Charles Manson and the Twenty-Fourth Trimester
I’ve published a pretty decent body of work over the last decade, each of which evoke sense-memories of the periods of my life when they were conceived and written. Frantic Planet: Volume I was my first book. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and though it’s crammed with inventive ideas, it’s rough and raw, with a lot of choices I’d make differently now, but it was an exciting time, full of youthful — and quite naïve — hope for where it would take me. Volume II, in hindsight, is me dealing with a lot of issues, which I mostly put behind me once it came out, as part of some weird, unconscious therapy. The Beach Diaries books both happened during particularly miserable periods of my life, but their covers remind me of that rush of churning out pages and pages of new material, rain or shine, based purely on what I’d seen, with every day a fresh, mysterious canvas. And my latest, So Excited, So Scared: The Saved by the Bell Retrospective, was a bruising nine months of endlessly long desk-sessions and thinking about Dustin bloody Diamond, that nearly strained my eyeballs right out of my head. But there’s another book, with the most intensive and debilitating process of all, by far. A book that practically nobody has read.
When I was wrapping up 2009’s Frantic Planet: Volume II, I hit upon what seemed like an interesting idea for a novel, involving “Cheeky” Charlie Manson. Manson is one of the most iconic figures of all time; a wild-eyed shorthand for Evil, and the wicked things men are capable of doing, or of talking the vulnerable into doing for them. For a little while, I went back and forth on the morality of using such a bad bastard as the basis for a story. After all, the victims’ families are still alive, but it was an interesting premise, and my intention wasn’t to exploit the crimes, but to tell a broader tale about belief and control, amid the shifting social politics of the time. In fact, it’s a love story.
The inherent challenge in using Charles Manson as a character (not the narrator, but with his presence looming over proceedings), is that I had to crack the character of the real, actual Manson. Lots of people have ‘done’ him over the years, in parodies, skits, and bad TV movies, and it always plays as false; finger-paint impersonations akin to putting on a beret and going “Ooh, Betty!” To make it work in a 100,000 word novel, there had to be more depth. Essentially the world’s most complicated man, Manson speaks in riddles and misdirections, all designed to wrong-foot and throw you off. I needed to decode and decipher, to waft away the smoke and mirrors, and look beyond the dozen different personalities he adopts in the course of a single sentence, to find the real Charles Manson, whatever that was. Maybe he’s so genuinely unhinged that there is no real person anymore; just a madman-slash-showman spewing patter like a broken radio. My Charlie had to be believable, but more importantly, I had to be able to see what he was seeing from the inside, and be able to speak, ‘as’ Charles Manson, in a way that would sell the audience on a true ‘what if’ scenario, and not just another spooky prick in a wig and beard.
It’s difficult for me to fully put across just how intense of a period this was; a period that went on for years; far longer than any of my other works. It began with long months of research, encompassing everything from Manson and his antics to the politics and culture of the time period. Many of those months were spent watching and infinitely rewatching jailhouse interviews, trying to break the code; the body language, the visual ticks; to dissect his construction to its component atoms like I’d later do with episodes of Saved by the Bell. The whole time, I was unsure if I’d even write the book. If I couldn’t unravel Charles Manson, then the whole exercise was futile. If I could, then I might really have something. And eventually, at least in my opinion, I did.
Finally feeling like I had a handle on him, I completed the first draft in nine months, working into the small hours, where I’d go to bed and vividly dream about it all, before getting up to start again the next day. Luckily, there’s a ton of footage and material out there, and like brainwashees of a sex cult, I began each writing day strictly subjecting myself to at least an hour of his taped rhetoric before putting fingers to keyboard. Some days, I’d listen to The Beatles’ Helter Skelter on a loop for hours, like they did at Spahn Ranch, when Manson thought it was a secret coded message calling him to ignite an apocalyptic race war. Others, I’d be stalking around the flat, talking Manson-gibberish and using his mannerisms as I hacked out ‘his’ thoughts, in what likely resembled little more than an “Ooh Betty.” He was all I thought about, awake or asleep, whatever I was doing. Charles Manson. Charles Manson. Charles Manson. Like an unrequited love whose name sits on your tongue, and whose face you see in your dreams and on passing strangers in the street, he was always there.
In getting to the latter chapters, where he moved from the background into the spotlight, to reel off pages and pages of monologues, I increasingly began to feel like some Manson/Millard hybrid, having to mentally keep the plates spinning twenty-four hours a day, so I didn’t lose the voice. At that time, I couldn’t have lost it if I’d tried. It was coming out of me like automatic writing at a Victorian séance. Though the first draft took nine months, at a certain point, the character clicked into place and slid down over me like putting on a uniform. Consequently, While the first 50,000 words took 8 ½ months, the second 50,000 were bashed out in a manic, almost frighteningly-prolific three weeks.
As the lengthy editing process went on, I was constantly getting irritated by my own obsession, which was obviously unhealthy. But it was all cool, because I knew I’d be able to let it go once the book came out, and release him scuttling from my skull into the wild, like all the other characters I’ve given voice and action to, and go back to normal. All projects are party to similar, albeit much less intense focus, which is why release-day is so cathartic, as you can finally move on to the next thing. Plus, I was sure, so sure, that this was it. This was the one. No more cursing the mistaken romanticism of the starving artist. This would be the fabled ‘big break’ you hear about, and was, I was convinced, my masterpiece. The one I’ll be remembered for. The one that would solve all my problems, because I’d put everything into it, but it would have been worth it in the end.
The book never came out. I never got to push my Charles Manson out into the world. I never got to let him loose. One of the first rejections I got, from a big publisher, had a lovely note attached. You’re always told there won’t be any personal correspondence, but they’d taken the time to implore me to keep going, despite the knock-back, because, they said, I’d really hit on something special, and like a girl who tells you that someone will love you back someday, just not her, there was a home for it out there, I just had to keep looking.
I did, but there wasn’t. Even in the couple of years between conception and the final draft, the publishing game had changed, and digital chancers like me, with our 70% Kindle royalties, button-click ‘indie publishing’, and full creative control, had toppled the publishing industry onto its back, where it lay wheezing. Now, all anybody wanted was 50 Shades-style erotica, or young adult fiction they could pitch to tweens. Or maybe the book was just shit. One such rejection, after requesting the full book, turned it down on the basis there was “too much bad language,” presumably, during all the murders and drug-binges, and the scenes involving one of history’s most famous monsters, bringing to mind the gangster scenes in Eastenders, where Phil Mitchell jams a gun into somebody’s temple and threatens to “flippin’ well kill ya, you bloomin’ nit!”
The 2012 Beach Diaries, collating how I spent my time that summer, as well as my own mental state, has a running sub-plot where I’m emotionally ground down into the dirt by the constant volley of rejections, from a list of prospective agents and publishers that gets shorter with each No. For two years, I carried a printout of the book around in my backpack everywhere I went, like a penitent monk lugging a giant punishment-rock, just to remind myself that it existed; that I still hadn’t found a home for it; as though the physical weight of it would force me to continue until I’d unburdened myself. By that point, I’d been living with it for three years. I literally emptied out my bank balance with the cost of printer ink and postage, which adds up a lot quicker than you think when you’ve got cock-all savings. My eggs were all in one Manson-shaped basket; and all the time, he was still there too; this 5’2” murderous jester, holed up in the back of my brain.
Now it’s six years since I scrawled the first germ of the idea into a notepad, and it lives on only as this unbirthed baby, with the face of an elderly man, squirming and kicking inside of me. Eventually, I took it out of my backpack. By then, it was tatty and torn, having turned from my masterpiece; my saviour; into a ragged symbol of my own failure and waste. Whatever feelings the other books may elicit, this one brings a raw sense of loss; feelings repeated whenever the man himself gets a mention somewhere, like seeing the one who got away smiling and radiant in a bridal gown.
The first couple of years following, it was hard to shake, and lingering remnants of my artistic obsession; of things I still had to say about it and him; bled out into other projects. I wrote a spec screenplay based around a Manson figure in the Old West, and another with an early 70’s setting and allusions to the then-ongoing trial. His name crops up, here and there, in most of the things I write, or conversations I have, having spotted some connective thread, either real, or projected on my part. I still get that instinctive heart-skip of recognition when I suddenly see his face or hear his name in the news, like catching sight of a friend or family member, and thinking “Wow, I know them! What are they doing on TV?!” Of course, I don’t know him. Not really.
And for those who’ll ask, self-pubbing isn’t going to happen, as the legality of using a real person as a character is the greyest of areas, even differing from country to country, and I’m not going to shoulder that myself. Maybe some day, there’ll be a home for it. Preferably in a 10-episode adaptation for HBO.
Though the frustration of intensely focussing on one thing for years, a thing which you’re incredibly proud of, only to have it rot, unseen, is part and parcel of being a writer, that ache probably never goes away. As for Manson himself, it’s only really in the last year where it’s finally begun to shake. As time goes on, the Lost Manson Years slightly dull with each new project. But whatever I’m working on, much like the real one, my Charles Manson is still there, locked away, and dreaming of the day he might be released to cause some mischief.