It’s hard to be a superhero when the villains are gone: Neil Connelly’s latest novel, The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible, tells the story of Vincent Shepherd, a once formidable superhero for whom turning forty is more frightening than an army of androids. Through the book’s nuanced and boisterous consideration of failure, regret, and the necessity of fantasy, Connelly offers what Antonya Nelson praises as “lessons learned both from Greek mythology and dime-store comics.” It’s fitting that this book has been published by Louisiana State University Press’s Yellow Shoe Fiction Series, a terrific series, edited by Michael Griffith, that includes books by Cary Holladay, Chris Bachelder, Margaret Luongo, and many others. I emailed with Neil about empathy, disdain, writing for so-called “adults,” and how to be a hero without being a jerk.
Neil Connelly is the author of three previous novels. The former director of McNeese State University’s MFA program in creative writing, he now teaches at Shippensburg University and lives with his wife and two sons in central Pennsylvania. His website is neilconnelly.com.
Your earlier novel, 2004’s Buddy Cooper Finds a Way, focuses on another madcap arena of heroes and villains: that of professional wrestling. Both books explore the inner lives of figures who, on the surface, seem to be all surface. In The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible, for example, our hero responds to his failed marriage, his failing career—really, failings of all kinds—with dialogue that recalls two-dimensional speech bubbles (“I won’t hurt you. I’m a hero,” he quips, delightfully and ineptly, early on). For Buddy Cooper and Commander Invincible, the storylines offered by professional wrestling and comic books no longer suffice; and yet, neither character wants to lose the magic and mythos of those worlds. What attracts you to such characters and settings? How did the joys and challenges of writing about actual superheroes differ from those of writing about wrestlers?
I would guess everything I write, and most of the things I enjoy reading, explores the inner lives of characters. It’s an obsession of mine, I guess, even in real life. We meet people all the time and initially, everyone is flat. We ask, “Where are you from?” or “What’s your major?” and we start, awkwardly, to shape some sense of who they are as an individual, distinct from the herd. We go from “Ah, you’re from Pittsburgh.” and “Oh, you drive a hybrid” to “So, you buy your kids elaborate gifts because you’re worried they won’t love you, like you don’t love your parents.” In life, that might take years; in a novel, a couple hundred pages. But that movement to the interior, from initial flawed perception to genuine recognition, that’s become a backbone of my aesthetic, I think.
As a writer, what draws me to wrestlers, superheroes, etc is probably what you pointed out, that when we first encounter them, they are overtly flat characters, cardboard. So I have a chance, even an obligation, to dig in and root around and find the human, expose him or her. Once we see someone else not as a caricature but a person, we can reflect off them, compare ourselves to them, feel empathy or disdain or any of the myriad of human reactions that matter. But we can’t just shrug and go, “Ah, janitor.”
The worlds these characters inhabit have such bright, even gaudy, exteriors, that this provides a contrasting backdrop for the interior territory I’m really a lot more interested in. That’s a lesson I learned while teaching. I had a graduate student who’d acted as a missionary in Bulgaria, and he wrote about that setting in lovely, even stunning terms. But the character’s interior wasn’t explored, not in that first draft. (The author, Daniel Westover, revised like a monster, and the interior expanded in astonishing ways. I’m happy to report that the book, Michael Fargo’s Epistle, will be published in November.)
If I could make any distinction between wrestlers and superheros, I might think that superheroes were more of a challenge to make human, since they are perceived as such clichés. Bonecrusher, a villainous strongman from the book, occurs to me here. When I first met him, he was just that, a muscle-bound smasher. Later though, when I found him stuck in a job as a doorman, I felt bad for him. And then beyond that, when I discovered he’d coped with a sick child, that he’d struggled with his faith, I formed a closeness with him, a respect.
I’m struck by your identifying “empathy or disdain” as equivalent goals. Vince Shepherd, Commander Invincible’s alter ego, remains surprisingly likable even as he’s risking his young son’s life or breaking into a CVS to steal muscle relaxants. On one of my favorite pages, he imagines becoming the “leader of a new team of superheroes composed only of retirees and addicts”; he ultimately triumphs, in the tradition of many wounded heroes, through his willingness to play as dirty as the bad guys. I think a lot of our response to this character has to do with his relationships with others—including a hayseed who can morph into a giant, Vince’s fire-throwing second wife, and the media-savvy All-Star. But a writer can’t feel equal “obligation” to every character: how do you invest such a range of characters with the kind of humanity you describe above, while also keeping the story moving? Were there scenes in the book when you suddenly understood Vince more acutely because of his relationships with others?
I can’t argue against the general notion that fiction engenders sympathy for others, empathy, and I think that’s good and important. But I also cringe just a bit in workshop if someone says, “Well, I didn’t like this character.” If you don’t like someone in real life, does that mean the person is bad? Or that they have no value to you? How many great books are fueled by reprehensible (yet fascinating) characters? Look at Satan in Paradise Lost, or Ahab, or The Judge from Blood Meridian. And it’s not just villains. Last year I really enjoyed Tom Perrota’s Little Children, which is full of people who are unkind and selfish. Yet still we benefit from our time with them. Much more important than likability, there has to be some emotional resonance I think, for a character in a book or a person in life to register with us. The really damning (and totally valid) workshop comment is “Well, I was bored by this character.”
I suppose my own emotional center is the mechanism that regulates which characters get more or less attention. Of course, I don’t think about this, just as you don’t deliberate who you talk with as you float around at a party. But the characters that somehow embody or represent things I care about draw me in more. Obviously, this is mediated a bit, especially when I’m revising, by the inherent focus of narrative. Sometimes I can feel myself getting sucked into a side character’s world too much, and I’ve got to pull away from that gravity. So I guess I’m constantly weighing the intrinsic shape of a story against my strong impulse to explore every character issue.
One of the things I stress with my fiction students is that we write about the issues we care deeply about, the things that give us dreams or nightmares. Maybe every one of the characters suggests something about me—that deep down I wish I could turn into a big angry beast or be a brilliant scientist. While on the surface, this risks seeming terribly narcissistic, I think (hope?) that when you as a writer open up like that, it makes a work more universal. I’m not arrogant enough to think the experiences I have as a human being are all that unique, so I expect others recognize something of themselves when they encounter the people in my stories.
Obviously, Commander Invincible is at the top of the list of characters in the book that drew me in. He provides a good example of what we’re talking about here. The book began on my 40th birthday, honestly, when I was taking stock of my very good life, realizing that the most important work of my existence (the creation of my boys) was behind me. So the question then is “what do I do now?” I was very aware of the importance of purpose in my life—my role as a husband and teacher and father. Commander Invincible doesn’t have these things—he’s my opposite in a lot of ways. At the same time, don’t kid yourself, I have a real fear of being a less-than-great dad. So writing the book, spending time with Vince, was a way to engage all this.
When did I see Vince clearly? I do recall, during early drafting, the paragraph when Vince laments the absence of villains in the world, the certainty of purpose, and says something about, “I’d kill for a baby falling from the sky” because he wants so much to save the day, to be a hero, to be a great dad. And then later, the scene where he begs his first wife for help with his scheme, he kind of comes to terms with his first failed attempt at marriage and family. I’d also point to the scene when he brings both sons to the zoo and his role as a father gets hijacked by hero obligations. Times like that, he showed me who he was.
To recall your first question, when I’m writing/reading to find out “Who is this character?” it occurs to me that of course, what’s also happening is that I’m digging around with “Who am I?” That can be scary, uncomfortable stuff, but it’s rewarding, if you do it honestly.
In many ways, the book’s approach to identity—and Vince’s coming to terms with his place in the world—recalls a coming-of-age story, albeit one set long past adolescence. You’ve also written young adult novels, including The Miracle Stealer. What has writing for younger readers taught you about writing “adult” fiction? Are there key elements of process or craft that you treat differently when writing for adults?
I can’t think of a conscious decision I’ve made that separates my “adult” work from my YA fiction. I was trained to write the stories I felt compelled to write and not give much thought to publishing till I had a finished product. (I’ve decided that that’s probably good advice for an artist and terrible advice for someone who wants to publish).
My first book was St. Michael’s Scales, a YA novel about a kid who dreams of blowing up his school as an act of suicide. After it was picked up but before it was published, Columbine happened. And I sat by the phone waiting for the call that never came. I was afraid that, because of the way it was being published, I’d be asked to make a change in the character that I couldn’t imagine. But no one at Arthur A. Levine even mentioned it. In my ignorance, I didn’t understand then that YA isn’t quite the same as Crime or Horror or Romance or Western. In those forms, certain plot elements are foregone conclusions, and I might even argue that the emotional resonance is more of a known quantity. This isn’t a condemnation, just an observation. For example, horror is meant to terrify, romance to make you swoon. In YA, the only given is that it involve teen characters of a certain age. The rest—tone, theme, plot, style—is as wide open as in adult literary fiction. And I think it’s a mistake to “dumb down” stylistically or thematically for young adults. Younger readers want to be challenged and are capable of wrapping their brains around most anything you put in front of them, in the right context.
This discussion brings to mind an incident with my father. One of my nieces had run into trouble her first day of kindergarten; she’d lost some papers the teacher told her to bring home on the bus and broke down crying. After we heard this report from my sister, I acted the wise old man and said to my dad, “Imagine poor Rachel, getting so upset over nothing.” I swear, I think he thwacked me in the back of the head. Then he explained that to Rachel, those papers were as important as his job, a mortgage, my college applications, anything a “grown up” could conceive. And honestly, that turned my attitude by a few degrees.
What he was trying to teach me was that the emotional spectrum isn’t limited to adults. Kids have access to all that, just as human beings. And really, when you think about it, the terrain of the YA world is story friendly. Those formative years are when you’re engaging most directly—almost nonstop—as a human being with all the big questions. Who am I? What are I supposed to do? What is my relationship to others? Writing for younger readers has, perhaps, sharpened my attention to these crucial elements in all my fiction. Because these are the questions we never find definitive answers to.
And now you are both a father and a teacher of writing, offering guidance—instruction? coaching?—to many who find themselves in formative situations. I know you studied with influential teachers including John Wood and Robert Olen Butler. In your own teaching, when do you think of your teachers the most? How do you approach the superheroic feat of integrating teaching with writing and other aspects of life?
As I teach and write, what I learned from my mentors is a constant presence. It’s the air I breathe. My aesthetic was largely shaped during graduate school. As for Bob, his terms “yearning” and “dreamfilm” make pretty regular appearances in my lecture. He’d dismiss a story in workshop outright if the character didn’t have yearning. Bob’s philosophy is that to be human is to want something, deeply, to crave connection or renewal or a sense of self. And dreamfilm is just what it sounds like, the “cinema of the mind” that runs when we read, created by selective sensory detail. I’d point anyone who is interested to his excellent book From Where You Dream, which draws from his lectures on these topics. As for John, his poetry classes rewired my entire notion of language—that’s not an overstatement. I’d always found pleasure in writing, but the intense concentration on a single word, or the qualities of sound involved, or the rhythm of a sentence, I just hadn’t considered these things like a writer needs to. Listening to him read my work out loud, hearing how it sounded to somebody else, that was crucial. Another thing he did once with a poem of mine was to read it with all the adjectives replaced by their antonyms. This made me realize how superfluous most of them were.
I also observed the mix of encouragement and criticism. The tone of how you address your students may be just as important as the content, I think. If you focus exclusively on infelicities, you can just beat somebody up. But if all you do is praise without end, they see that as false. Good students want the truth, and they’ll recognize it as such if you present it properly. One of my key approaches is to focus on reaction and impression, not judgment. That is, I much prefer writing, “My interest is waning” to “This is not interesting.” The former can’t be argued with—it’s my considered response. The second has the tone of a judge with a gavel—and can be argued against.
I take my teaching very seriously. (I had a colleague tell me it was a bit over the top to include my feelings that it is a “a sacred obligation” on my syllabus; that’s a phrase from John Wood.) And doing it well demands a certain amount of time and energy. Balancing that with being a good father, a good husband, a good writer, a good son, hasn’t been easy. But I’m blessed by a certain OCD nature, and when I’m working on a project, I write compulsively every morning, basically as soon as I get up. Writing in that dreamy state works for me, but it also means that I only write for an hour or so. As I wake up fully, I become alert and hit a wall. The words stop. In 20 years, I’ve written six novels (four published) and a couple dozen stories I’m pleased with. So say a book every three years. And I’ve composed 95% of that material between the hour of six and seven.
My teaching also feeds my writing, as it reminds me of certain core principles. I can’t tell my students, “Your dialogue should have subtext” or “Try to avoid generalization” and then ignore that advice myself. So too, I find myself learning about fiction from my sons all the time, daily, and these lessons show up in the classroom. Quick example, when my younger boy James (maybe 4 at the time) got freaked out by a scene in Kung Fu Panda 2, I couldn’t console him with shushes and back patting. He was weeping, wailing really, at this tiny cartoon panda who’d been separated from his mommy and daddy panda. But his screaming was ear-splitting, and finally, in a moment I’m not proud of as a father, I kind of raised my voice and said, “Come on. You’re smart enough to know that the cartoon isn’t real.” And James, teary-eyed, gathered his sobbing enough to suck in a breath and hit me with, “I do know. But how I feel is real.” That lesson about the impact of narrative is as important as anything I learned in grad school, right?
So maybe, while I work hard to carve out time for my role as writer, teacher, father/husband, I also let them bleed into each other a good bit. When I’m at my best, I know they all draw from the same place.
I wonder if Vince arrives at a similar place. Without giving away the ending, let me say that I found the last thirty pages of The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible to be some of the most compelling. And yet, I was surprised by their resolution: Vince doesn’t end up choosing between fantasy and reality, abandoning his cape for ordinary adulthood, not exactly. Do you think we need to hold onto heroic dreams, even while accepting more workaday responsibilities? How can reading fiction help that happen?
I think it’s a choice to be hopeful, to seek out joy in the world, to be kind, to dream, yes. It’s easy enough, given the inevitable grind of life and the disappointments everyone faces, to surrender to being sour. That might not be the right way for everyone, but I know myself enough to know it’s the way I am. (Of all the characters in literature, the one I identify with most may be Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel, the Fool.”) And of course, I recognize the downfalls of this and the validity of those who have a more realistic worldview.
But this struggle between optimism and pessimism, between being a realist and an idealist/fool, it calls to mind other struggles and choices, and these are the lifeblood of fiction. One of the benefits of reading is that we get to glimpse or gaze deeply into other lives, see how other human beings are coping with their struggles and choices. I try to avoid getting too themey, but as I tell my fiction writers, if you put human characters in a human situation and let them act in ways you find true, then what follows will inevitably reveal something about the human condition. And readers can engage that and draw from it, gain insight into the choices that are right for them, as they have from stories back through time.
One of the backstory bits in the novel is that Vince, at one point, got warped into other dimensions where he encountered other-worldly versions of himself, Vinces who married someone else, who didn’t have superpowers, etc. It’s an odyssey that, at one point, was to be the core of the book. And I think fiction can act like that for readers, take them on a journey of possibilities. We can put ourselves into other lives for a while and come back safely to our own, and sometimes when we return to our lives, we’re just a little bit changed, hopefully for the better.