A Writer Prepares

by David D. Levine

I’ve often said that working on the Wild Cards project is about as close as I’m ever likely to get to working in television. We have a bunch of existing characters and situations, and we are working together — though on separate stories — to create a larger picture that combines our own unique ideas with those of others. 

I’ve also often said that writing is more like acting than like directing. Although writing a story does involve creating a plot and moving characters and set pieces around, like a director, the meat of the work is in understanding the characters’ thoughts, emotions, and motivations and conveying them for an audience. Unlike an actor, a writer has to convey those things through prose rather than body language, facial expression, and tone of voice… but, in fact, the writer has all of those acting tools, and more. The writer just has to do the additional work of describing them in text.

It’s even trickier, though, when you are trying to portray a character that other actors or writers have already portrayed, in some cases definitively, and the audience is already quite familiar with those. How can you be fair to the character, satisfy the audience, and still tell a compelling story of your own? This is a problem familiar to the many actors who have played well-known characters like Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Batman, and to series writers in television, film, and comics for whom writing a beloved character is a daily task. But it was new to me.

When I was pitching a story for the Wild Cards volume Mississippi Roll (2017), I found that none of the characters I had created would fit in the milieu. Given how fast his power was aging him in 1959, Frank Majewski (aka Stopwatch) would be long dead by 2017; Tiago Gonçalves (aka O Reciclador) was too powerful for the comparatively small scale of this volume; and Eddie Carmichael (aka The Cartoonist) was very much a creature of Jokertown and didn’t seem the type to vacation on a Mississippi riverboat. Which meant that if I were to write a story for this volume, I would have to create another character… or use someone else’s.

Using other people’s characters is a big part of the fun for Wild Cards writers and readers. But the protagonist of a Wild Cards story is usually a character created by the author — a character with whom they are already intimately familiar, and one to whom they can do whatever awful things they desire without getting the creator’s permission (because one of the rules of the Wild Cards Consortium is that you’re not allowed to do anything to another writer’s character without their buy-in… a rule established after some other shared worlds devolved into unfortunate rancor over this point). To use another writer’s creation as my viewpoint character would be unusual, but not unheard-of.

But which character? I asked George R. R. Martin for suggestions, and he replied that there were hundreds of options, and in particular I should consider characters created by writers who were not participating in this volume. “One interesting notion,” he also commented, “might be to bring back Sewer Jack, if Ed Bryant was willing. A giant alligator would fit especially well in the Mississippi book, I’d think.” That “notion” seized my brain and refused to let go.

Jack Robicheaux (aka Sewer Jack) is a mild-mannered Cajun from New Orleans, who works for the New York City subway system and whose wild card ability — or curse — is to turn into a giant alligator. A part of the Wild Cards universe since the very first volume, he’s a fan favorite, and certainly one of my own personal favorite characters. An underdog and loner, one of the first heroic gay characters I’d ever encountered in SF, and one whose powers were gripping, visceral, and ambiguous, Sewer Jack has always been emblematic to me of the gritty, twisted realism of Wild Cards as opposed to the simplistic four-color morality of the era’s comic books. For me to write a new story about him would be an amazing opportunity and a tremendous challenge.

First I had to get permission from Sewer Jack’s creator, Ed Bryant. Was Jack even still alive? Would Ed mind me using him as a viewpoint character? “Actually,” Ed replied, “the geezer gator is about as old as I was as I when I first wrote him back in the Jurassic. But the mutant side of his alter ego is indeed pretty durable. And I am both complimented and quite intrigued by what you might achieve by diving into the big river with Jack.”

Having gotten the go-ahead from both George and Ed, I prepared for the task in the same way that an actor might… by doing research, studying other performances, and trying to put myself into the character’s head space. Reading over Sewer Jack’s previous appearances, I got an understanding of a person whose soft, gentle personality was strongly at odds with the murderous animal he can become under stress. (I could relate.) He’d been through some serious stuff — rape, AIDS, war — but through it all he had remained true to himself and loyal to his family, both blood relatives and chosen family. But he hadn’t been seen since the Rox War (Dealer’s Choice, 1992), at the end of which he was cured of AIDS, returned to human form, and resumed his search for his missing niece Cordelia. 

So what had happened to him since then, and how might that relate to the events of the current volume? Jack was born in 1938, so in 2017 he’d be 79… no spring chicken, but not ready for the clover either, even given all he’s been through. I came up with the following backstory, building on Jack’s published personal history and my own knowledge of how life had changed for gay men since the 1980s, with the goal of making sure he winds up on the Natchez with a bunch of illegal-immigrant Kazakh jokers.

After the events of the Rox War, Jack tried to put his life back together but failed. Everything around him reminded him of what he had been through… even his friends. (He never did find Cordelia, who stayed in Australia.) He stuck it out for five years, but in 1996 he left New York, taking early retirement from the Transit Authority, and moved back to Louisiana.

He lived economically there for a time, running a roadside stand selling po’boys and gumbo in a rural area; in his gator form he hunted and fed without worries. But though rural Louisiana was a great place for a giant alligator, it was a terrible place for a gay man, and in 2003 he moved to New Orleans. He tried to integrate into the gay community there — though, if he was being honest with himself, he didn’t care about the “community,” he was just looking for love — and worked as a bartender in gay bars and on riverboats to supplement his Transit Authority pension. But as an older gay man in hopping New Orleans, he was practically invisible, and in 2017 he’s still single, lonely, and resigned to dying alone.

Over the years he and the gator have reached a sort of hostile detente — he has more control in his human form, and very rarely transforms involuntarily now, but when he does transform he has even more difficulty changing back than he used to. He doesn’t have many opportunities to change in New Orleans, and this is a good thing; he figures that there’s always a risk that the next time he changes he’ll never come back, dying in gator form.

Right before the story begins he’s living quietly in one of New Orleans’s cheaper neighborhoods, bartending at the occasional charity event but otherwise completely retired. But then one of his charity contacts, one of the few in town who knows of his crazy history, approaches him with a problem: they have a bunch of Kazakh refugees to smuggle to Canada, and planes, trains, and automobiles are all right out. Does he have any ideas? He does, as it happens, and he uses his contacts in the riverboat industry to find a northbound boat that’s able to accept a few illegal and non-paying passengers for a bribe in the right hands: the Natchez. But while this is happening he winds up befriending some of the Kazakh jokers, and as the boat is about to depart he decides to accompany them to act as local guide, and perhaps protector if needed.

None of that appeared in the story at all. I don’t think any of it was even referenced. It’s all backstory. But I felt that I had to come up with that in order to understand why he does the things he does in the story. His loneliness and his need for family — his need to find someone to protect as well as someone to love him — all grew out of his previous (already documented) experiences as well as the story I made up for the time between then and now, and drove him to take risks, both physically and emotionally. I think this made him a more relatable character as well as making the actions of the plot more believable.

As is typical for a Wild Cards story, George had some meaty comments on my first draft, especially noting that the plot wasn’t “big” enough. His suggestions to address the issues were excellent, including turning the character I had as Jack’s love interest into the antagonist and making one of the other Kazakhs the love interest instead, and holding the reveal that Jack the elderly bartender is in fact Sewer Jack to the very end of the story. But after I made those changes, George was still concerned that Jack didn’t have as much humanity in his gator form as he had had in Ed’s stories. So I asked Ed, who’d been copied on all the drafts up until then but hadn’t replied, to comment on this specific issue.

Here’s what Ed had to say: “You get mostly high marks. Jack’s long-term issues have always been about his divided issues of identity. Long ago, straight vs. gay. More recently, human identity vs. gator persona. But even after all these years and decades, he sometimes questions whether he can control the predatory rage when he reptiles out.  I can’t argue with the portrayal here, as long as it’s remembered that the dialog between Jack’s two natures is still apparent. And Jack still has an aversion to the notion of ending up as a set of classy matched luggage. So all in all, good job.”

Ed wrote that in September 2016. He passed away in February 2017. The book came out in December 2017.

I am supremely grateful to have been able to work with this beloved character, and especially that I got Ed’s permission and approval before he passed. And I’m especially glad that I was able to give Jack the love and satisfaction he’d been looking for his whole life. 

Which is not to say there might not be one or two more adventures for the “geezer gator.” He hasn’t seen The Jolson Story yet.