It's funny, really. In all my years of writing, the question I'm asked most frequently is the one I have the toughest time answering. What, you may wonder, is the question that so flummoxes me, sending me into fits of stammering, backtracking, and other assorted idiocy?
"What's it about?"
Sure, it seems benign enough. Hell, I imagine most of the time the person asking is just trying to be polite. After all, if I can't manage a couple of coherent sentences describing my book/short story/manifesto, how good could said book/short story/manifesto really be? But I've botched the answer so many times now that I've come up with a brief, descriptive sentence that does the job but bears little resemblance to what I think the work in question is actually about, just to have something to say that doesn't make whoever asked hide the paste and take away my big-boy scissors. In the case of my novel, that faux-descriptive sentence is as follows:
It's about the murder of a lower-class girl in an affluent small-town community on the coast of Maine.
Every time I say it, though, I'm thinking, "You idiot! That's not at all what it's about! It's about classism and corruption in small-town America! It's about exorcising the demons of your past and reconciling who you are with who you thought you'd be! It's about greed and ambition and the price we pay for timidity and apathy in the face of it! It's about pie!" Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the point. The thing is, though, you can't say any of that, because when you do, whoever you're talking to glazes over and you can practically hear them thinking, "Oh, it's one of those books."
It's not, though. I have neither illusions nor ambitions about writing an Important Novel. I rarely read Important Novels, and when I do, they're typically genre fiction that, by virtue of quality and age, has been retroactively dubbed Important.
I do believe, though, that the best genre fiction has resonance. Romero's Dead cycle is about zombies, sure, but it's also about racism, classism, and consumerism. Hammett's Red Harvest rails against the corrupting force of power. Tolkien's Rings was about found family and finding humanity in the smaller moments, amongst other things.
I'm not talking highfalutin-"Ahab's pursuit of the great white whale represents Man's doomed devotion to monomaniacal monotheism"-type symbolism, here. I'm talking about that certain something that makes you relate to a survivor in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland, an honest man in a corrupt, mob-run burg, or a short, hairy-footed wanderer headed for Mordor. Often, it just happens, which for me is how it ought to be. I think that if you focus too much on theme, the story tends to get lost along the way. But once a story is finished, it's often more about those moments that really resonate than it is about connecting the dots of the plot.
Yesterday, I finished a story that's been plaguing me for weeks. It's called The World Behind, and it's about a boy who befriends a homeless man in Richmond in the summer of 1986. It's also about the lies we tell, and the consequences that befall us when those lies are cast aside. Of course, I didn't know that when I started it -- it just kind of ended up that way. And really, I wouldn't have it any other way.