Trouble in Paradise refers to my collection of horror/crime stories set in beautiful locations. After reading Penelope Lively’s 'fictional memoir' Making It Up (2005) and under the influence of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected (1970s-1980s), I embarked on the stories using this loose theme.
The first idea was to create several strands of (one's own) life that didn’t happen, the roads not taken, the decisions not made – in other words, each story would reflect a journey within my life where I self-consciously either did or didn’t do something. For example, I went to university, but what if I'd gone into the military, and the military was alarmingly like experiences I had elsewhere. Cue story.
Similarly I came to live in America in 2003 but what if my decision had been to go to Australia? How would these decisions have affected my career, my relationships, and the universal question, what kind of person would I have become?
The second method is to base each story around a location I know well, set up a kind of potential happiness, and then intrude with a shocking event – often inspired by the haunting short stories of Patricia Highsmith (whose biography I have just read and found fascinating). Hence the title Trouble in Paradise aims for a kind of unnerving everyday quality.
Combining these two methods would give me a narrative strand to explore in my mind while writing (my own past), plus characters that are essentially versions of myself (though not necessarily the same age or gender). A horrific turn of events then occurs in a place that at first appears normal, pleasant, relaxing, exciting, or otherwise agreeable to the unknowing protagonist.
Here are a few brief examples of stories for the collection (as inspired by my own life):
The Obituary Writer (Washington, DC)
After living in Washington, DC for five years (as I have) opposite the State Department and four blocks from the White House on the George Washington University campus, I would like to write about this strange place. The power capital of the world, DC suffers from a vacuum – at weekends it is very quiet around these huge government buildings, an eerie feeling for such a famous and monumental landscape.
This leads me to create the character of an everyday office drone (a clerk) who would work in my neighboring building, the anonymously named General Services Administration Building. As it turns out in the story, Mr. Fedex (a humiliating name while working for the federal government) actually has an interesting if depressing job, writing obituaries for unknown government workers for the in-house government magazine.
But what happens when he sees an obituary for a woman he knows is still alive? Should he let the woman get away with fraud? The incident inspires him to dare to escape his job, but instead he finds solace in manipulating the obituaries (just adding or removing a detail here or there for his own entertainment), with the idea that he will get caught (and be forced to change his life). But he doesn’t get caught. And so suddenly his job is filled with all kinds of new potential.
But for how long can he maintain the charade (creating exciting new lives for dead people in print) before there’ll be trouble from the federal bosses who sit upstairs looking out over the National Mall?
The Film School (London)
In one version of my past, I attended a film school in the north of England, called The Northern School of Film and Television in Leeds. The constant atmosphere there was of a kind of removed doom, the feeling that everyone was pursuing an impossible dream – of breaking into movies – and constantly fighting the realization that London was where all the film activity really happened.
But what if the film school had been in London? Where would I be now? Would life really be better? In this story, I plan to begin in Leeds with a character called Mike Small who operates the sound boom, somewhat humiliatingly, while trying to write scripts and begin a career as an assistant director. But the scripts get changed and the director repeatedly asks for more and more production value from a budget of $3000.
So when Mike successfully transfers to the London Film School and tries to forget about Leeds, what happens when the people from up north start turning up on the set, trying to ride on his coattails, trying to sabotage his new job for their own professional advantage?
The Cheating Don (Oxford)
This story is set in Oxford, a city I know well, but one I left almost a decade ago. A friend of mine still teaches English at the University of Oxford and with his recent appointment to St. John’s College, I have been turning over a story in my mind about a version of myself who never left Oxford but stayed within the university structure.
This story will delineate the middle age of an ambitious Psychology don who grows bored with his comfortable life and steady position on the college faculty – nothing is ever under threat. So one by one, he begins manipulating his students sometimes with academic favor such as boosting their grades, sometimes with minor cruelties.
Then he meets a young postgraduate but discovers that for some curious reason his charms do not work – he cannot manipulate her. And so the stakes are raised but, strangely, the girl (called Fleur) neither resists his sexual advances (even when they turn dark) nor fears his threats once she withdraws her affections from him.
Things grow complicated when he meets Fleur’s boyfriend, and both the don and the boyfriend embark on an unlikely and furtive affair themselves (the younger man being more experienced) and the girl grows both jealous and violent.
Suddenly too much is happening at this quiet Oxford college, and the don regrets his re-involvement with life. His job is threatened…his seductions are publicized in the college…and now the boyfriend is threatening to ruin his marriage…. But will Fleur, strangely, actually offer to help and put his life back together?