Writing In the Mission (1: Origins)

Well, now that my novel, In the Mission, is out and available, I thought it might be a good moment to write about the writing process. You know, a little like a making of DVD bonus feature, only you have to read it instead of watching it.

How did I come up with it? Well, In the Mission has a long story. I started thinking about it in the mid-90es, when I was young and crazy. I lived in Cologne, Germany in a giant apartment with a bunch of friends. Germany was being unified, dance parties were all the rage, and most of my friends were much older than I.

The three things combined in an unexpected and very moving way. While Germany’s two legal systems of the West and East had to be merged, discussions about Paragraph 175, the anti-homosexuality section of the Penal Code, were under way. Should the West German paragraph be retained, or all reference to homosexuality as a crime be removed from the penal code? Should the result of German unification be that gay people in the East would formally lose civil rights?

While the end result of that conversation was the abolition of the dreaded paragraph, the discussion leading up to it was ugly and full of the same arguments that have been brought against gay people all over the world. In particular, the idea that gay people could only feel lust for each other, but not love, was brought forth again and again from politicians of the CSU, the Christian Social Union.

Enter the dance parties. We’d usually do them in the living room, a fairly big entity right by the main door (which minimized guest loss). The walls were painted a dark brown because of the ancient memories of my friends, who remembered the 70es and all the crazy things people had been doing there: they were just sick of repainting the walls after each party. Yeah, they must have been crazy, those parties.

We’d dance all night, inviting all the neighbors. It was an inclusive thing: you’d never know who showed up, who they’d have with them, and what kind of music we’d end up playing. The only iron-fisted rule was: no drugs, not even alcohol. Easy enough. Fun times.

At the end of many of the parties, a resistant group of old friends would be left behind. They’d sit in a corner and chat like old friends do. I cleaned up, curious about what they were talking, and a little miffed that nobody else seemed to care about all the work I was doing. How vain.

I’d listen in and realize that they were talking about dead people. They’d have their low voices, they’d look all sad, then they’d burst out in loud laughter when a particularly amusing anecdote was told. The laughing would die, and they woudl continue talking about the person with a love that was incredibly deep.

It was the mid-Nineties. The people that had died had done so ten years before, at the height of the AIDS crisis, at the hands of the AIDS virus. There was only one thing keeping them still alive: the memories of old friends, who thought of them with the deepest love you can imagine, that which by its very nature can’t be reciprocated, the love for the dead.

Here I had the conundrum that I wanted to write about. Before there were Christopher, Jesse, Dolores, kidnappings and mad car chases, there was a realization: love doesn’t just conquer everything, it also touches everyone.

We are here, some fifteen years after the events I mention, and there has been a tide change with regards to gay people and love. I think most people in this country realize that gay people do love each other, that gay people do love just like everybody else. Back in 1995, though, that wasn’t so clear to a great many people.

A part of In the Mission looks back. Set in 1988/89, it is about a time that has passed, about dangers that are not as fearsome as they were. To a reader, even in 2011, many of the things in In the Mission will look preposterous. “Did people really think that way back then?”

The answer is, yes. They did. Christopher, at the beginning of the book, talks just like a random person from 1988. A particularly uninterested, but not insensitive person from 1988. I had conversations with people back then that were similar to those Jesse has with Christopher.

In the Mission‘s message changed over time, and in the next few blog posts I will talk more about how the message and the novel changed over time. But at its ancient core, In the Mission is a story about how love touches everyone, even those that are not supposed to be touched by it.

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