Where Ideas Come From
Since I started writing the novel, friends asked how I came up with my ideas, characters, story, and so on. I always liked how Gary Larson, the brilliantly twisted cartoonist of “The Far Side,” described it:
“Where do you get your ideas?” has always been the question I’m most often confronted with. (“Why do you get your ideas?” is a close second.) I’ve always found the question interesting, because it seems to embody a belief that there exists some secret, tangible place of origin for cartoon ideas. Every time I hear it, I’m struck by this mental image where I see myself rummaging through my grandparents’ attic and coming across some old, musty trunk. Inside, I find this equally old and elegant-looking book. I take it in my hands, blow away the dust, and embossed on the front cover in large, gold script is the title, Five Thousand and One Weird Cartoon Ideas. I’m afraid the real answer is much more mundane: I don’t know where my ideas come from. I will admit, however, that one key ingredient is caffeine. I get a couple of cups of coffee into me and weird things start to happen.
For The Weed Agency, the structure of the story came from the initial outline, beginning with the plan that each chapter would cover a certain time period in the life of the characters. (The story stretches from 1981 to 2012.) The simplest way of explaining how the scenes came about is that I’m watching a movie in my head. The characters enter the set, and start doing things. And then I rewind if the scene isn’t going anywhere, and then go in another direction.
Sometimes a scene clicks instantly; sometimes it sputters and has to be scrapped entirely. Every once in a while, the light bulb goes off, and it feels like I’m tapping into some rear corner of the brain’s synapses where all the good stuff is lurking that is all-too-frequently out of reach.
In a story that examines the frustrating aspects of working within the federal bureaucracy, I felt I needed to explain why people choose to work there — besides the benefits and all. I felt like I needed a short sequence that showcased the contrast with the private sector, for good and for ill.
One of my key characters is Ava, a young woman who comes to Washington, D.C. in the early 1990s. It’s been deeply satisfying to hear from the women who have read it so far that they identified so strongly with Ava — smart, driven, idealistic, and, as she enters the working world, perhaps a little naïve about how the world works.
Ava’s career includes a ride on the dot-com roller-coaster, working out in Silicon Valley for a tech start-up, EasyFed, that builds a site designed to help people when they need something from government agencies. Life at the dot-coms is initially lavish, but increasingly tense as everyone begins to realize they haven’t quite figured out how their company is actually going to make money. (Any resemblance to my past employers during those years is strictly coincidental.)
Ava’s company, not quite enjoying the instant success it expected, blows a big chunk of its remaining budget on a Super Bowl commercial, featuring their spectacularly ill-conceived mascot and icon, a half-chicken, half-squid creature named “Squiggy,” and the result was the one scene in the book that pretty much wrote itself:
A gigantic chunk of the advertising and marketing budget for EasyFed.com — $1.1 million — was spent on the air time for a 30-second nationwide ad during the broadcast of Super Bowl XXXIV on January 30.
The ad began by showing a harried Ernest Borgnine at his desk with a computer, his tables strewn with paper, and lamenting, “File my taxes online? Apply for a small business grant through the Internet? I can’t understand any of this stuff!” At no point did the ad-makers feel any particular need to explain why the star of McHale’s Navy and Airwolf was applying for a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
A computer-generated Squiggy, about the size of a traffic cone, popped out of Borgnine’s coffee cup, and immediately began waving his tentacles towards Borgnine’s computer keyboard.
“I can help, Ernie!”
Instead of immediately beating the strange, pinkish-purple, one-eyed beaked cephalopod to death with his shoe, as most people’s instincts would suggest, Borgnine exclaimed, “Squiggy the Squicken!” in joyous recognition. Apparently it had taken the actor several takes to get the portmanteau correct, and the director had to keep explaining it wasn’t a “Squidge-ken.”
“Have government web sites got you seeing red? Try EasyFed!” chirped the unnervingly happy squid, with an eye that the Taiwanese computer animators had depicted with perhaps a bit too much realism. “EasyFed.com helps you get the information you need, and fast! Simple, easy, and quick!” as the tentacles typed with blurring speed.
“GRANT APPLICATION APPROVED!” appeared in giant letters on Borgnine’s computer screen in a font no government web site had ever used. Underneath the actor’s beaming face, fine white print clarified, “Results not typical. EasyFed.com is not responsible for the results of any interaction with any agency on its customers’ behalf, and government response times vary greatly.”
“Remember, there’s no need to dread! Try EasyFed instead!”
The squid did a cartwheel on its tentacles off the desk and past a window, where an aging Michael McKean and David Lander appeared as their characters from Laverne & Shirley. “I remember when I was everyone’s favorite Squiggy,” lamented Lander.
Across America, roughly 88 million Super Bowl watchers, previously enjoying the Saint Louis Rams build a 16 to 6 lead over the Tennessee Titans, all simultaneously turned to each other and asked, “What the hell was that thing?”
The USA Today ad-meter reviewing the ads the following morning suggested that test audiences and online respondents graded the ad medium-to-bad, suggesting that the audiences liked its protagonists and remembered it, but found it bizarre and were vague on the actual product being sold. But the ad scored off the charts with the advertising professionals, who praised its humor, creativity, and unpredictability.
The ad garnered a lot of mockery from the likes of Dennis Miller, Dave Barry, and James Lileks. George Will declared, “It is long past time for mandatory drug testing of Madison Avenue’s creative staff.”
But in the following days, traffic at EasyFed.com was up considerably, almost as much as at the web sites devoted to Ernest Borgnine and Laverne & Shirley.
If that scene freaked you out, rest assured that’s about as surreal as this satire gets.
You know the drill: $13 cover price, $10.09 on Amazon — don’t ask me why it shifted up a few cents in the past few days — $9.99 on Nook, and as of last night, $7.99 on Kindle. For you Canadians, it’s $9.99 on Kobo.