There was an exact moment, around lunchtime on January 28, 1986, when the first inklings of this book were inkled…
On that day, at that time, I was sitting down to eat lunch in the Trinity High School cafeteria in Manchester, New Hampshire, about 18 miles from Concord, New Hampshire. Concord was the home of Christa McAuliffe, who was set that very morning to become the first teacher in space. A fellow student I barely knew rushed by my table and said “The space shuttle just blew up!” I thought for a moment he was lying, but sadly he wasn’t. It was true. The space shuttle Challenger had indeed exploded just 73 seconds into its flight, killing Christa McAuliffe and 6 others.
Before then, as an adolescent sci-fi fan in the early eighties, I didn’t just hope or dream of going to space in my lifetime, I assumed that I would. The annual or biannual launches of spindly, dangerous-looking Mercury and Apollo rockets of the sixties and seventies had given way to what seemed like weekly smooth and secure space shuttle missions. We didn’t even gather around televisions to watch them anymore. It really seemed like drink carts, roasted peanuts and warm towels were right around the corner.
In the months and years that followed the Challenger explosion, advances in space travel seemed to grind to an excruciating crawl. A halt, even. Understandably so, of course; these were real human lives at stake.
As an avid reader of books, and devourer of history, I knew that human life—not just the lives of kings, queens, and noblemen, but the lives of factory workers, trash collectors (you know, the rest of us)—I knew that human life was more valued in twentieth-century first-world countries than it ever had been before. It sounds crazy to say that about a century that suffered two devastating World Wars, a slew of other terrible conflicts, genocides, and injustices. But at least, by the close of the 1900’s, there was a general philosophical admission (for whatever that’s worth) to the right of even society’s lowest members to be outraged. Laws were in the books (for whatever that’s worth) that supposedly made all humans equal, and all valuable. This was a new idea in the world. If an assistant cook in Julius Caesar’s kitchen had been abducted and held for ransom, he would have just gotten a new assistant cook. And he would have slept like a baby that night. If a field-worker in one of King Richard’s fiefdoms had been murdered behind the plow, no armies would have been mobilized. Even as recently as 1912, after the Titanic had sunk, her owners—White Star Lines—attempted to bill the families of their drowned employees for the cost of lost uniforms!
But life in general was more respected in 1986, and for the first time I saw what a double-edged sword that was. No astronauts’ lives would be risked until every possible danger was eliminated.
A few years later I became aware of just how little many people valued their own lives. I was living in South Carolina now, but read in horror about a cluster of suicides that had devastated the high school in my former town. Over the course of two-and-a-half years in the early 1990’s, five students at Goffstown High took their own lives.
It wasn’t until a handful of years later, as a young man working behind a meat counter in Greenville, SC, that I meshed these events together in my mind. I was talking to a friend, an older, redneck, free-thinking genius/butcher named Armand. Armand was so deeply country that we actually thought we didn’t particularly like each other for about three years, because my Northern ears literally understood less than half of what came out his Southern mouth. When we actually arrived at the same page in some kind of Mason-Dixionary (copyright just now, Kenyon Gagne) we realized that, despite our obvious differences, we shared a disgust for conventional thinking, and a very quirky, very elastic “what if” approach to the world and its issues.
“What if,” I said to Armand one night, “there was a government program where people who were suicidal could go out doing something meaningful; you know, dangerous stuff that would speed up progress…” I’m not going to pretend to remember his response, but it was a lively one, and the beginning of a lively conversation. It was not a real suggestion. Such a program would not be humane. But if an idea got Armand’s attention, I knew it had potential. I didn’t know what to do with it; I hadn’t really considered writing novels at that point…besides, I was busy just then falling in love, marrying, and starting a family. I put it on some kind of mental back-burner and finished mopping.
A few years later, the tired old world of children’s literature got a shot in the arm when the Harry Potter books came out. It was well known before then that a few kids liked to read. It was a shock to everyone to realize suddenly that most kids love to read! If you had told me, in 1996, that just a few years later countless millions of kids would talk their parents into waiting up with them for the midnight release of a product, I would have guessed, I don’t know, a movie bigger than Star Wars, or a gaming system more hypnotizing than Nintendo? But a book? Who knew?
I too read and loved the Harry Potter books, marveling at J.K. Rowling’s genius in carrying plot and character developments from page 1 in 1997 to page 4104 in 2007. I learned also that whenever my wife was really really really excited about a book, I should read it too. This lesson served me well when she and my older daughter (and later my younger daughter) fell in love with The Hunger Games. I couldn’t put it down. I was emotionally hooked from the first page, and as the father of two girls I couldn’t wait to see how Katniss’s unrehearsed, instinctive and heart-rending sacrifice on behalf of her younger sister would pan out. A new bar was set on how relatable, and how believably heroic, a children’s book character could be.
At about this time, a suicide touched the outskirts of my world, and rocked me pretty badly. She was the niece of a good man, a good friend, a stoic relative whom I saw shaken to the core with shock and grief. And she was terrifyingly young. I never even met her, I don’t think, although I may have been at the same birthday party with her once or twice. My own girls were just a few years younger than her, and still so carefree and happy-go-lucky. What had the world done to this child? Could it do the same thing to my girls?
The thought stayed with me for a long time. My wife, a middle school teacher and master of book recommendations, pointed me in the direction of Reviving Ophelia, a great resource on the “dangers of being young and female” by author Mary Pipher. This helped, along with a renewed commitment to keeping our family lines of communication wide open, and taking nothing in our precious lives together for granted.
Then one day, as I was running around the meat department like a maniac, I really began to reflect on how none of my creative ideas or artistic endeavours had really worked; none of them had sprung me from the self-made trap I’d wandered into 27 years earlier. My job felt pointless, mindless…the time I had squandered was lamentable; the energy I had expended was incredible. How many times could I lecture my daughters on the importance of determining their own destinies, and fail to apply the concept to myself? I resolved to sit down with my best idea, and mine it to the core. I was going to write a book, and it wouldn’t be scattered and stupid and myopic like the stories and poems of my youth. It would be well thought-out, well laid-out, artfully and quirkily rendered, and it would explore all the important things I had learned in my 45 years of life.
My wife and I were heading out for a much-needed cabin trip that weekend, just the two of us. I remember the gas station we were pulling out of, and the ramp we were taking onto the highway, when I told her I was thinking about writing a book. She turned the radio all the way down, instantly. “What?!” she said. “Tell me about this book!” It’s hard not to believe in yourself when the person who knows you better than anyone believes in you like that. So I spent the next year-and-a-half thinking, thinking twice, jotting down notes on scraps of butcher paper, pulling over to write down whole paragraphs as they occurred to me, finally pulling it all together and fleshing it out into a real book, and (I believe) a good one. Then of course came 53 rounds of editing.
I’ll wrap it up with a story that old Armand always told me I should open with. He literally said to me, more than once, that I should introduce myself by saying “Hi, I’m Kenyon and I once flew to Paris, spent three days in the airport, then flew back. Pleased to meet you.” Anyways: as a teen I became morbidly—MORBIDLY—obsessed with my own loneliness. Yes, like Dublin Dunne from The Goners. I didn’t know it, but I had a genetic predisposition towards self-sabotage, drama, and hyperbole. As depressed as I sometimes got, there were still many things, countless things, that I loved about being alive. I knew that I would never kill myself. But, by the time I was 22, I couldn’t take it anymore. I concocted a plan, a strikingly stupid one, to fly to Paris, walk to the extremity of Southern Italy, ferry to Sicily, ferry to Northern Africa, travel to Tanzania, fly to the idyllic Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean and live out my days as an intentional castaway in a tropical island rainforest. (You read correctly a moment ago when I said that I was twenty-two, not six.) Well, I didn’t tell anyone about this—I left letters—and when I landed in Paris I was consumed with doubt and guilt. I also knew nothing about flying, and didn’t even figure out where my suitcase was for a day-and-a-half. Long story short, I spent three days wandering Orly Airport in a nightmare of my own making, then flew back to Atlanta. My idiot-plan didn’t take me in the direction I’d intended, thank goodness, but it did kind of serve as a slap in my own face. I relaxed, got a freaking haircut, and must have looked like a completely different person because the awesomest girl I’d ever seen fell in love with me and it’s been roses ever since.
I include this episode in the interest of full disclosure as to the many sources of inspiration for The Goners, and for any of you out there, especially young folks, who may struggle with similar feelings. And because Armand (rest in peace) thought it was interesting…