Writer and artist A. King McCarty’s work was featured in issue #13 of Newtown Literary. Below, they reflect on the process of completing their piece for the journal, entitled “Fallout: Astoria.” For more from McCarty, check out their website.
Like most writers, I love to read and because I’m constantly reading, I’m also constantly wondering how other storytellers come up with their stories and why they choose to tell them. If you search around you can find a lot of theories authors have on how their works came to be. Some writers draw from life. Others believe in a more mystical process: the idea finds them. Some claim that their writing is a kind of prophecy, one they often hope won’t come true. Usually, I can pinpoint the direction my stories float in from, but when the idea for “Fallout: Astoria” came to me last summer, it was nearly fully-formed and unlike most of the other tales I’m used to writing. I tend to stray all over the map as far as medium: I write songs, short stories, novels, plays, musicals, and essays. But regardless of the form the story takes, most of my work contains an element of fantasy: singing pigeons, alligators in the sewers, dragon-fighting sailors—you get the idea. Although “Fallout: Astoria” takes place in what one might call an alternate reality, it is probably the most realistic thing I’ve created in a long time. The compulsion to get the story out was so great, I finished the first draft in a few short days right before I realized, magically, that Newtown Literary was closing the submission process for their 13th issue. I submitted my piece just under the wire, and was very happy to have it accepted.
It was a great honor, because Newtown is a Queens publication, and “Fallout . . .” is as much about Queens as it is about any disaster. As I attempt to process the elements that drove me to put it all together, that becomes even more clear. I wrote “Fallout: Astoria” in July of 2018, while I was taking a break from an ongoing project of mine. “Splendid Queens” combined art and essays to explore the land and people of “The World’s Borough.” It began in Astoria, my neighborhood, but earlier in the year I received an ArtHotel Grant from Queens Council on the Arts which allowed me to expand it further. I spent months exploring neighborhoods I hadn’t spent much time in previously. I learned about the events that shaped Queens, and the incredible people who called her home. There was, of course, a lot of variety, but there were also a few things I found residents past and current have in common: we are creative, practical, resourceful and resilient. We care for our neighborhoods and our neighbors. We invest in our communities.
I loved the project, but by summer I was ready for a break. This is still in the news, but in June and July 2018, things were heating up between the United States and North Korea as far as denuclearization, and North Korea had supposedly developed bombs and tested rockets. I was doing a lot of drawing at this time and it was my practice to turn on NHK, the Japanese news channel, as background noise while I worked. Typically they have some light programming - cooking shows and such - in between world news segments. They were rightfully concerned with the dialogue between the two nations, especially since the rockets had come close to their country. In addition, they were airing documentaries and specials leading up to the August anniversary of the bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. So instead of enjoying reports on Kawaii fashion and sake tastings I found myself immersed in the history of the atomic bomb. The fear had taken hold of stateside media as well, and multiple publications began reporting on the “what if” of a nuclear attack. I learned that I had misunderstood much of what happens during such a disaster. For instance, if a bomb should go off in, say, Manhattan, not all of New York would dissolve instantaneously. Queens might very well go on as normal, depending on the size of the bomb and which way the wind was blowing. This, was, somehow, more terrifying. Eventually my spouse became concerned for my mental state and asked me to stop watching such things, claiming it would give me nightmares. It did, but it also gave me a story.
Once the idea came to me, I felt it was very important to make it as realistic as possible. I drew on my own experiences as well as the multiple reports I had consumed, which became particularly handy when figuring out the logistics of the aftermath of such an event. I’ve lived in New York long enough to have experienced several emergencies, and used what I learned from those moments to fill out my protagonist’s journey. I knew cell phone service would be an issue and the radio would become immensely important. I knew most survivors would be grossly underprepared. And I also knew there would be “helpers,” a term I borrow from Fred Rogers, which means, to me, the people who step outside their comfort zone in times of collective stress to aid others: the DJ who continues to broadcast in the hope of reuniting families, the neighbor who offers the last seat in their car out of town, the woman who saves the cat. I wanted to create a story that was realistic without being sensationalistic. I wanted a story that felt like it happened.
But I didn’t want to write a story that frightened readers just to frighten them. So why do writers write the stories they do? And why did I need to write this one? There was one more element that influenced the writing of “Fallout: Astoria,” and it has to do with what I was reading at the time. The book was Hawaii by James Michener, a fictional account of the history of the island. At one point in the VERY long saga, a sea captain, very large and rough, is abusing some of his passengers when he is approached by a much smaller, less rough man who asks, firmly but politely, that he stop. The sea captain, master of his ship and twice the small man’s size, laughs it off. He owns the ship. He could break the little man in two. Why should he listen? And the smaller man, still quite calm, says, yes, this is true, the captain is very powerful. But he has forgotten one thing: the smaller man is a writer. And when they return to land, he will write about this incident in such a way that no one will ever want to do business with the captain again.
This is, perhaps, the dish every writer brings to the party. I felt compelled to write “Fallout: Astoria” because I was afraid, and this was one way I could take back some control. If I could use my words to inform others about what I had learned, maybe I could convince some of them to join me in keeping them from occurring. Before writing the story, I knew atomic weapons were bad, but I didn't know the extent of the damage they caused. They seemed unreal and prehistoric, like a dragon in a fairy story. But that wasn’t right at all. These bombs still exist, and they are inhumane weapons that can’t be controlled. Drop them on your enemy, and when the wind changes, the cloud they create poisons every child within a nearby elementary school. Innocent victims can live with the effects for years, and survivors have watched family members melt before their eyes days later. They are incredibly cruel weapons that, in short, have no place in a modern, civilized world. I suppose I could’ve written just that. In the time of opinion essays and blog posts, perhaps fictional stories aren’t practical. But I’ve often found that in caring for a character I know doesn’t exist, I’ve been able to absorb a situation more fully. Sometimes fiction can be very real. Sometimes it can break your heart.
In the end, there was some practical magic that surrounded the story. Shortly after writing it, my spouse and I found out we were expecting our first child. Apparently he was already in the making while I was writing, I just didn’t know it yet. And, because of this, we ended up getting a new couch. (If you’ve read the story, this will probably amuse you.) I also found out that my grandfather was stationed outside of Japan when the bombs fell, and was possibly affected by the radiation. A member of the clergy blessed the crew shortly before the first bomb dropped, as they were not sure anyone would survive. He died of a rare form of brain cancer several years ago, and apparently my grandmother thought this was the cause. I had no idea. And long after I had finished the first draft I continued to bump into bits about atomic weapons in nearly everything I encountered: books, movies, TV shows, and kiddie cartoons. So maybe the most fantastic of explanations for stories is true. Maybe they do find us when they need to.
So, I suppose, the answer to my question is this: I wrote “Fallout: Astoria” to celebrate my neighbors and address my fears. I wrote it because I watch too much TV and have an excessive imagination. I wrote it because I had to, and I think other writers do the same. I am grateful to all who have read it, and before I close, I owe it to them to answer a few lingering questions they might have in regards to my inspiration. The cat, I’m afraid, I made up. But the violet is real.