My story “Night Fever” is appearing in the May/June 2017 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, and along with the usual comments that it’s not science fiction (hello, alternate history!), I’m guessing I’ll get a few questions about where the fuck the idea of placing Charles Manson in the disco era came from.
A couple of years ago, I posted a tweet that said something like, “If Charles Manson was active in the 70s instead of the 60s, it’d be Night Fever coming down fast instead of Helter Skelter.” My friend Robert Levy replied that he’d read a story about that, so I quickly deleted the tweet to keep the idea to myself.
Though the combination was natural for me — the Manson case and New York of the 70s — it took a long time to get around to writing it for several reasons:
- I worried that it would be too silly or gimmicky.
- I worried that I didn’t know/remember enough about the 70s in New York.
- I had no idea how to tell it.
These are the issues that beset me with most stories, and the only way I’ve found to fix them is to sit down and tinker with a beginning until I find a voice to tell it in. I open a plain text editor and type out various sentences and paragraphs until I feel a twinge of recognition or excitement.
In the case of “Night Fever,” it was this sentence:
Sometimes I wonder what would be different if Charlie got out when he was supposed to. But then, he’d probably be as big an asshole in the 60s as he was in the 70s.
Then I hit upon the idea of writing the story in true crime fragments, quotations from articles and books and court transcripts. I’ve done this before, largely because I’m neurotically skeptical about third-person narratives. I always want to know who is telling the story and why, and the magical authorial voice out of nowhere just creeps me out. Plus I enjoy performing other voices (about half a dozen in “Night Fever,” including a gone-to-seed Truman Capote).
I wrote the story with my patented “tinkering” technique, which is hard to distinguish from fucking around:
- I sat down a lot of Saturday and Sunday mornings at Bagel Love.
- I browsed Facebook and Twitter longer than I should.
- I forced myself to open the “Night Fever” file.
- I read what I’d written and monkeyed around with a few fixes until deciding what needed to be written that day.
- I wrote it, usually for up to three hours but more often two or less.
The great thing about the story was that the structure was essentially dictated by the subject matter. I had to explain why Manson was released in the 70s instead of the 60s, I had to describe New York and the kind of people he’d recruit (focusing on one who’d be sufficiently self-aware like Linda Kasabian), and I had to introduce the prosecutor who would bring him down.
(Originally, the prosecutor was to be an alternate history Rudy Giuliani, but my editor was afraid we’d get sued.)
Then with the pieces in place, they had to commit a crime, get arrested, and go to trial. Most of that part was fun, finding echoes from the original murders in the 60s and play them out in the 70s. I made a playlist to get me in the mood for 1978 and researched what the clubs were like in the era. I absorbed a lot as a kid living there then, but my older sister was going to Shaun Cassidy concerts, not Studio 54.
I didn’t really have a point or purpose to the story as I wrote it except perhaps to refute the idea that any of the original Manson crimes were somehow inevitable results of the hedonistic 60s. Manson’s a chameleon, and I think he’d have done just fine in any era finding people better than him to fall for his shit.
(Modern day Manson followers, please don’t find and kill me!)