Writing Odyssey

Jack McDevitt

Boobus Americanus.

I first ran across this phrase — I think — in one of the news stories recounting the cerebral thrombosis that had disabled one of the literary giants of the first half of the twentieth century. It was 1948, and H. L. Mencken's career was effectively over. He would die eight years later, after a difficult period during which he could neither read nor write.

He lived to attack the various imbecilities of his day, which were not much unlike the imbecilities of our own. His was a world full of conmen and idiots. Leading the pack were politicians, college professors, bishops, lawyers, uplifters, do-gooders, true believers, and almost anyone in authority. It was heady stuff for a 13-year-old, and I loved him from the first minute. The United States, he said, was a bastion of absurdities, a place for those who couldn't make it at home. Someone asked him why, if that was true, he insisted on living here. Why didn't he go back where he came from? (He came from Baltimore.) His reply: Why do men go to zoos?

It was inevitable that, eventually, I'd try to bring him to life in my own work. And sure enough, he showed up in full bloom as Gregory MacAllister in Deepsix. The character was such a pleasure to write, I could not resist bringing him back. The great opponent of nonsense caught up in a novel with moonriders, the 23rd century equivalent of UFOs. It was a natural.

When the Dayton, Tennessee, school board filed charges against John Scopes for teaching evolution in a science class, it was an issue that played right into Mencken's mind set. He arranged to have Clarence Darrow brought in to defend Scopes. He wrote extensively about the event, ridiculing prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan, the crowds who gathered to support the prosecution, and everyone else who wanted evolution out of the schools. Which was pretty much everyone else. He even gave the Monkey Trial its name.

If I were going to capture his spirit properly (if indeed that's even remotely possible), he needed his own version of the Dayton wars. Fortunately, an opportunity occurs when a trial develops over the issue of whether fire and brimstone instruction to young children constitutes child abuse.

Writing the character, both in Deepsix, and in Odyssey, has been pure joy.

August 23, 2006


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