He scanned his surroundings: crest of a hill, edge of a forest, bank of a river. He craned his head back as far as his helmet would allow to look up at the cloudless sky, radiant azure, a color he’d only ever seen in photodex and read about on history transmissions. He hopped up and down, noting the subtle bounciness that came with the slight reduction in gravitational force (about .07N less than Earth). A glance at the gauges on his wrist confirmed what he already knew: the atmosphere was stable and safe, a little less nitrogen than on Earth, a touch more methane than his olfactories would prefer, but intergalactic beggars couldn’t be choosers. He reached up with both hands to simultaneously pull and then twist the release clamps on either side. There was a whoosh, his ears clouded, then cleared, and he raised his helmet off his head. He blinked into the unvisored light and felt the warmth of the yellow sun on his cheeks. A beat, then another, and he opened his mouth and took in a deep breath. It wasn’t foul; in fact, it was kind of pleasant. The smell of his new home was a mix of cinnamon and wet dog.
The others were still in the transport, waiting for him to report back, give them his initial read, divvy up first-tier missions among the teams, instruct the orbiting ferry to commence landing procedures and load-out, or to remain in its holding pattern until… until… what? How long had he been standing here? What was happening? Where was any of this going? What did any of it mean? He looked up again at the deep blue heavens, as if to implore an unseen god:
“What are you waiting for? Make a decision. Something. Anything.”
Nix let out a long, exasperated breath that started as a sigh and ended as a groan. She reached over and brought down the screen of her laptop, leaving her still nameless scout standing alone on the hilltop of a distant planet for at least one more day. Fuck. At least settle on his name. Her name. Their name. Jesus, did everything have to start unraveling the instant you poked at it? Gah! Anyway, you could at least do that much before… but she cut herself off in mid-scold and retreated to the kitchen. She retrieved the white demitasse from an otherwise empty sink, placed it under the twin spouts of the Swiss-engineered espresso machine, pressed a button and, as the grinder purred, Nix inventoried the failures of her morning thus far:
Zero progress on the arrival branch of Stay/Go. Zero times zero equals the square root of fuck-all. Stop. Be fair. The video conference went well, with Daphne, Gerald and . . . she blanked on the other guy’s name for a moment. She frowned as, now diverted, she reached for her steaming, crema-capped cup and began recounting the times recently this had been happening, blanks popping up where names-faces-dates should be. Was there such a thing as stress-induced dementia? She’d have to do some research. You know who would be good to ask this question? That woman, the researcher tracking brain clouds and autoimmune diseases, or whatever. At Duke. Or was it Johns Hopkins?
Anyway. She sipped. She stared. The failures countdown resumed.
The sequel was happening. With or without her. That phone call this morning, the Chairman’s even, oily voice:
“Obviously, Nix, we want you on board. It’s your vision, your passion that made Identity Crisis such a . . . you know . . . not just a phenomenon sales-wise . . . but such a revolutionary gaming experience. When you told me what you wanted to do . . . I didn’t think . . . I’ll be honest with you . . . I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how it would work. I didn’t think you could pull it off. I mean, ‘quantum gaming’ . . . what the fuck is that? I thought it was just some flashy slogan you were selling.”
He paused. He was a frequent pauser. Was it a tic? Was it a tactic? Nix didn’t care. She fiddled with a button on her shirt as she waited for him to resume. And then he did.
“How wrong I was.”
She knew what he was doing, where this was heading, but since she was enjoying his performance, she had just leaned back and soaked it up.
“I remember the day you walked me through the game like it was yesterday. You were so young, talking so fast: ‘The world’s become one big prison, a police state run by robots, a kidnapped child is humanity’s only hope, and you’re a disgraced soldier-turned-outlaw on a mission to find her.’ And I said, ‘So am I the hero or the villain?’ and you shrugged. And I said ‘I get it. I choose. One or the other.’ And you shook your head. ‘No,’ you said. ‘One and the other.’
“That’s when I knew. You really were talking about something completely different.”
He had laughed, then. She could tell he was faking. It was a forced little chuckle intended to convey wonder and admiration. Nix smiled as she replayed this moment, imagining what he thought she would think in response. And then he was back at it.
“And I still didn’t get it. You very patiently explained. ‘The game is an exploration of identity. You make choices as you play; those choices carry consequences. Some of those consequences make you a robot; some of those consequences make you a human.’ And I said, ‘I see, sort of like Bladerunner.’ And you said, ‘No. It’s not about or, it’s about and. You’re not either. You’re both.’
Another fake chuckle.
“And I still didn’t get it, but in my defense there was no way, really, to understand your game without playing it.”
Nix’s ears had pricked at the sharp hiss of breath signaling his transition.
“But it’s not just your game anymore. It’s out in the world now, and the world wants more. Wired can put you on their cover and declare the ‘The Rise of Auteur Video Games’ but you and I know it takes an army to make one happen.
“You can lead that army. Or it can march without you. Your choice. But one way or the other, this sequel is happening.”
“Now, everybody is very excited about Stay/Go. I’ve seen the preliminary sequencing. Amazing. Earth is dying, do you stay and try to save the left-behinds or do you go and try to save the new-planet pioneers? I’m sure it’ll be another leap forward.”
“But, maybe, and I’m only suggesting this because of my deep respect for you as… I don’t even know… ‘artist’ seems too small a word… but maybe the reason you’ve been so… so stuck… is that deep down you know you’re not finished with Identity Crisis yet.
Pause. No breath.
“Something to think about. Let me know what you decide.”
Nix replayed the next pause he had let hang between them before dropping his ultimatum.
“Take the weekend. If I don’t have your answer Monday morning, that will be your answer.”
So, let’s see. Today – what’s left of it. Tomorrow. And then…
She poured back the final swallow, a hot and bitter wave across her tongue, eyes closed as she focused on tasting vanilla and chocolate at the same time. She rinsed the cup, returned it to the sink, spun around and leaned against the edge of the island’s massive rectangle of burnished concrete. There was nothing to think about; the answer remained the same.
But the Chairman, although wrong about nearly everything else, had been right about one thing: She was stuck. It wasn’t getting any better, which meant it was only getting worse. Whenever she let herself sit with whatever this was, it felt immoveable and, in a way so sickly terrifying she had to turn away the moment she tried to face it, permanent. That’s how it felt right now. She had never known this problem before. The ideas would come so fast and clear and bright and insistent that Nix had spent her work life racing to keep up, get them down, sort them out. So much so, she had always arrogantly believed that people who complained about getting stuck or losing their way were just lazy. Weak.
But no more.
“Writer’s block.” She mouthed the phrase silently. She’d never thought of herself as a writer so that word still felt like a foreign object on her tongue. But “block” felt absolute. It was as if a giant block of featureless stone had dropped from the sky to dam her flow. Except, not quite. The block hadn’t dropped in front of her; it had dropped on her. Nix didn’t feel stuck like she couldn’t move forward; she felt stuck like she couldn’t move.
As if to prove herself wrong, Nix bounced off the counter’s edge. She exhaled with a huff while gripping her thumbs in clenched fists she drummed against her thighs. This was her psych-up ritual, to steel herself before marching back to her desk, sitting in her chair, opening her laptop, ignoring all the previous days and defeats, pushing aside all the dead and wounded. Time to wriggle out from under this motherfucking block, raise high her hammer and smash it into a million pieces. But just then, she heard the front door open and a voice call out. Nix let out another huff, this one in relief that her next failure had been forestalled.
The crescendo of footsteps from the unseen hall ended with a young woman’s appearance in the doorway. Ran was a couple of inches shorter than Nix. This week her spiky hair was a deep gray that reminded Nix of the satin gloves her grandmother had always worn on those just-us-ladies Sunday outings, usually to a matinee symphony performance and then an early dinner at the posh restaurant across the street from the concert hall where the maître d’ knew her grandmother and Nix (though ever always “Nicole” to her grandmother) could order anything she wanted. Ran was dressed in her standard outfit: athletic shoes, mid-thigh shorts over leggings, cleric-collared windbreaker over t-shirt, all in neon micro-tones and made from materials that probably hadn’t existed when Nix was her age, all of six years ago. Ran was just-turned twenty-three, the same age Nix had been when she created Identity Crisis.
Ran had been Nix’s personal assistant for almost two years, since the wages of success had simultaneously ballooned the demands of Nix’s daily life and provided her with the means to delegate whatever she deemed too rote or dreary. Nix had picked Ran because she was an anti-disciple: every day, in every way, this young woman radiated her dead-bang certainty that she had zero interest in becoming another Nix, a new Nix, a knock-off Nix, a not-quite Nix. Dig through all the topsoil traits – smart, curious, overachieving-nerd vibe, blah-blah-blah – and they shared this common core: Neither wanted nor could even imagine how to be like anybody else. The blunt truth about Ran, and what had immediately prompted Nix to cherry-pick this summer intern to be her first personal assistant, was that she wasn’t much of a gamer. “If I’ve got some free time, which I almost never do,” she had explained during her interview, “I like to go around and photograph graffiti art. I think of it as urban bird watching. It gets me out; I get to explore; I never know what beautiful specimen I might document. The last thing I want to do is spend more time sitting in front of a screen.” That did it. Blammo. The Nix and Ran Show.
A quick glance was all it took to answer the question Ran still felt obligated to ask. She dropped the armful of envelopes and overnight boxes she had brought from the office onto the island and stared down at the pile for a moment before shrugging and looking over at Nix.
Now it was Nix who stared at the pile of mail and then she didn’t so much shrug as release a little shudder that rippled down through her shoulders and ended with those still-clenched fists snapping open to release her thumbs.
“Anything there I should give the slightest fuck about?”
“No. Yeah. Maybe. This…” Ran pointed a lacily hennaed finger at the thin, rectangular box atop the pile … “is the latest gen of mock-ups for Stay/Go teasers.”
Nix rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, what was that stupid tagline again?” She deepened her voice and adopted the cadence of someone reading phonetic cue cards in a language she didn’t understand. “May-king the figh-nite fee-uhl in-figh-nite.”
Ran rewarded Nix’s delivery with an unforced giggle and Nix’s face brightened as she leaned into the sound as if bending toward a blossom to draw in its fragrance. Nix loved the sound of Ran’s laugh, her real laugh, pure and childlike, the laugh that the outside world never heard or saw, that Nix had only witnessed after those first few months when the work had been so intense, close-quartered and round-the-clock that late one night, out of the blue, she interrupted yet another barrage of instructions to promise that being her assistant wouldn’t always be “submarine duty.”
Ran offered another shrug.
“It’s not so bad.”
“Yes. It is. It really is.”
“They’re doing the best they can with…” Ran hesitated, trying to pick the right words with the glum air of someone searching again the same drawers, shelves and tabletops for the lost thing she knows isn’t there. “…what you’ve… they can’t know… if you haven’t… what you don’t really know yet either.”
Nix responded with a fierce nod and another drumming of her thighs.
“Speaking of which, I was about to go try to slay the dragon again.”
“How’d your call with the Chairman go?”
“Fantastic. I either get onboard or the sequel goes on without me. He gave me till Monday morning to make up my mind.”
Nix didn’t even realize that her eyes had closed and her chin had drooped down to her chest until the whirr of the coffee grinder startled her. When she looked over, Ran held two steaming cups, extending one to Nix. She was smiling, the small stainless-steel beads in either cheek glittering in the late-morning sunlight that streamed through the wall of windows. Nix accepted the cup, brought it to her lips and blew gently across its frothy circle. Ran contemplated her cup.
“I thought your mind was made up.”
“It was. Is. Was. Fuck. I don’t know. Or yes I do.”
Ran started to say something, thought better of it, shifted her attention back to her espresso, draining her cup at one fell slurp to then scrutinize the swirl of sediment that remained. She was waiting for Nix to give her a sign of how to proceed; Nix obliged by putting down her now empty cup and reaching over to the mail stack, but instead of grabbing the box Ran had singled out, Nix picked up the smaller oblong box beneath it, drab logo-less cardboard, not overnighted but sent by regular post. It even had actual stamps on it. She drew it close and turned it in her hands as Ran offered what little annotation she had.
“I don’t know. It was on the doorstep when I came by earlier. No return address. It’s marked ‘Personal’ so I didn’t open it.”
Nix scowled as she studied the box, the computer-printed address label. She held it up to her ear and shook it, tentatively. It was light, and whatever it contained didn’t shift much or make any noise. Her scowl softened, just a bit. She turned around and pulled an ebony-handled paring knife from the wood-block holder but when she spun back, Ran was holding out the battered box cutter that Nix had momentarily forgotten she always carried. Nix grinned her acceptance of the unspoken reprimand and set down her unsuitable tool. As she reached for the proper one, Ran pressed the button on its side and, with a practiced flick of her wrist, snapped the blade into place. She spun the handle in her palm and handed it, ass-end first, to Nix who swiped it along the box’s taped seams and then clumsily mimicked Ran’s maneuver to pass the knife back. Another quick flick. The blade clicked closed and disappeared into Ran’s pocket as Nix reached into the box. Ran scooted against her and leaned in to get a closer look.
A doll, floppity and folded over on itself, and as Nix freed it from its cardboard coffin, a burst of packing peanuts sprang from the box to scatter across the counter and floor. Ran squeaked and tried to hold back the Styrofoam deluge.
“Aaaaag. I hate these things. What assholes still use them? They’re so stupid and gross. Nnnnnnh. And they get all staticky.”
Ran was instantly lost in her Sisyphean silliness, scooping up handfuls of the white blobs to drop back in the box, but they refused to comply, instead clinging to her fingers or drifting in jerky defiance of gravity to scatter once more across the counter and floor. If Nix had been watching this real-life cartoon, she would have pointed out that Ran’s efforts were making more of a mess, not less. But she wasn’t paying the least bit of attention to Ran’s antics; she clutched the doll in both hands, holding it at arm’s length, and stared, first in curiosity, then recognition, and, finally, revulsion.
The doll was a princess, or maybe a ballerina – at least, it had been. Its clothes were torn off; all that remained of its original outfit were the sparkly slippers stitched to its puffy feet. What did Nix notice first? The stuffing-tufted slashes crisscrossing the doll’s torso? The splotches of blood-red and shit-brown that spattered the doll? The snapped-off pencil jammed deep into the doll just where its two plump legs met? Or the jaggedly cut-out photo of Nix’s face, taken from the magazine feature declaring her “The Queen of Quantum Gaming,” with her eyes scratched out and a singed-edged hole in her forehead where someone had apparently held a cigarette’s cherry? As Nix stared, everything about the doll hit her at once. She was still staring when Ran, having corralled most of the packing peanuts back in the box, looked over. She was on the cusp of a joke, something about cockroaches and Styrofoam, but when she saw the tight, squinched grimace on Nix’s face, she froze. She moved her gaze down Nix’s outstretched arms to where Nix was staring. And then she screamed.
The shrill blast snapped Nix back online. She dropped the doll into the sink, brought her hands to her nose and sniffed. Her upper lip curled and twitched. She rapped the faucet with an elbow to knock it over the other basin of the split sink and with that same elbow prodded the lever to turn on the water. With the back of one hand, she pressed a dollop of liquid soap into the palm of the other, swiped them both through the water’s stream and started scrubbing. Furiously. Ran watched, and then reached for the doll, presumably to put it back in the box.
“No! Don’t tuh… Leave it.
Ran jerked her hands back as if from a belch of flames. Nix gave her hands a final, vigorous wipe with a tea towel.
“No, I don’t think… I mean, I didn’t… It just smells… weird.”
She passed the towel to Ran.
Ran draped the towel over the doll like a coroner’s blanket. Nix upended the box, undoing all of Ran’s drag-and-drop exertions as a slow-motion shower of white blobs again blanketed the countertop and drizzled onto the floor. With a final shake, a large index card dropped out. Nix handed the box to Ran and picked up the card using two fingers like eyebrow tweezers and held the side covered with black-marker scrawlings toward them as they both read the lines of blocky, all-caps print:
QUEEN WHORE. STUPID BITCH.
DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE!!!
YOUR GAME SUCKED!!
FUCK ROBOT OR HUMAN!
YOUR GAME SHOULD OF BEEN BITCH OR WHORE!!
YOUR NEW GAME IS GOING TO SUCK TOO!
HERE’S A BETTER TITLE
WE’RE GOING TO SHOW YOU HOW TO PLAY!!!
Neither said a word for a moment, and another, and then Nix turned to face Ran, the note still pinched between index finger and thumb. Ran held the box beneath it; Nix dropped the note, scooped the towel-draped doll out of the sink and placed it on top.
“Take this with you back to the office and give it to that guy in security, mmm, Bradley, to add to the collection. Tell him they’ve got my home address now.”
Ran stared at the floor as she nodded. She spoke in a hollowed-out whisper that made it impossible to tell whether she was talking to Nix or herself.
“I hate this. I hate it. Hate it. Always the same. Always. Over and over and over and over and…”
She trailed off as she looked up at Nix. She started muttering one word – “rape” – but as the blooded heat of her fury spiraled and rose, Nix heard it as another –“rage.” She reached over and brushed a strand of pearly gray hair back from Ran’s eyes as she spoke.
“They’re just scared little boys.”
“Who want to rape and kill you.”
Nix shrugged and started out of the kitchen and toward her office, where her desk and laptop waited. She felt the crunch of Styrofoam under her slippered feet but paid no attention; she was already visualizing the half-filled screen, the blinking cursor. She felt her insides tighten and suddenly she was ten again, climbing up the ladder of the high dive at the Y, when another scared little boy had taunted her into action. Ran’s voice snapped her back.
“Hey, before you get started, there’s… I need to tell you something.”
She stopped and turned, off the diving board and back to the kitchen. Ran’s eyes had gone squiggly, anger replaced by anxiety. No. Anxiousness. Mmm. That’s an interesting question. Is there a difference? Yes. One’s a condition, the other a feeling. Nix recalled that paper parsing the differences between fear and paranoia. Is this like that? Yes. But no. You know who would be good to talk to about this? That guy, whatsizname, the one who… But just as Nix was about to reclaim his name, Ran began.
“I know the timing isn’t great, but I wanted… you need to know…” Ran gulped down a deep breath. “My grant’s come through.” She spread fingers wide as she put her hands to her cheeks in an anime pantomime of giddy disbelief. “I’m going back to…”
School. That’s the word Ran was about to say, thereby invoking the denouement that had been hanging over their personal-assistant arrangement from the beginning. Ran had made clear, and Nix had needed to understand, that “this” would be a temporary break from the rigors of her academic pursuits. And Nix had been totally on board, had been fine with it, was fine, would be fine. Really. Except she didn’t have a chance in this moment to be fine with this moment, just as Ran didn’t have a chance to say the word ‘school’ to conclude her announcement, because there was a loud ‘thud’ and they both felt a sudden shudder emanate from high on the wall of windows.
Like mirror reflections, they both jumped and wheeled toward the sound, just in time to see a small, shadowy shape drop past the countertop and land, presumably, on the gravel beside the house. Again in tandem, they both rushed over and, side by side, leaned against the counter’s edge to press their foreheads against the glass and look down. There was a small bird, one brown wing splayed, head limply perpendicular to its lemon belly. Each held her vigil for a few breaths, hoping to see some flutter of movement, both certain they wouldn’t. Ran broke first.
“Ohhh. It’s a goldfinch. I love them. They’re so beautiful. They have such a pretty chirpy song.”
Another breath. As Nix stood back, Ran softly concluded her eulogy.
“I hope it wasn’t a mama bird.”
She straightened to face Nix.
“Anyway. I’m going back to start my Ph.D. research.”
“Ah, yes. What’s the latest in single-molecule biophysics?”
Now there was nothing mock or even slightly self-conscious in Ran’s giddy response.
“You wouldn’t believe what they’re doing, how deep they’re going. I mean, yeah, the project team I’m going to be on, we’re right on the edge of…”
And here it came, self-consciousness crashing down, causing her words to sputter, go soft and vanish like a twist of smoke in a puff of breeze. Her cheeks flushed. She looked down, then away. Nix waited as Ran took a breath, swallowed, and brought her eyes back.
“I’m sorry. I feel like I’m abandoning you just when… at the worst possible… I feel so… so…” Her eyes darted away again. “Selfish.”
Nix started shaking her head and mouthing the word “no” in a silent chant as she tilted from the hips to put her face at the center of Ran’s runaway gaze. Ran rewarded this effort with another unforced giggle. Nix straightened, bringing Ran’s eyes with her as she did.
“This,” she said, reaching over and gently shaking Ran by her shoulders, “is great news.” She dropped her arms and patted her thighs twice, in quick succession, for emphasis. “I’ll be fine. In fact, maybe I can be your assistant.”
This time they both giggled. Ran looked down at the box as if realizing she was still holding it. Her eyes went flat and hard; her lips stretched and tightened. She tossed the box on the island’s countertop.
“I wish you would. No death threats. No rape fantasies. The worst thing boys do in a lab is try to take credit for your work.”
They both stood still and silent for the next few tick-tock moments. Nix broke the spell by giving her thighs another pair of slaps.
Ran put out her arm and grabbed the counter’s edge to block Nix’s path.
“Wait. I just want to say one thing… since… before… so I’ve said it.
Nix rocked back on her heels, crossed her arms and fixed her eyes on Ran’s.
“I know you’re stuck, I know you feel… stuck.” She heard Nix breathe in sharply, as if bracing for impact. Her words sped up in a downhill tumble.
“I haven’t said anything because…you know… what do I know…. But I think I do know… know something…. I must have watched that talk you gave at E3 a hundred times on YouTube, when you talked about how the architecture of Identity Crisis was inspired by photosynthesis, the idea of the player being an excited electron simultaneously traveling every possible pathway to reach its goal. That just… you just… Everything changed.”
Nix started to say something, but later, when she replayed this moment, she would realize she could summon no trace of what she had intended to say. And anyway, Ran didn’t give her a chance.
“I was stuck. I didn’t know it, how stuck I was, how stuck I’d been since, since… I dealt with that by not dealing with it, by shutting everything out. All my focus.… On school. On work. I was, you know… head down… keep moving, keep moving, keep moving… And then I saw your talk.
Ran slowly drew in a breath. She stared at Nix, no squiggles, no looking away. She didn’t blink and Nix didn’t even think about saying a word.
“I deferred my Ph.D. plan, got that internship, and applied to be your personal assistant and… here we are.
Another breath, and still no blinking.
“I know you know all this. I was stuck and you helped me get unstuck. I know you know this, too. So why don’t you know how to help yourself?”
Now it was Ran who leaned, a little to the left and slightly down, to put her face at the center of Nix’s adrift gaze as she concluded in a hushed croon.
“Every possible pathway to reach your goal.”
The cursor blinked. The rest of Saturday had been abandoned to exercise and ice cream, reading and staring. Sunday had come and gone, more of the same, and good riddance to it. Nix shifted in her seat, trying to go blank, clear a path for the chance arrival, the unintended spark, but she couldn’t stop thinking about not thinking about what she couldn’t stop thinking about. And still, the cursor blinked.
Her phone buzzed. Nix grabbed it off the desk, happy for the distraction – a text from Ran. Nix had texted her first thing to say, “Take the day. Do what you need to do. I’m good.” Here was Ran’s response: a photo from a recent graffiti expedition. It showed a stooped-over, pig-tailed stencil of a little black-and-white girl pulling back the corner of a soot-gray wall to reveal a hidden dimension, a neon-colored rainforest. Brassy beams of spray-painted sunlight splashed down on parking-lot asphalt while tangerine and fuchsia tendrils sprang forth to rope around the little girl’s wrists. Ran included a single word of text with her photo. “Photosynthesis.”
Nix smiled. She held her hands over the keyboard as she recalled her longtime yoga instructor’s trick for jumpstarting a meditation practice: “Find one truth in your life and focus on it.” This had always reminded Nix of the advice from that long-ago writer she had never read: “Write one true sentence.” She started typing.
“I don’t want to stay or go; I want to stay and go.”
Nix stood and picked up her phone. Time to call the Chairman and give him her answer. As she moved toward the door, she could feel the eyes of that unnamed scout, standing alone on the hill of a distant planet, watching her walk away.
Thomas Maurstad was the pop culture critic of the Dallas Morning News for over twenty years. Upon his release back into the wild in 2011, he decided to make the jump from “fake news” to “real fiction.”
5 Questions with Thomas Maurstad:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
TM: All my stories start as situations that serve as the instigating prompt for everything that follows. In this case, I started with the idea of someone who had “written” the Great American Videogame as their debut and was now working on the follow-up. And he/she/they/whoever it would be was stuck.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
TM: The mantra I find myself repeating is “less James (Henry), more Hemingway.”
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
TM: My favorite place is also my only place. At my table on my laptop. I spent all of my formative years as a writer working at a newspaper (remember those?). Deadlines were real and brutal. However I felt, whatever else was happening around me, I had to sit down and fill a blank screen with words. That’s the most valuable skill my newspaper days taught me. I know how to sit my ass in the chair and keep it there. I know that if I sit there long enough, however I’m feeling, I will start making words into sentences into paragraphs.
TD: Favorite word?
TM: That’s easy. It’s a word that has appeared in every story I’ve written. “Gray.” I love it as a range of colors and as a summation of human experience. I even like the way the word looks on the page; though in that regard I prefer the British spelling, “grey.” But I was born in a gray country and I presume I’ll die in a gray country.
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
TM: I don’t have a good answer for this. I spent much of my 20s working at bookstores, and much of that time furtively reading whatever caught my eye in the aisles of whatever section I was supposed to be shelving and organizing. I still apply the same opportunistic impulses to my reading habits. You may as well ask a bee which is his favorite flower.