Okay, that might be off-putting. Perhaps a better title would be recycling. Repurposing. Reusing. Renewing. Resuscitating.
But I like the word cannibalism because it brings to mind a survivalist mindset – They cannibalized the wrecked vehicles for parts and were able to get one working. Kind of that whole Flight of the Phoenix sort of thing.
I’m talking here of course about literary cannibalism. Not the kind where you ingest, say, something by Stephen King, and the parts that don’t stay down are used for something of your own creation. No, I’m talking about where you take parts out of something you’ve already created and recycle, repurpose, resuscitate it for use in a new project. Yeah, self-cannibalism. Ewww.1
Part of this comes from the admonishment for writers that I make from time to time, namely never throw anything you write away. True, that novel you started and got 140 pages on before you realized it was, alas, misbegotten2 may never get finished and see the light of day, but there may be something in it – a character, a scene, technology, some bit of great writing – that would have a great life in a future project. You just never know what it might be until you get there.
For example, when I was writing The Company Man, I came to a scene where Andy Birch walked into a greasy spoon and started to chat up the waitress there. I stopped with my fingers on the keys, staring at the screen, and had an epiphany: I’ve already written this scene. And with that I dug out an old, dead pre-Desperate Measures3 unfinished manuscript provisionally titled Book of Dreams and there, 25 manuscript pages in, was the scene I needed. So I put the pages next to my computer and typed them in (the manuscript being from my typewriter days), changing the names on the fly, and there it was.
There are riskier forms of cannibalism. I once came to a point when writing the Pembroke Hall novels where I started to strip The Mushroom Shift for parts. It was an easy decision to make – at that point in the mid-1990s, Mushroom had exhausted the possibilities of where it could go. Editors were shaking their heads over what they could do with it, and my then-agent wasn’t as enamored of the book as I was. It looked at the time like it was one of those novels that would forever remain in the closet under the bowling shoes, so I put it up on blocks and started taking out parts.
Fortunately, I didn’t strip it completely. One of the conceits in Mushroom was two characters with the first name of Steve, both on the same shift. In the we-band-of-brothers mentality of law enforcement, they became one unit, the Steve Brothers. I pulled this out and translated it into Pembroke Hall-ese to show something similar – not the bonds of camaraderie, but how a bunch of creatives treat their own when left to their own devices. In a company where everyone is known only by their last name (and, occasionally, the department in which they work), two employees, Upchurch and Churchill, get branded as… ah, but you’re already of me. This didn’t cause a problem because nobody had read Mushroom, and at the time I thought nobody would. But now I’ve published it myself and run the risk. It’s okay, though, because I’m confessing now… and because not that many people read the Pembroke Hall books.4 And speaking of that…
There is such a thing as cannibalizing yourself a bit too much. I’m thinking of John Irving, whom I discovered as a college student via that made-for-college-student novel, The World According to Garp. I loved the book at the time, and sought to familiarize myself with Irving’s earlier work. I was disappointed to find that each one was the same combination of writers, wrestling, bears, unicycles, and motorcycles, all pillaged from Irving’s personal life5, all of which made Garp so much fun, all of which now seemed so… derivative. It was like this for novel after novel, even into his first post-Garp book, The Hotel New Hampshire, and it felt to me like Irving had just recycled the same elements over and over and over until he hit the lottery.
Now I have to come clean and admit that I have done this myself. And I actually got caught at it. See, the Pembroke Hall novels rolled over and played dead on their release, so badly so that Ferman’s Devils was taken out of print the same month that Boddekker’s Demons was released. In the ensuing years when I was working on Drawing Down the Moon, it occurred to me that I needed to throw readers a curve about a character’s sexual orientation. I knew I had done the same exact thing in the PH books, but I figured – hey, nobody has read them… I can get away with it.
Except I didn’t. See, one of my first readers of Moon had gotten her hands on the PH novels and read them, and so it wasn’t long before I got an email back from her on the former saying, “Do you have a ‘thing’ for lesbians? Just asking since one has featured in both novels (wink, wink)“6
Mousetrap, meet fingers.
All said, there’s a fine line to tread when pillaging your literary past for parts. If you use them enough times they can become a trope, and then a cliche within your writing, like Irving’s writer wrestler bears (although I think he has since left these behind), Dean Koontz’s noble dogs, and Janet Evanovich’s wrecked cars. And while some people might find these recurrences comforting signposts, I personally think it’s lazy writing. But then, I’m not a bestselling writer. Take from that what you will.
Meantime, no more similarly named co-workers or surprise lesbians from me. At least, not until I hit the charts.
1 Now you know why I chose Stephen King as an example.
2 In my case, a little thing called Bellvue Seven, which withered and died between A Death of Honor and The Company Man.
3 Desperate Measures being the novel I wrote before A Death of Honor. The order of publication was, of course, different.
4 Outside of Russia, that is.
5 But we all do that, which is fodder for another essay.
6 Paraphrased to make more funny.