Photo credit: Rajah Bose
Eighteen years ago, when I started writing The Obsoletes
— my new novel set in the early ’90s about two teenage basketball-playing brothers who happen to be robots — the book had no robots. It also had zero brothers. It was just a story about a 15-year-old kid who loved basketball and was too nervous to talk to a girl he liked.
I was just out of college, living in Prospect Heights, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with two friends. I had a draining day job as an architect’s assistant, but evenings and weekends I hung out at the Brooklyn Public Library to find inspiration for my fiction. Back then I considered myself a strictly “literary” writer. I fashioned my narrative after Harold Brodkey
’s “First Love and Other Sorrows.” My finished book was just over 100 pages, a novella, but far and away the longest thing I’d ever written. Still, I knew the story was lacking something vital, so I hid it from friends and family — the only people who would have been kind enough to read it.
I didn’t figure out what the book was lacking until I read it again seven years later. I was wiser, married, in possession of an MFA from the University of Montana, and had worked several more draining day jobs. But most importantly, I had no remaining sentimentality toward my original story, and I quickly identified its lack of a central conflict. So when I decided to rewrite it, I split my main character in two.
Or better yet, twins
. One who was good
at basketball and the other who wanted
to be. They fell for the same girl. The brothers’ parents were going through a divorce. At 200 pages, I was comfortable calling the book a novel. I showed it to some fellow writers. I used their feedback, edited it, and submitted it to agents, who succinctly responded: Your novel is missing something. Again, I hid the manuscript in a drawer.
Sometimes I wonder if the boys were robots all along.
I became a father. I became a middle school English teacher. At some point I wrote a short story about robots who worked in a factory. I wasn’t interested in writing science fiction, per se, but this speculative element tested the limits of my empathy. I told the story from a future vantage point where robots had the same rights as humans, where they made decisions based on their disparate desires and grappled with real emotions. According to my omniscient narrator, the robots in my short story were people in every sense. The impossibility of the world I’d created felt oddly freeing.
This was late 2013, and not much else in my life felt free. My wife, the author Sharma Shields, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, news which complicated the publishing of her acclaimed first novel, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac
. I was having my most challenging year yet of teaching middle school. I wasn’t writing. I felt helpless both at home and at school. But I was inspired by my wife’s success, and her grit while experiencing a complete readjustment of her identity. I was preparing to return to school after winter break, typically the most exhausting and depressing stretch of the school year, when I challenged myself to wake up each morning before everyone else in my house, and — until summer break — rewrite another draft of my “brothers” novel. If that novel was missing something, I’d decided to fill it up with something big. Something impossible.
Darryl and Kanga became robots. Never had they been more alive on the page. Their world became real, immediate, and dangerous. It still looked
like the 1991 of my youth, but now it had robots hiding among the humans, and if they were discovered, they would be instantly destroyed. Not only was I rooting for these robots, I was writing from the perspective of one. Their humanity wouldn’t be a question of the novel, but rather a fact of it. Sometimes I wonder if the boys were robots all along. Maybe it just took me a decade to figure it out.
The rewrite wasn’t easy. Many of my initial attempts at world-building and story-arcing needed to be scrapped or vastly edited. Entire characters and plotlines now only exist in the recesses of my computer’s memory. I requested feedback from writers I knew would give me honest advice, and each new draft felt like a step in the right direction. But it didn’t happen overnight. From the moment I decided to rewrite my novel with robots, it took another four years of close calls, heartbreak, and seemingly endless edits until a new science fiction publisher — Skybound Books — bought the manuscript. I found out on a Friday afternoon, during the last period of the school day. I was too shocked to voice the news aloud to my students, yet somehow my seventh graders felt my excitement anyway, and burst into rambunctious shouts and singing, to the point where a librarian ran over from across the hall to see what was happening. All I could do was grin.
Eighteen years ago I couldn’t envision a science fiction novel. Back then, I assumed I had writing figured out, but of course I was wrong. This is how growth works, painful and frustrating and when you least expect it, life-changing. I'm glad I was patient enough to find the robots hidden within those boys.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a writer, cartoonist, and teacher. His debut prose novel The Obsoletes
was recently published by Skybound Books. His graphic novel Butcher Paper
received a 2012 Artist Trust grant and is currently available from Scablands Books. Chapters of Butcher Paper
have appeared in The Florida Review, RiverLit, Rock and Sling, The Pinch Journal
, and Okey-Panky
. He majored in architecture at Columbia University and received his MFA in fiction from the University of Montana. Mills teaches drawing at Eastern Washington University and middle school English in Spokane, Washington, where he lives with his wife and two children.