Ben, the leading male character in Chris Meeks' short story "Engaging Ben," is an artistically dedicated screenwriter who half-consciously, passively-aggressively trying to drive his fiancee out of his life using his dual obsessions, neatness and his work.
He's writing a screenplay about a gladiator named Dirk---yes. Dirk. Dirk the Gladiator---who, having spent the last couple millennia frozen beneath the Roman Colliseum---Ben hasn't figured out how Dirk got frozen or stayed frozen---is thawed out by a couple of well-meaning anthropologists who find they have let loose a monster. Dirk is horrified to find out that Rome has been Christianized since the days when his favorite emperors were tossing martyrs to the lions and sets out to kill off as many priests and bishops as he can stick his trident in.
Ben's gladiator script was an inside joke between Meeks and a screenwriter friend of his. The friend was at work on a screenplay about gladiators when Meeks was writing the story.
"Gladiators?" Meeks asked him. "Who writes a gladiator movie these days?"
The friend's gladiator movie turned out to be Gladiator.
Meeks is a screenwriter himself. Two of his screenplays have been optioned, although not yet produced. A third won the Donald Davis Dramatic Writing Award. He majored in psychology and mass communications in college, intending to become a filmmaker. It's why he came to California. But he soon made plans to write other things besides screenplays. Shortly after he'd moved to LA, a film he was working on with his roommate was shut down by the fire department because they'd neglected to get a blessing from authorities for some location shooting.
That's when he made up his mind he'd write fiction too. Fiction writers, he reasoned, don't need permits to get their work done.
The other things Meeks has written besides screenplays include, along with his stories and two novels, three produced plays, seven years' worth of theatre reviews for Daily Variety, and four children's books, one of them a pre-governorship biography of Arnold Schwartzenegger.
Meeks believes that working in different forms has been good for his fiction. From his playwrighting, which he says comes most naturally to him, and his theater reviewing he’s learned how to structure scenes and reveal character through dialogue. From screenwriting he’s learned not to rely on dialogue, to think visually, and to keep his characters moving, not just to make his stories dynamic and action-packed but to show readers who his characters really are. People are what they do, he says. What they tell you they are, what they tell each other they are, what they tell themselves they are, is not as revealing or as truthful as what they make themselves into with what they do.
Ben, the obsessive screenwriter in “Engaging Ben” tells himself he wants to be rid of his fiancee. She’s become too messy. He tells himself he means she’s sloppy. What he means is that he’s afraid of how messy and complicated life with another person can be. He tells himself he doesn’t love her anymore. But as soon as he realizes he may have gotten what he told himself he wants he’s propelled into comically heroic action to win her back, demonstrating his love for her to himself and the reader as much as to her by shedding himself of his neat-freak facade.
Envy is the fuel that powers the psychological engines of many of the characters in the stories collected in The Middle-Aged Man & The Sea into overdrive. Envy and its distillates, jealousy and covetousness. Ironically, it often drives them into happiness.
The narrator of "Rotary" finds himself looking back jealously at his
grandfather’s and mother’s pasts and their days of youthful bright
promise. The narrator of “Academy Award Afternoon & Evening” can’t look at much of anything—his friend’s new car, his friend’s green lawn—without despising it because he wants it for himself so much. Nothing much good comes of his envy except for a realization of his own pettiness.
But Ben doesn’t know he loves his fiancee, possibly doesn’t love her at all, until he leaps to the jealous conclusion that she has run off with another man.
And Vicky, the spiritually unfocused photographer’s assistant of “Shooting Funerals” who goes into business for herself taking pictures of...funerals, and who like Ben thinks she might be happier if she were out of the relationship she’s in, mainly because her boyfriend is too content with the way things are, finds the words to make him want to change things, marry her, when she grows jealous of the shared grief of the family at the funeral she’s just photographed and, incidentally, ruined.
And Ellis, the miserable New Age seeker after magic in "Divining" can’t be happy and just enjoy himself until he is overcome with jealousy at the sight of the woman he loves enjoying herself without him.
Meanwhile, Darryl, the cuckolded husband in “High-Occupancy Vehicle” may have driven his wife into the arms of another man by not being jealous or envious of anyone or anything, by being, like Vicky's boyfriend, too content with his life as it is.
If envy is a thematic thread in The Middle-Aged Man & the Sea, it wasn’t intentional. The stories were written over a period of many years. Meeks wrote "Dear Ma," the last story in the book, back when he was in graduate school. The stories jump around in time and place and vary in tone and style. Some are bleak, some are comic. What ties them is a sense that people are part of a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together, as if the pieces were all cut by a careless hand, and it’s up to them to jam themselves together in the hope of making their lives come together in a picture that is recognizable if not quite as pretty and seamless as they’d hoped it would be.
Sometimes, no matter how hard they try, the pieces won’t connect.
These days, besides J.K. Rowling, one of Meeks’ favorite writers is Tim O’Brien. In an email following up our interview, Meeks wrote:
I admire him, as I told you, for his sense of letting his vulnerabilty show. In a piece for the New York Times, where he revisited Vietnam 25 years after he left, he wrote how he went there with his young girlfriend. At one point,his girlfriend was in her bikini, laughing in the surf of one beach, and he was recalling all those who had died there and the blood in the water. His girlfriend thought he was pathetic and left him during the trip, and he wrote that he was going to kill himself with pills. He didn't, but he left those lines in.
In The Things They Carried, in one of the last stories called "Good Form," he writes about the effect stories have on people and on the writer, too. He says that as a writer, he makes things up to get at a deep truth. He says that while his stories may be based on real events ("happening-truth"), as a writer, he has to change things because the story demands it ("story-truth") and allows him to get closer to the feeling he's trying to express. Thus, he writes, "Story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth."
He feels stories, too,can make things feel present. It's a way of keeping feelings and people alive. That's what I feel in the best of my writing. To get there,you need to offer fresh ways of seeing, which can leap across in strong similes and metaphors. You need to be truthful and put humor as well as blood on the page.
We all like a good story, don't we? We can nod and say, yes, life is like this..
Amazon is offering a new story by Chris, "The Sun is a Billiard Ball", as one of its Amazon Shorts downloadable stories for a whopping 49 cents.
Visit Chirs' website here.
And the script for Gladiator by Chris' friend David Franzoni, and revised by John Logan, is online.