I never went to the cartoon version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame because I knew they changed the story line, giving it a “happy ending.” I did not appreciate dumbing down the book that way. Nonetheless, I did see the musical in which some of the pathos was rewritten into the story, with Esmeralda dying at the end. And one line haunts me: “what makes a monster and what makes a man?” And it speaks to a question I often find expression for as a writer, or hope to. I myself do not express it as well as Truman Capote did in the film Capote. He said that the reason the murderer who was at the heart of In Cold Blood was so important to him was because he felt he had grown up the same way, both being abused men. And it was like they grew up in the same house, and yet when they were big, he went out the front door and the man who committed murder went out the back. The questions his childhood left him were what that man represented.
I have a book I want to write eventually (Once Upon a Time When the World was New) with a similar point at the heart of the book: you have two boys, Jeffry and Billie. At one time, Jeffry and Billie were happy, and very much alike. But Jeffry fought in Vietnam and ended up embracing the theory that the military was “stabbed in the back” whereas Billie becomes a member of the Peace Movement who gets his PhD in Amerindian History and Literature, and then goes on to teach in Middle School while writing translations of Amerindian mythology. The story is told from the point of view of Jeffry’s wife Sallie. The point is, that at some point Jeffry made one choice which defined all of his subsequent choices, and Billie made the opposite. And though they remain very much alike, even having the same kinds of problems with women at first (Jeffry marries Sallie because she is pregnant; Billie has several live-in girlfriends and an ex-wife before finding lasting love), they become each other’s antithesis, hurting each other in the process. They love each other and yet cannot seem to be each other’s friend. Through these two brothers I want to try to explain what in America has gone wrong. Neither is a bad person to me, though both of them has ideas I disagree with. I just wonder the question when I think about them, “Why is it so important to people that they be right all the time?” by which I mean that instead of compromising or admitting the other side might have things to say, too, why is it that both sides in politics are bent on moving farther and farther apart–and possibly destroying a world–America.