Author Archives: Brian Gottheil

The Story Behind the Story, Part 3

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2

Two personal experiences shaped the story that Swing Out of the Blue would become.

The first was an article I posted online in August 2012 in which I publicly discussed my struggles with depression. The responses I received showed me the power of vulnerability: how lowering one’s defences can lead others to do the same, building community, friendships and healing.

An acquaintance from the Toronto swing dance community posted publicly about her mental health struggles and credited my article with giving her the courage to do so.

Another Toronto dancer tearfully confessed her mental health struggles to me; outside of her boyfriend and her family, I was among the first people she had ever told.

Another community member asked permission to share the article with her husband.

Others started mentioning their mental health struggles to me almost casually, adding, “I know you get it.”

The second happened in April 2014, when a Toronto swing dancer hosted a public conversation in which he described the sexual abuse he had experienced in his childhood. He also described how dance had helped him heal: how partnered dancing in safe environments helped him grow comfortable with physical touch again, and how the lindy hop community embraced and supported him, making him feel there was somewhere he belonged.

After the talk, he invited us to share our thoughts, and after expressing admiration, love and support for our host, many of the gathered dancers shared the ways his story resonated with them. Once again, vulnerability fed vulnerability, and courage fed courage. From the depths of pain and horror came hope for community.

In 2015, I began working on the new Swing Out of the Blue. I wouldn’t write about sexual abuse – with my life of relative privilege, I don’t feel qualified to speak to such traumatic experiences – but I could use my own healing journey to centre Sophia’s depression, Zack’s social anxiety, and the friendship that blossoms between them as they grow, individually and together.

Which is not to say that I removed the plot! Pure character studies are definitively not my style. I crave a story that drives ever forward, with unexpected twists and turns, and with challenges that push the characters to the brink. My novel didn’t need less plot. It just needed a different plot.

In the original #gamergate plan, an online troll unwittingly writes something that only a personal acquaintance of Sophia’s could have known. The heroes realize that a fellow Queen’s swing dancer is behind the harassment and set up a sting operation to unmask him. When I dropped the #gamergate plot, I needed to replace this plot point. The same character who would have been the online harasser would now have to do something different, something equally horrible, something like …

Well, I won’t spoil it.

But I will say that the idea came easily. The plot twist in Swing Out of the Blue might shock most readers, but to me, it’s the obvious next step. It’s what happens when toxic worldviews are taken to their logical extreme. And when, after the incident, one of my characters questions whether his sympathy for the perpetrator betrays a moral failing, he is very much speaking with the author’s voice.

Indeed, when I say I’m writing a novel about swing dancing and mental health set at Queen’s University, I’m often asked whether it’s autobiographical. It’s not, of course, but the novel is still deeply personal. The details are different, but the characters’ journeys have been my journeys. Sophia’s expectation of rejection if she shows herself to be less than flawless, and her failure to recognize that her wants and needs matter, or even to identify what they are. Zack’s fear of inadequacy and judgment. Fatima feeling trapped and unable to diverge from an expected path. Dani shielding himself with jokes and sarcasm out of fear that he’ll never belong. Rhea’s struggles with self-confidence. Iftin’s self-loathing. Kyle’s anger. Sophia’s desperate belief that she can’t change, and Zack’s desperate belief that he must change.

But my characters grapple with these challenges and start to overcome them. Their successes are incomplete yet substantial, and hope shines in that. That, too, is my journey.

Because I also see in myself the positive attributes of these flawed and human characters. Sophia’s deep caring and passion to make a difference. Zack’s growing self-awareness, his commitment to personal growth and his capacity for forgiveness. Fatima’s loyalty. Dani’s friendship. Rhea’s quiet determination. Andy’s leadership. Iftin’s love. They are all me, and I am all them. We are on this journey together.

In this sense, Swing Out of the Blue is my “video”. I hope you enjoy it.

The Story Behind the Story, Part 2

Continued from Part 1

I returned to the Queen’s Swing Club characters in 2009. Although Andy had been the protagonist of the 2005 short story, I now saw Sophia was the more interesting character, and I upgraded her to be the protagonist instead. (Back then, I still imagined Andy being a co-protagonist; only years later did I give that status to Zack and relegate Andy to a supporting role.) I wrote a scene and a half before that attempt fizzled out, too. I still had the same problem as I had in 2005. The dance was too joyful, so it wasn’t dramatic.

In 2010, I began writing what would become my first published novel, Gateways. Sophia, Zack and Andy fell to the back burner, but I never forgot them.

Finally, with Gateways completed in 2013 and my mind turning to new projects, I had the necessary insight. I still wanted to write Sophia’s story, but since dancing was too happy, the story couldn’t be about dancing. Dancing would need to be the backdrop, the setting, the stage, for a much darker tale.

What I chose may surprise you.

In 2013, Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, released the first instalments in a video series analysing tropes about women in video games. The videos, and the crowdfunding campaign that supported them, were met with a wave of anti-feminist backlash in the gaming community. By 2014, a campaign of harassment was targeting multiple women video game commentators in a movement known as #gamergate. The #gamergate campaign escalated to rape threats, death threats, and attempts at “doxxing”: publishing the targets’ home addresses online so they could be threatened and harassed in person. Lives were destroyed over men’s injured pride.

At the time, I was fascinated to explore the anger, hatred and dehumanization, the insecurity and self-loathing, the entitlement, and the desperate yet futile craving for power that would lead to such a heinous crime (many of these themes survived my eventual abandonment of the #gamergate plot). I was equally fascinated to explore the impact the crime would have on its victims, and the strength and resilience they would need to persevere through it. I thought I had finally discovered the beginnings of a plotline that would infuse Sophia’s story with drama and heartbreak, but also growth and hope.

And, as with its real-life inspiration, the story would begin with the innocent posting of a video.

In November 2013, I wrote the opening scene of Swing Out of the Blue, in which a group of friends watches Sophia’s viral video about depression. I spent most of 2014 self-publishing Gateways, but by autumn, I had cobbled together several chapters of the new novel and sent them to friends for feedback.

In hindsight, I was completely unqualified to write a novel about misogynistic online harassment. My early readers also pointed out that there’s a big difference between feminists facing backlash for calling out established power structures, and a young woman being harassed over a depression video; the latter seemed unrealistic. (Sadly, years later, I learned that a video game called Depression Quest had actually been among the early triggers of #gamergate, and its developer, Zoe Quinn, had suffered brutal online harassment and threats for it.) What really led me to abandon the #gamergate plot, however, was a telephone conversation with a friend in November 2014. “You don’t need it,” she told me. “The story is strong enough without it.”

At first, this confused me. We were talking about getting rid of my novel’s entire plot. How could the story be strong enough without it? What would be left?

The answer proved she was right. What was left were characters grasping for connection, holding tenuously to a dying dance club, striving to come of age even as they struggled with their inner demons. What was left was a video about depression, and the courage and vulnerability it took to share it … and the courage and vulnerability it would take for me to write such a story myself.

This character-driven version of Swing Out of the Blue was both frightening and necessary, because to write honestly about mental health would require me to remove my own armour: to remove the mask I show to the world.

Continue to Part 3!

The Story Behind the Story, Part 1

As we gear up for the release of SWING OUT OF THE BLUE, I thought you might be interested in how we got here. Here is part 1 of “The Story Behind the Story”, a short-ish series on the making of the novel. I expect I’ll write more “making of” posts beyond this little series, too … so many stories to share!

I learned to swing dance as a first-year student at Queen’s University, but it wasn’t until my third year that dancing transformed from a hobby into a passion. Over Labour Day weekend in 2004, I travelled with a group of Queen’s Swing Club (QSC) dancers to a four-day, five-night lindy hop extravaganza called Swing Out New Hampshire. The event was held at a children’s overnight camp nestled by a lake in the idyllic White Mountains. I found parts of the experience overwhelming: dance lessons all day, swing music all night, sleeping in cabins with 12 or 14 other dancers, and living, eating and breathing the lindy hop. But I emerged from the camp hooked on dancing in a way that I hadn’t been before.

During the 7-hour drive back to Kingston, Ontario, the QSC vice president talked me into joining the club executive for the 2004-2005 school year. After a year of dancing intensively, planning events and acting as an ambassador for new dancers, I wanted nothing more than to write a swing dance novel.

I first put fingers to keyboard while I was home in Toronto for the 2005 summer vacation. I worked selling shoes during the daytimes, and I spent Tuesday nights at Alleycatz, a midtown jazz bar that hosted a weekly swing night. Christopher Plock led the band, and one of the regulars in attendance was an up-and-coming jazz vocalist. During his set each week, Chris would call, “Sophia!” and she would sing a number or two with the band. She had a gorgeous, deep jazz voice that just melted you. (My protagonist’s inability to sing, a trait I added more than a decade later for plot reasons, was not at all a reflection on her namesake!) I also recall Sophia being fun and gracious as a dancer, the few times I actually worked up the courage to ask her.

As I typed the first pages of a novel that would follow the student executive of a fictionalized Queen’s Swing Club, I conceived of four central characters. Andy was the protagonist, Zack his best friend and roommate, and Rhea the enthusiastic newcomer. Sophia was the primary female character, but since I was a naïve 20-year-old boy at the time, she functioned as little more than a love interest. Still, I had always intended Sophia to contrast Rhea’s eagerness and excitement. Sophia was more worldly, her demeanour more polished. She was genuine and caring, but she wouldn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. A touch of melancholy lurked behind her smiles.

I hadn’t yet diagnosed Sophia with depression, probably because I hadn’t yet diagnosed myself.

Back in Kingston that September, a roommate asked about my summer, and I mentioned how much happier I was than the year before.

“Were you depressed or something?” he asked.

I honestly hadn’t thought about it that way. Throughout high school and university, I had classified time periods as “happy” and “not happy”, but until my roommate asked that flippant question, I had never applied the “D-word” to my experiences. It cast my stretches of unhappiness in a new and not entirely comfortable light.

Meanwhile, the novel petered out. The problem, I discovered, is that swing dancing is too happy, providing none of the dramatic tension required for a good novel. The petty politics of student clubs would hardly sustain the story, and the last thing I wanted was to write a typical dance story in which an underdog perseveres to win a competition. Not only is that plot overdone, but its competitive ethos is antithetical to everything lindy hop is about.

Lindy hop is joy, community, connection. In Harlem in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, it was danced in homes and nightclubs and ballrooms, not at opera houses or academies. Oh, it was a dance of pain, too: at times an escape from, and at times an expression of, the hardships that African-Americans regularly endured. Lindy hop, like the jazz music that inspired it, was born of discrimination and struggle, and difficult yet necessary conversations are happening in today’s mostly non-Black lindy hop communities about whether our love for the dance represents appreciation or appropriation, and how we can once again centre Black voices and support Black artists. But while contests always had a place in lindy hop culture, the dance was never about “winning”. There was never a belief that only a few top talents could “make it”. Lindy hop was social and communal. And, while the dance was centred in African-American culture, those Harlem ballrooms were among the very few desegregated spaces of the jazz era. As Frankie Manning, a pioneer of the lindy hop in the 1920s and 30s and a champion of its worldwide expansion in the 1980s and 90s, would say, at the Savoy it didn’t matter if you were Black or white, as long as you could dance.

Anything I wrote needed to capture that spirit. No petty politics: dance needed to be joy and healing. No elite competitions: in this story, learning the knickerbocker, the most basic of aerials, would rate as success. All well and good; but what such plotline could possibly deliver a novel’s worth of dramatic tension?

So, I gave up, turned the two chapters I’d already written into a short story, and tried to let it go, but I couldn’t. The characters had captured my imagination. They had a story to tell.

Continue to Part 2!

A midnight reflection on vulnerability

It’s hard to restart a blog after 6 years. Each extra day, week, month and year that it lies dormant makes you feel even more pressure to get that first, “restarting” post just right.

Which is ironic, since I’m restarting the blog to connect with people over a novel I’ve written about vulnerability. (It’s also about a number of other things – dance, mental health, resilience, common humanity – but the power of vulnerability is among the deepest themes and messages.)

Then, around midnight a few nights ago, I threw together a Facebook post expressing my ruminations and struggles. I was honestly reaching out for help. And I received the help: multiple comments of support, phone conversations, texts. And with it, the unease I’ve been feeling for the last two weeks, since promoting the novel started to become more real, has started to soothe.

So, forget the “perfect” re-introduction. The truth is, sharing this novel feels vulnerable and probably always will. It’s time to lean into that. Because we can’t connect unless we allow ourselves to be seen.

I hope to do that in my posts in the coming weeks: show a little bit of myself (and how that’s been reflected in the novel I’ve written) and connect with readers who are interested in diving deeper, in taking this journey with me. A midnight reflection is the place to start.

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Guys why is vulnerability so hard?

Like, hard enough that even though you wrote a book about vulnerability, it feels too vulnerable to actually share it in an authentic way?

And then I worry even this post will read as inauthentic and being about promoting the book, which it’s not, it’s honestly what I’ve been grappling with for the last couple of weeks since this journey started feeling a lot more real?

I feel like my social media use over the last, well, decade has been mostly silence/lurking, interspersed with some curated vulnerability – expressing things just vulnerable enough to look vulnerable but not quite cross the line of truly being vulnerable.

But then, maybe social media’s not the ideal forum for true vulnerability, anyway.

And more than that – it’s not about vulnerability, per se. It’s about authenticity, right? Showing up as your true self. Not hiding or performing in the interest of fitting in. I wonder if social media is the antithesis of authenticity. But I’m also not quite sure where else to connect, these socially distanced days. Except, perhaps, for one Zoom meeting and one phone call at a time.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who’s done those meetings and calls with me recently … and if you have any useful insights on my midnight rambling, please let me know.