FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT 'XYLENE'
A lot of people ask me where the story of ‘Xylene’ came from.
The truth is that, like Mike, I often have dreams in which I have to go on stage, and I have no idea what I’m going to do. In one particularly vivid dream, I was handed a guitar that I couldn’t play and ushered to the stage. Then I was in bed, and my wife (that I didn’t have in reality or in the dream) got snuggly, and I leaped out of bed exclaiming, “I can’t do this! I have a girlfriend!” The reaction of the woman who thought she was my wife was, “I thought so!” Before I could explain, I woke up.
It got me thinking about identity. The people putting me onstage thought I was a guitarist; the woman thought I was her husband. What if I had appeared in the body of a guitarist? It might be the foundation of some funny gags. I started writing it as a short story (imaginatively titled “The Dream”), then I lost interest. Soon, I was taking a creative writing class, and I had to read a story aloud in class. I read the part I had written. I got to the end of what I had written. Someone asked, “That’s it? How does it end?” The class echoed the sentiment. They were interested.
The original ending was that, right before going onstage, the guitarist is confronted by himself, in whom the personality of the real guitarist resides. What they need to know to live out each other’s lives swaps, and now the guitarist can play guitar. But that ending sucks. At the critical moment, just the right thing inexplicably happens to save the day? I hate that. I wanted the protagonist to succeed through his intelligence and hard work. And attitude.
And then the last major plot change was motivated by the fact that with the personalities switched, they not only traded careers, but personal lives as well. Would Joe really give up Angie so easily? Would Mike be okay with never seeing his parents or sisters again? I thought maybe it would make sense if they reverted to their original bodies and kept their new careers. Mike is deluded into thinking he was never intended for the life of a rock star. He flees. In an ultimate show of faith, Angie & the band ditch Joe and go get Mike. The last detail that bugged me was Joe giving up Angie. Maybe Joe’s career was not a good match for him, but wouldn’t he still love Angie? I solved this problem by making Joe gay. As Dr. Vrakas muses, “Maybe Joe is solving more than a bad job match by creating a new personality.”
About the protagonist. I’m terrible with names, and picking a name can bog down the creative process for me. I had to name the guitarist something, so I called him Joe X, figuring I would later pick a good last name for him. I knew a guy named Joe who was an incredibly talented musician, and, perhaps subconsciously, this is who I was thinking of. For the new personality, I chose Mike Smith, because it was the blandest name I could think of. (My apologies to anyone actually named Mike Smith.) I later recalled that this is also the name of the protagonist of “Stranger in a Strange Land”, written by Robert Heinlein. I had read the book about eight years earlier, and I wonder if that had influenced my choice of Mike Smith. Then, to be clear on how to pronounce Joe’s last name, I changed it to Ecks. At first, I named the band Ecks’s Next Exit. But as the plot changed, I realized I didn’t want the band actually named after Joe Ecks, so I changed it to X Band. But Joe Ecks sounded too much like a contrived stage name. Perhaps it was somehow connected to his real name. I looked up Ecks in the phone book, and the only name that started with it was Eckstein.
And since X Band started with X, I thought it would be cool if all their albums did, too. The first three words I could think of that started with X were Xylophone, Xenon, and Xylene. (I don’t know why none of them were X-ray, which would seem obvious.) And I thought each album should have a title track.
I had started out with the idea that two people switched bodies, but I only wanted to tell the story about the rock star. I wanted the situations of Joe and Mike to be parallel, so that switching bodies would solve both of their problems. I wanted symmetry. Joe started out evil, in fact, but I evolved him into being demanding as a result of him hating his job so much. It doesn’t excuse his behavior, but maybe it explains it. I took a two-day course on Predictive Index (matching personalities with jobs, the technique used by Dr. Vrakas), and that solidified the plight of the characters.
A lot of people ask why Joe doesn’t try to find out if there really is a Mike Smith somewhere. It’s pre-internet, but he must remember phone numbers or addresses.
True. But if I involved the Joe personality in the story, then it would not be the story I wanted to tell. So I rationalized it in this way, which I think is consistent with the book: Mike wants Joe’s life. He does not want there to be a Joe personality out there that could easily replace him. I illustrate this with a quick scene where, left alone, Joe calls his old college apartment. Then he calls his house. When his sister answers the phone, Joe hangs up. To me (and hopefully the reader), this is a powerful statement. Joe has verified the existence of an actual Mike Smith, but he turns his back on it, and he never tells anyone.
The others simply don’t believe that a Mike Smith really exists somewhere. Over the span of time that Joe is Mike, wouldn’t they ever feel like just making sure? Yeah, probably. But they don’t, because they think they don’t need to. Nothing can thwart you more than your own preconceived ideas.
A lot of people ask if the characters are anyone I know.
Answer: I’m not that good of a writer. Most of the characters started out being based on someone I knew, but the characters then evolved away from the original. It’s like I can’t actually control them.
The character of Richard Sheridan started out being based on Robert Hilton, production manager at one of my day jobs. But then Richard got a little too passive and incompetent to be Robert. So I based Douglas and Mrs. Douglas on Robert and his wife. I’d never met Robert’s wife, so she was about 90% conjecture to begin with. I can see Robert being an estate manager, though Robert had no trouble asserting himself. But you never see Douglas unless he’s in the butler role, so you never know.
Richard Sheridan then became me. I made him look like me, so I could play him in the movie. But also, Richard seems to always be a step behind and over his head, not really making things happen, but able to react and do the things that have to be done. This is not like Robert. But a lot like me. Unfortunately.
Stu Cress started out being a salesman I knew, Joe Ferris. However, no character changed more drastically than did Stu. I liked Joe Ferris, but I hated Stu Cress a lot. I got angry every time he showed up on the page. I think all that remained of Joe Ferris in Stu was a few verbal expressions.
Roger wasn’t based on anyone, and neither was Michael Rost.
Sam Foley didn’t start out as anyone in particular. He reminds me, though, of Andy Scott, an electronics technician with whom I worked on my first job. He was fluent with electronics and this expertise led to his next job of XXX agent. Sort of vaguely like Sam starting out as an electrician and becoming a sound engineer. Andy never turned on a radio while it was sitting on a length of solder, but he told me about someone who did. My high school friend Ken “Octobrog” Brogden unscrambled the HBO signal on his oscilloscope so he could view frontal nudity.
Ed started out being my high school friend Thom Sellner. Both are very intelligent with a quick wit and an astounding sense of humor. Thom isn’t outlandishly tall, though, nor does he have a cleft palate scar. Bill Myers started out as my friend Stewart Billmyer. Stewart was two years older than Thom and me. He had a job and a house and a wife long before Thom and I did, so he seemed much older, which is why I put Bill Myers at 38 to Joe and Ed’s 25. Stewart is not bald, though, nor does he have an attraction to much younger girls. He doesn’t act like a know-it-all or have a stick up his butt. Stewart, Thom and I formed a short-lived band in which Stewart played guitar, Thom played keys, and I played the drums (badly).
The image of Angie probably started with Thom’s younger sister Toni, and then was influenced by Eileen Lynch (a young lady in several of my engineering classes), and then further influenced by Daphne from Scooby Doo. She evolved to be shorter and tinier to contrast Joe’s immense presence. But also, Mike is short, so I wanted Angie to be shorter. (Of all the biases in male/female relationships, age and height are by far the most rigid.)
Angie’s personality, though, has always been her own. In a way, the book is about Angie and how she copes with the change in Joe. I was reluctant to have a female character be so major, because I didn’t think I could get in the head of a woman and portray her thinking accurately. After some soul-wrestling, I gave up and had Angie be simply a person, who happens to be female. Her personality is arguably more complex than any of the others’, and she is faced with bigger personal challenges, and she adapts (i.e. evolves) more than anyone else.
Joe as a character is mysterious, because the reader only sees him for a very few pages of the book, and virtually all that the reader knows about him is through other people’s thoughts and flashbacks. Joe started out as evil, but he became, instead of evil, tortured. Mike didn’t change much, though. So who were Mike and Joe based on? I didn’t base them on anyone I knew, until my therapist told me with uncharacteristic candor: “Joe is you. Mike is who you want to be.” My head exploded. I can’t believe I didn’t see it.
A lot of people ask if people’s names have any particular significance.
I already talked about Joe Ecks and Mike Smith. Bill Myers was named for my friend Stewart Billmyer. Angie was named so, because she was such a selfless purity that she was like an angel.
But I have a lot of trouble picking names, so in 1990, I saved an issue of the Hartford Courant’s birth announcements, and I’ve been pulling names from it ever since. If you had a child or you were a child in 1990, a character may have your name. I did make a few minor alterations. Brettingen became Brettington, for example. In fact, some street names from that list also made it as company names, like Lighthouse or Cherry Point Graphics. (I found out at the last minute that there really was a Lighthouse Records, so I changed it to Theremin Records from a word picked at random from the dictionary.) These randomly-picked names had an effect on how I saw some of the characters. Brettington sounded like a high-class name, so Angie and Ed were children from the Lower Upper Class. What would a Sam Foley look like? (Again, if your name is Sam Foley, and you don’t look like my Sam Foley, sorry about that.) Burrill the director was originally Theriault, but I had no idea how to pronounce ‘Theriault’, so I changed it. Shane Skinner’s name has caused me the most distress. It was one of the names from the birth announcements, selected (I believe) randomly. However, about a thousand of my relatives on my mother’s side are Skinners, and in fact my own middle name is Skinner. It is likely that I have a cousin named Shane Skinner. Shane Skinner started out as a detail, but then he got stage time and became a minor character. I should have changed the name. Maybe I’ll luck out, and none of the Skinners will read the book.
A lot of people ask me who is X Band?
X Band is not a single band. I tend to like bands that rely on both keyboards and guitar, but not many are like that or they’re not balanced at all. The closest fits are Supertramp, Yes, and Styx come to mind. Maybe Rush. Maybe Men Without Hats. They put out one song that people recognize, and then they put out about ten more albums with an incredible range of sounds. I imagine X Band sounds like Wang Chung, because (among other things) they have an amazing attention to detail. And their lyrics are interesting. Despite Joe’s personality, X Band did involve input and creativity from all its members. Roger was unusual in that he didn’t write any of the songs himself, but he collaborated on many (like Nick Mason of Pink Floyd).
A lot of people ask why there is no sex in ‘Xylene’.
The joke answer is “I write what I know.” The actual answer is that when I started writing ‘Xylene’, I wanted my mom to be able to read it. So I had no sex and no bad language. The bad language I eventually reintroduced, because some parts just sounded stupid without it. But I liked the tension created by Joe and Angie in love, being married and sleeping in the same bed, but not having sex. And I like the irony that it’s the direct opposite of forbidden love. They certainly could have sex, but they don’t. I think people can fall in love for reasons other than sex or physical attraction.