Excerpt: ‘Other Lives of the Boothbys’

Yesterday, I promised (warned?) that an excerpt would arrived today, from my novella Other Lives of the Boothbys.

And now here’s the section where Bradley Boothby calls the writer George Foulkes to chat about a character in one of George’s stories…


Excerpt

Dialing the phone number on the screen, Bradley hoped George Foulkes wouldn’t ignore the call. If George had caller ID (and didn’t most people?), he wouldn’t recognize this number and might assume it was a telemarketer. George could let the call go to voicemail.

“Hello?”

“Hi. Is this George Foulkes?”

“That’s me. Who’s this?”

Bradley didn’t have a flair for the dramatic. If he did, he could’ve deepened his voice, wishing to sound like a theatrical voice from beyond. Bradley said his own name in his normal voice.

Silence that could’ve lasted an hour but was merely a handful of seconds.

“Is this the editor again?” George asked. “No, I guess not. The number’s different. So’s the voice. Who is this, really?”

“I’m really Bradley Boothby. The editor called you because I went to his office this morning. I asked him to look up my name in his company’s books, and he discovered it in yours.”

“But my book isn’t published by his company,” George said. “I’m sending it around.”

“Okay, so that part’s wrong. But the book was at his company. And my name’s in your book.”

“Oh my God.” The writer’s caution dropped its luggage and jumped into excitement. “My own character is calling me. Do you have a quest for me? Or do you want me to chronicle more of your adventures?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Is this like in The Dark Tower?”

“Dark what?”

“A book series by Stephen King,” George said. “The characters visit King, and they convince him to continue writing the series. Well, they hypnotize him to keep going. He was afraid of being killed by the Crimson King. And with good reason. It’s a fantastic series. King’s a master of his craft, and I like stories about parallel realities.”

Bradley pinched the bridge of his nose, and the pressure helped to center his thoughts. “I’m wondering if I’m in a parallel reality.”

“Is it like ours? Or is it a post-apocalyptic wasteland?”

“It’s not a wasteland. Not yet.”

“Too bad,” George said. “It would’ve had more opportunities for characters to act like savages. But you calling me is huge. Never in a million years did I think one of my characters would call me.”

“I’m not your character,” Bradley said.

“Oh yeah? Do you own a storage facility?”

“No, and I didn’t find a time machine.”

“Then how do you know about the time machine?” George asked.

“Jack Schneider told me. We just had drinks, and he told me about your novel, how you got the idea for the name of the characters.”

“I know you’re not the people from the booth. They’re not my characters.”

“And I’m not, either!” Bradley’s volume was louder than he had meant.

Danielle looked worried at her husband, leaning against the kitchen counter, growing more agitated, his arm held across his chest propping up his other arm holding the phone at his ear. The past couple weeks had put a strain on Bradley, and today’s revelations made it worse. They should’ve improved the situation, by providing answers. However, not all answers gave relief, instead causing troubles of their own.

“This is disappointing,” George said. “Especially since you don’t have a time machine. That’d be more incredible than incredible.”

“Believe me, if I owned a time machine, I’d be rich,” Bradley said. “I’d go back in time and buy the stocks that would make me rich. And I’d live in a much bigger place.”

Bradley didn’t have to look around the kitchen to remember its dimensions and middle-of-the-line appliances. He and Danielle fantasized about owning a rowhouse, rather than renting this apartment. They were saving money for that dream.

“Okay, okay,” George said, enthusiasm drained from his voice. “So you’re not my character. It would be cool if you were, though.”

“Gosh, thanks for acknowledging me as a real person.”

“I deserve the sarcasm,” the writer said. “Why’d you ask the editor to look up your name?”

As Bradley gave the background of the persistent déjà vu outside of Randolph-Turley, it was easier to talk about. Growing accustomed to it with practice. George asked if the feeling was one that Bradley often had, and Bradley said he rarely felt it before the recent happening with the publishing company. Before, the feeling was minor, going to a place and having the sense he had been there but was unable remember the specific memory.

Bradley pictured George sitting cross-legged on a rug, peering through eyeglasses, a notepad resting on his lap, pen jotting down nuggets of information. The writer turned into therapist. Wanting to delve into the inner workings of this situation, discover what made it tick.

“We find ourselves in a fascinating place, don’t we?” George asked. “Here’s how I see it. You could hang up, and this whole thing is over. You found your answer about my character. You can chalk it up to random shit in a random world.”

“Sounds about right,” Bradley said.

“But this doesn’t have to end here. We can keep going.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning the universe aligned to put us together,” George said. “I don’t know why, but it did. We should get together in person.”

“You want to come to New York and meet up?”

“Or you could come here. I’ve got it.” Excitement returned to the writer’s voice. “How about we meet the people in the booth? My wife and I are regulars at the diner. We’ve seen those people there before. Wouldn’t that blow your mind? Boothby could meet the Boothbys.”

Bradley pondered such a meeting. “I think it would blow your mind more than it would blow mine. They’re just regular people to me.”

“You’re sort of connected to them. Think it over. It would be a shame to end things with this phone call.”

Bradley said he would consider the idea, then he hung up and told Danielle about George’s invitation. She didn’t share the writer’s thrill about meeting strangers who happened to be eating in the booth behind George Foulkes and his wife on a particular night. Kansas City, Missouri wasn’t a subway ride from Brooklyn.

***

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Photo of a hole in drywall within a house.
by Lujia Zhang/Unsplash

Yesterday, I posted a review of Horrorshow, and I wanted to follow that with a post about another aspect of the novel.

This post has a spoiler for Horrorshow, so if you plan on reading it, you might want to stop reading here.

(Well, the post’s title is big clue, but try to forget that.)

Moving on…

In that book, just beyond halfway through it, the main character (Riley) starts coming to grips with the notion that he could be a character in a novel. I’ve learned that the phrase to describe the situation is “breaking the fourth wall.” The Free Dictionary gives a background how that got started:

“Taken originally from theater, in which the fourth wall describes the invisible ‘wall’ that stands between the audience and the stage.”

I can’t remember when I first heard about the concept, but it’s a fascinating one. The idea that a writer can develop self-awareness in their characters, so they realize (or are told) that they’re within a story.

A helpful video on “metafiction” is on YouTube: Understanding Metafiction (Literature, Films and Video Games).

The movie Stranger Than Fiction (2006) explores the idea when Harold begins to hear, inside his head, a narrator describing his life. I enjoyed that movie, and it planted a seed in my mind to eventually write a metafictiony story.

Years later, I heard the Radiolab episode, “The Real Don Quixote” (2015). The show’s guest Bruce Burningham (professor at Illinois State University) talks about how Miguel Cervantes broke the fourth wall in the sequel of Quixote’s adventures. In Part Two, the character Sampson Carrasco tells Don Quixote and Sancho Panza about the Part One book and drops the news that they’re characters.

The episode set the brain gears turning, then I wrote a flash-fiction piece “Characters in a Story,” in which two characters chat about the suspicion that they are, yes, characters in a story. Maybe funny in an absurd way, but too much like a writing exercise.

I came up with a broader story, and that flash-fiction piece is within it: Other Lives of the Boothbys

Cover for Other Lives of the Boothbys, with the title included within other text that's not important and grayed out.

Bradley Boothby has also seen Stranger Than Fiction, and he feels déjà vu when he walks by the building for Randolph-Turley Publishing Company. Bradley doesn’t think he’s a fictional character, but he feels he is somehow connected to a story published by that company. So Bradley takes the step of entering the building and talking with an editor to see if, somehow, his name is included in one of their books.

That meeting sets off a series of events. Included in those, the editor Jack Schneider and the writer George Foulkes write passages of books inspired by Bradley’s quest. Jack Schneider takes a crack at writing scenes of two characters forming a deeper relationship. George Foulkes starts a new story in which another writer is visited by his characters from a post-apocalyptic world.

I had fun writing Other Lives of the Boothbys, trying to come up with how different people could be inspired, then act on that inspiration. All of the writing process wasn’t fun, as self-doubt continued to pop up. I wondered if people would find the book boring. But in the end, I was pleased with the story, and I’m proud of it.

Tomorrow, I’ll post an excerpt from the book. Ah, the suspense…

But if you can’t wait for 24 hours, you can read an excerpt from the novella’s beginning here (I posted it last year).