The Hauptplatz of Graz. Photograph by Kathryn Kirby.
On a warm September evening in the Graz Hauptplatz, I was approached by the most beautiful woman in the world. She was dressed from neck to ankles in a modest combination of black wool and cotton. Her brunette hair, shoulder-length, caught the evening sun in a perfect metaphor for health and youth. Her flawless skin made my freckle-dotted arm look diseased. She had liquid brown eyes. This was not Helen to launch a thousand ships. This was an earthquake. Our eyes met. She smiled. I stepped to the side. That’s what a gentleman does. Encounter over. I turned to watch her glide down the crowded sidewalk. Except I found myself watching everyone watch her. Male, female—it didn’t matter. Everyone looked. Kathy commented on the woman’s beauty before I did. She parted the crowd like Moses going for a swim.
Fortunately there’s a fountain in the center of the Hauptplatz. I could sit beside the gurgling water and think things over. That’s what writers do: act morose and glare out at the world while trying to figure out what the hell is happening. Kathy, who is used to this silliness, explored nearby architecture and had a great time while I scowled at the perfect evening.
My conclusion was that the beautiful woman was an alien life form. Or close enough anyway. On the most trivial level, when she smiled people got out of her way. How weird would that be? On the particular fall evening, the thought seemed earth-shatteringly important. So I spent half an hour sorting through all the ways the woman’s world was different than mine. There had to be story in that, right? So I talked to Kathy about it, and she agreed that I should write something, because (she pointed out) that’s also the kind of thing writers do.
Which was fine in theory. “Hey, I could write this thing about this beautiful fashion model doing this stuff.” It sounded solid until the story moved on to a place called Berserker’s Field in the middle of Iceland. Then it all fell apart.
For reasons that seemed sane at the time, I’d placed my fashion model, Justine Am, and my troubled orphan, Vienna, out in Berserker’s Field. They were going to make love. Not the sweaty, clothes-off–in-a-pile kind of love, but that much more difficult, “Hey, I think there might be something here” moment when you have to converse with another human being on a level that will later allow the clothes-off gymnastics to take place. That tiny, beautiful, slice of time when simply holding hands qualifies as erotica.
This had to be a quiet scene. Physically, it could be nothing beyond Justine and Vienna talking and looking up at the night sky. There had to be gentle humor. There had to be an undercurrent of deep emotion. There had to be enough bravery to overcome various internal glitches I’d written into these characters.
Piece of cake. All I needed to do was write… I could start with… With a bit of tweaking I could… There might be this clever exchange of dialogue where….
The thing was, out on the tundra of Iceland, Justine had to be assured in both intent and action. She had to do the heavy lifting because (at this point in the novel) Vienna has no idea what’s called for. Whatever problems Justine faces elsewhere in the book, in this scene she has no room to get it wrong. So I had no room to get it wrong. I had to think like an utterly fearless and confident twenty-three year-old fashion model contemplating an uncertain relationship with a young woman who was not always on speaking terms with reality.
Alas, a few minutes of running an internal memory check confirmed the worst: I didn’t have any experience being a twenty-three year-old fashion model. I’d somehow skipped that stage of life. It wasn’t that I had no idea what Justine would do (though there was a bit of that) but I felt that anything I put down would be viewed as clueless at best and exploitive at worst. (Look at the old perv writing about lesbian romance!) So I stepped out of my study to speak to Kathy. “Hey, that story I’ve been working on for the last three months? It’s going to be hard to sell.” Kathy, who is used to this silliness, said, “You should finish it anyway.”
I did what any writer would do. I bought a six-pack of outrageously priced microbrew. I drank too much of it and projected exceptionally vile thoughts at my blank computer screen. Then I played Minecraft for three days straight. And then…
(to be continued)