Recently a reviewer of my YA novel “Discarded Faces” asked what inspired me to write it.
The story begins in the late 1970s, a period of rising racial tension, sluggish economic growth, and painful increases in the cost of living. Gays and Lesbians were coming out of the closet, and making their faces known, but facing intense resistance. It was still a crime to commit an act of gay sex in those days. I was drawn to the feminist and gay rights movements immediately, though I was still living every day as a male. There was more to it than sympathy for the oppressed. There was a major aspect of my personally that I was still hiding from everyone, but i identified with women and LGBT people in a deep way that I was struggling to ignore.
In addition to all of this, in November 1979, Iranian militants occupied the US embassy in Teheran, the capital of their country, and made hostages of the diplomatic staff. This provoked a vicious backlash in America against people who “looked Iranian.” Most people didn’t know what an Iranian looked like, and all sorts of non-Europeans were suspected. I knew a college student from India who lived I terror until he special ordered a tee shirt with words “I am from India, not Iran.” I heard of an Israeli graduate from Auburn who went to an Auburn home football game and was beaten for it, in retaliation for the hostage incident.
In the 70s I belonged to a radical leftist group whose is best forgotten. When I left the group, a few months before the embassy incident, I gradually evolved into a left wing reformer. But at the same time, I began reading lots of science fiction, and discovered “The Dispossessed” by Ursula Le Guin. I realized that it was possible to communicate a political perspective through fiction, which could also be entertaining and inspiring, provided the narrative moved well and the characters were interesting. I figured I could reach people through fiction that I could never hope to reach by passing out leaflets at demonstrations or peddling a weekly newspaper door to door.
Early on I conceived the names of Peb, Zel, Kanath, Kanath’s widowed mother Hessi, and Hessi’s boyfriend Pappek; but as characters it took many drafts for them to become clear to me. In my early drafts the dialogue was stilted, the plot was driven by a series of awkward coincidences, and at times the narrative came to a complete stop while one character or another explained the political meaning of recent events. In short, i didn’t know how to write fiction at the start. “Discarded Faces” was my apprenticeship. It was a long apprenticeship. Starting in July 1979, the book reached something very near its current form in September 1997. If eighteen years seems like a long time, there were long periods (3 months here, a year there) where I put the work aside, resolving that some day I would finish it.
One of my biggest problems was figuring out which characters to highlight. There were four point of view characters, then five, then two (Peb and Kanath), and finally just Peb. Following a friend’s advice that the people’s victory would have to be “paid for” by some real suffering, I had Peb suffer a serious injury at the climax of the book, which leaves her w/ a lifelong disability.
To make Peb the sole POV character, all chapters featuring both Peb and Kanath were rewritten from Peb’s POV.
In making this a Peb-centered book, I had to remove one well written and emotional chapter centered on Kanath which my friends really liked. Peb wasn’t there, and therefore she couldn’t be the POV character, and it wasn’t really her story anyway. When Kanath and Peb were the two POV characters, this chapter was the first one, and it would have been a terrific first chapter. But it had to go, and will appear in one of the sequels as a flashback.
Whittling “Discarded Faces” down from two characters to one was not a decision I made lightly, but I had to do it because the novel seemed to be getting out of hand. I felt like I was losing control over it.
I chose Peb because Kanath doesn’t do anything in DF but suffer–because she’s sent to a concentration camp. Peb spends most of DF as an observer, as she changes her perspective and comes to understand the necessity of overthrowing the regime. But she finally acts.
I knew Peb was gay from the start, but closeted out of dire necessity. For many drafts, Peb and Kanath were lovers, but I decided it would be more interesting if they were just friends. I created a new character, Zel, to be Peb’s lover. Eventually it occurred to me that the oppressive regime needed to be personified in someway, so In later drafts the character Ruslee appeared. Balk entered the work as an unsympathetic character, but I liked Ruslee better in that role, so I reimagined Balk.
I originally imagined my Thwaasian minority as looking like Iranians, Egyptians, Moroccans and such; but readers of my early MSS automatically assumed they were African, so I created a black minority for Danallo as well, and gave them a different origin. There were now three ethnic groups–whites, Thwaasians, and Blacks. They have different histories, though all originally came from First Earth, which really is my home world though sometimes I have felt otherwise.
The religion of Danallo, Kadmonianism, was there from the beginning, but at the beginning of the writing it was all Hokus-pokus, hypocrisy, and opiate of the people. As I embarked on my own spiritual search, I made its social role more ambiguous, like real life religions.
From the start, I imagined the dystopian government would be a militaristic police state that imposed racist, misogynistic, and homophobic policies on its people. Its secret police units, the seventh and eighth secretariats, date back to the first draft.
DF reached its current form in 1997, though it has undergone stylistic revision since. If I had it to do over, discarded Faces would be a two-character work, with the removed Kanath centered chapter at the start, the vicious courtball tournament with Peb as chaper two, and the battle chapters at the end intercut with Kanath being taken to camp. But I’m content with the work as it is. It was, as I said earlier, my apprenticeship, and the rest of my writing career would never have happened if I’d never finished it.
Discarded Faces has been in print since October 2002, first as a self-published book by Steve Cross, then as an Ebook from Double Dragon Ebooks by Betty Cross, starting in March of 2010. I went full time as a writer and full-time as Betty at almost the same time. In the spring of 2012, I suddenly discovered the “Hunger Games” series thanks to the first movie, and through it the whole phenomenon of the Young Adult Dystopia. I’d known the word Dystopia since my teenage years, but suddenly I no longer had to explain to people what it meant. In 2010, I’d decided to market “Discarded Faces” as YA science fiction. Since 2012 I’ve marketed it as a YA dystopia as well.
Since DF was conceived and written well before the YA dystopia fad, it reads a bit differently from the typical a YA dystopia. It’s in the 3rd person, and the type of dystopia is closely modeled on 20th century fascism, American Jim Crow, and South African apartheid. The typical contemporary YA dystopia ranges much further afield, featuring societies that only vaguely resemble historical dictatorships. One of the things I like about “The Hunger Games” and its sequels is that the world of Panem reminds me of the Empire of Danallo in “Discarded Faces,” but even so, not very much.
So to summarize, here’s the history of “Discarded Faces.”
18 years to write
5 years looking for a publisher
8 years as a self-published work
4 years so far as an Ebook
I began to write it 35 years ago.
There’s a lesson here for beginning writers: Don’t give up.