Last week, fellow Codexian Helena Bell asked, “Just curious: how did the monkey thing start?”
To those unfamiliar with my larger body of work, the question might come across as a non sequitur, or perhaps as some sort of prod designed to push me into a rant about evolution versus creationism. However, readers who’ve been following my writing for a while have started to notice a trend: There are a lot of monkeys in my stories.
It’s time for confession. Some writers use booze or drugs to loosen themselves up to allow the words to flow onto the page. Some writers are blessed with deeply traumatic childhoods or serious mental illnesses that allow them to sit and scribble out prose with such ease and beauty they seem to be channeling the voices of angels. Then there are unlucky writers such as myself who had the misfortune to be raised by kind parents in stable environments. Robbed of the writer’s birthright of mental trauma, we muddle along as best we can, praying we will one day discover some secret magic formula that allows us to compete with our more twisted brethren.
About ten years ago, at the Odyssey Fantasy Writers workshop, I found that magic in the word “monkey.” I was starting a story called “Earl Billings and the Angels of the Lord” when I wrote that Earl was angry because his daughter’s social studies textbook had an Incan monkey god on the cover. Earl wasn’t paying good tax dollars so that his daughter could go get brainwashed into some damn monkey cult, and so he had decided that the only sensible response was to buy a bunch of propane tanks and… well, I won’t get into the details here. The point is, when I reread the sentence with the phrase “Incan monkey god,” I suddenly had the revelation that it was nearly impossible to write a boring sentence with the word monkey in it. (Go ahead and try it yourself in the comments section if you feel up to the challenge.)
Now, when I sit down to start a story and find myself stuck, I ask, “How can I get a monkey in here?” Once I figure it out, I’m fine I got into Orson Scott Card’s Writers Boot Camp with a writing sample from “Little Guilt Thing Goin’ On” that included the phrase "gilded monkey skull." That story later was published at Abyss and Apex. When pressed to write a story in a single night at Boot Camp, I crafted a tale about a man shouting at invisible monkeys. (“Pentacle on His Forehead, Lizard on His Breath”--it saw print in the Modern Magic anthology.) I've written a long list of stories where the word "monkey" appears on the first page. The monkeys are seldom anything other than props, and frequently vanish after the initial scene, but the little nugget of monkey holds readers sufficiently to get them to the second page, by which point the plot and character are kicking in.
I acknowledge this monkey thing is just a crutch. I frequently use monkeys in stories I have to write in very tight turnarounds. Sometimes I use a monkey to get me typing on the first draft, then cut the creature out on the second pass. Monkeys aren't my only crutch, by the way, or even my most successful one. I've also discovered that scenes are much more fascinating if at least one person is naked. So, “Pentacle on His Forehead, Lizard on His Breath”-naked black magic. “To Know All Things That Are In The Earth”-naked angels. “Little Guilt Thing Going On”-naked preacher and naked demoness. “To the East a Bright Star”-protagonist rescues a naked woman. Bitterwood-naked people all over the first chapter, and not one of the dragons wears pants.
As far as sales go, I've earned more money from naked people than monkeys. It's not even close. I’ve also tried writing stories about naked monkeys, and they just never earn me a dime. Although, “Naked Monkeys” strikes me as a good title for a story. No one will be surprised if one day, I write it.