Jeff Jacobson discovers he’s an experiment, the secret clone of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and must help stop other more violent teenaged clones before they kill again or his own government erases them all. But will he catch these ‘monsters’ before becoming one himself?
Where does an idea like this come from?
The expected answer involves wrestling with universal expressions of human Identity and Morality and exploring the blah blah blah Nature blah Nurture, blah. Self. Blah blah. Teen ethos of… Blah.
And the honest answer has more to do with loving books more than anything and wanting my name on the cover of one and fancying that ex-girlfriends or my parents will see PROJECT CAIN in the bookstore and concede aloud how awesome I am.
In either case, these answers prove too reductive. It would be like condensing the origins of YOU to that one night where mom and dad had some “alone time.” A whole lot more, even in the most seemingly-random circumstances of conception, eventually led to that singular moment.
The process of WHERE/HOW/WHEN/WHY a writer first got the idea for a book or story is long and muddled. Muses often arrive in busloads and in a dozen different shades and shapes before a single word is ever put to paper. [Note: There are some authors who claim to wake up and start writing as if inspired only by their last dream. That ain’t me]. And so, I’ve tried to capture some of my various muses/inspirations here as I worked on PROJECT CAIN for five-plus years. For those readers and future-writers drawn to such things, I hope it proves helpful or interesting:
1] Creative Theft. (or ‘Inspiration’ if you want to be kind) I was at a writer convention in Nashville doing a panel on horror writing with an author named Jason Brannon. At some point, Jason mentioned the idea of his next book: A sideshow circus featuring legendary monsters: Bigfoot, the Chupacabra, Jersey Devil, etc. GREAT IDEA! Loved it. I’d actually written a book about The Jersey Devil and so this was right up my alley. Kinda wanted to taser Jason and steal the concept from him right then and there. But writers don’t really do that to each other. So I started thinking instead. How could I commandeer the idea and appropriate something new with/from it? [Somewhere online there are pics of me sitting next to Jason… I look completely out of it because I’m thinking with every brain cell on how to make his idea MY new idea]. I got as far as a sideshow of famous serial killers. No, a museum. No… a private collection. No… Hmmmm. Why the heck would someone collect serial killers? I had no answer yet. Oh… and is there a little Jurassic Park here? Sure. Or The Road or Sixth Sense or Huckleberry Finn or Perks of Being a Wallflower. Maybe just a smidge. Thousands of people have been telling me stories for decades and there’re a lot of ideas collected and evolving within this grey matter. [Jason’s eventual book is called THE CAGE. Buy it here.]
2] Market (Part 1). I’d become friends with the publisher of Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest, a popular speculative magazine which specialized in, well, stories that combined science fiction and horror. Friends notwithstanding, dude hadn’t bought any of my stories yet. Fair enough. My science fiction stuff lacked horror, my horror stuff lacked sci-fi. So…. Driving to an Apex book event one night, a two–hour trip, all I thought about the whole drive was a story that somehow offered the perfect blend for Apex. I’d read every issue of the magazine up to that point. Knew what their editors liked and added some goodies accordingly. Cloned serial killers. Evil scientists. Lab-produced monsters. Done. I pitched the story that same night as a 40k-word novella. Apex said yes and then serialized the tale in four installments throughout 2007. The story of Jeff Jacobson (the narrator of PROJECT CAIN) was years away still. But the “Cain Universe” had finally started taking shape…
3] Write What You Know (Part 1). I teach high school English and one day (many years after the Apex story was published) the students got on the subject of serial killers (it comes up more than you’d think in a room of boys…) One student started quizzing the rest of us. In what city…? What is the name of…? How many… Etc.I got every question right. While my knowledge of the Shakespearean sonnet or Hemingway’s influence on postmodernism was tolerated at best, I’d now proven I also knew a lot about something the guys found extremely interesting. Freaky dark stuff. Horrible stuff. I, in turn, was admittedly surprised how interested they all were in these old killers. Which was silly on part, as we’d both simply reached the same conclusion: serial killers are cool. Interesting. Their backgrounds and specific crimes and behaviors. Gross and morbid, certainly. But there’s all sorts of gross/morbid things in this big world that’re rather fascinating. So here was something teens were interested in that I knew a lot about. I wondered: Could I rewrite that old APEX story for a young-reader audience. Maybe something even from the point of view of teen “Jeff” (a supporting character in the original novella)…
4] Write What You Know (Part 2). Specifically, I teach at an all boys school. And have two teenaged sons. And was, true story, once a teenaged boy. PROJECT CAIN would be a book centered around the musings and struggles of… a teenaged boy. This was something I could write about with confidence, clarity, and truth. And this, also, was a group of people I thought deserved a voice. Most young-adult books are aimed at, and thus about, the ladies. Young men have unique challenges and standpoints and strengths. Jeff Jacobson – a clone of the most infamous serial killer ever – could just maybe even become that voice.
5] Market (Part 2). Young adult novels are the darling of this decade as publishers quest for the next Harry Potter or Twilight. As a result, we’ve gotten hundreds (thousands!) of great new books to choose from: Imaginative. Well written. Thoughtful. But books that speak to boy readers are particularly rare, however. And young readers tastes have matured. Harry Potter readers move onto the darker and more-thematic Hunger Games, for instance and the existent theory in New York publishing being that “young readers” are ready to go “darker” still. As an author weaned on King and Lovecraft and Bradbury, I was happy to oblige….
6] Research. The first rule of writing is “Write What You Know.” The second is “Know More.” (The third has something to do with “not talking about Fight Club.”) Before I wrote a single word of PROJECT CAIN, I read and watched and listened. Fifty books, hundreds of web articles. I asked my sons and students what they would do “If….” Watched hours of taped interviews with actual serial killers and psychologists. Spoke to scientists, teen counselors and social workers. Visited serial killers’ personal websites (which some produce while in prison). At one point, my oldest son finally asked me to “please stop talking about Jeffrey Dahmer all the time.” It was hard not to. My head swimming with facts and arguments regarding serial killers, government conspiracy, military testing, development in teens, the ‘anger’ gene, cloning, etc. Like a stew or soup, I guess. Tossing in everything I could find, stirring the pot again and again until I thought I had something worth serving.
7] World View. Everyone has one. What makes a “good” person? What is the cause of Evil? Sin? Is there a cure? Should there be? What is the role of government? Do we have a good one? What is the role of our military? Of science? Of a father? What function does The Past play in our lives? When is a boy a man? How responsible are we for your own actions? And so on… Literature allows writers (and, by proxy, readers!) to explore, test and maybe pronounce these worldviews. Try out some new answers. Challenge our own previous notions. Maybe tackle different sides of the same question using two characters. PROJECT CAIN provided a stage with plenty of opportunity and space for these kind of considerations. This is THEME land: A place where English teachers aren’t full of shit. Where writers and readers gather for a short time and get to, even if in fictional encryption, share honestly about being human.
Add all that up. Maybe you’ll have an idea to start a book. I did. And Jeff and I hope readers will enjoy the results of PROJECT CAIN as much as we enjoyed all its many beginnings…