-alone. You needn’t read TFAK (as we like to call it) to understand the new book. There is plenty of context provided. But I have a hunch that some may want to go back and either re-read or maybe even get to know Haakon better. His story is very different, of course, going in a completely different direction. Making sure the new book didn’t contradict what little is said in the old was an interesting challenge. Conversations from the two points of view had to be kept in sync, and that wasn’t always easy, but in the end, I think it turned out just fine.
When imagination meets reality
I had no idea what I would be writing about, or what Michel would tell me. Sure, I had known that he and his parents weren’t exactly close and that his upbringing was framed by his parents’ homophobia. I also knew that at some point he’d have to be infected by HIV. I also knew he had friends back in Rennes where he’d grown up, but the couple of chapters where we meet Michel in TFAK are cursory with regards to details about his life. I don’t always know where the information that finds itself onto the pages of my stories comes from, this amalgamation of my own experiences with things I’ve read, or heard of. To write about the eighties and gay life without passing HIV was impossible back in 2014 and it still is, of course. But I didn’t want to write yet another HIV book. There are plenty of those out there. I was more interested in getting underneath the skin. What was society like, why was a disease such as HIV able to spread the way it did, why didn’t we react differently to it? Answers to this are also found in the arc, as Michel obviously never got to live to see it for himself. Queer life has changed so much since then, at least here in western Europe. And when I look back at my own youth (I’m just a couple of years younger than Michel and Haakon), and I remember how society judged us, and treated us back then, I look at the role that religion played, and just how much things have changed since then. And I look around and I see how a tsunami of backlash is shaping all around us, from religious extremists to “populist” politicians who will scapegoat anybody to use as a stepping stone toward more power. We see it in Brasil, Russia, Hungary, or Poland to just name a couple of places. The list is much longer though.
I recall writing about the pedophile ring in London in TFAK, and how reality trumped my own imagination back in 2014 when such a ring was busted. I had a similar revelation after writing the scenes of Michel’s abuse at the hands of the clergy. Just days later news broke of hundreds of thousands of victims at the hands of Catholic priests across France. Unimaginable evil and suffering. Makes you wonder… Is there hope for humanity?
How do you pull off an unconventional Happy Ending when the hero dies?
With so much negativity all around us, I find it even more important to provide hope. Hope that there is a better tomorrow, for all of us. I don’t think I could cope with life otherwise. I must have faith in the good of humanity, that ultimately, good trumps evil. In Michel, I hope to have found a way to lay Michel to rest, and I hope he has forgiven me for his untimely demise in TFAK. You, dear reader, will be able to find out just how I pulled off that ending on April 30. You’ll be able to read or listen to the story then, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Michel–Fallen Angel of Paris is published by Beaten Track Publishing and will be released as paperback and ebook. The audiobook is narrated by Michael Bakkensen.