There’s something mesmerizing about the end of the world.
Maybe conjuring it in fiction is a way of keeping it at bay. If we can imagine a worst-case scenario, perhaps it won’t come true.
That’s where my mind went when author K.M. Walton offered me a storytelling challenge for an anthology she was editing called Behind the Song: Create some kind of narrative inspired by a piece of music.
Behind the Song debuts in bookstores today, more than a year later, and it’s full of authors and essayists meeting her challenge in different ways. Some are wistful and melancholy, others are funny or inspiring, a few are pretty twisted. Mine is definitely a tale from the dark side.
It’s the story of a young girl who lives in a desperate time and place, a country divided and decimated. She’s trying her best to hide the fact that she played a critical, but inadvertent role in electing a madman as ruler. If anyone finds out, it could put her life and her family at risk. One day, an unscrupulous newcomer to her school puts together the pieces… and begins to blackmail her.
If you read EW regularly, you know I do a lot of reporting on Star Wars, Marvel movies, Stephen King and others, telling the stories of other storytellers. Here’s how I came up with one of my own.
I owe a debt of gratitude to The Killers, a 1964 political ad that terrified America, and a true-life young girl who hid her own frightening secret for decades.
I didn’t have anything at the ready when K.M. invited me to play along. No premise, no song. Music often helps me get into the headspace and mood of a character when I write fiction, but I’d never tried this particular exercise before.
My previous novel, Brutal Youth, borrowed some inspiration from Elvis Costello, but that story was already mostly formed when his music came into the process.
I needed a seed, and that was planted by one of my closest family friends, Erica Canales, a singer with the The Songbirds who had just landed a dream job: singing backup for Brandon Flowers on the tour for his solo album, The Desired Effect.
Since she is on the road a lot, she uses our place as her home base. I’d always loved Flowers and his work as the frontman for The Killers, but thanks to Erica, I suddenly found myself listening to more of him.
One day, she put the group’s 2012 song “Miss Atomic Bomb” back on my radar. Boom.
Not only is it a haunting title, but the lyrics — about a woman who blows apart of the life of the man who loves her — are enigmatic enough to be open to a twisted kind of interpretation.
I think Flowers clearly meant the opening lines of “Miss Atomic Bomb” to be from the POV of a determined admirer, thinking back to a long-ago lost love.
You were standing with your girlfriends in the street
Falling back on forever, I wonder what you came to be
I was new in town, the boy with the eager eyes
I never was a quitter, oblivious to schoolgirls’ lies
I thought: what if he was more than an admirer? What if he was a predator?
That’s where “Miss Atomic Bomb” fused with another piece of unlikely inspiration: a black-and-white political ad that aired only once on national television 53 years ago, but generated shockwaves that are still felt today.
We know the ad as “Daisy” these days, but President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign titled it “Peace, Little Girl.”
It’s 1-minute long… and horrifying.
It opens on a three-year-old girl who is plucking petals off a daisy. Sort of a “he loves me, he loves me not” thing. As she counts, she adorably mixes up some of her numbers. (I used this in my story, too.)
As she reaches the end, an ominous countdown begins. The image freezes as she looks into the sky. Moments later, her eye becomes a mushroom cloud from a nuclear blast.
As the fireball swirls, we hear Johnson’s Texas drawl: “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”
Johnson’s opponent, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater isn’t even mentioned, but the implication was clear for viewers who had watched with halted breath two years earlier as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded.
The ad branded Goldwater as volatile and hawkish, a warmonger who might use nuclear bombs to end the war in Vietnam. The innocence of “Daisy” combined with the horror of the all-too-real nuclear blast, were factors credited with helping Johnson’s landslide victory.
But what brought this to my mind was something I’d read only a few years before, when the little girl from that ad, now middle-aged, came forward in an interview with Dan Nowicki of The Arizona Republic to tell her own story. (You can see her interview below.)
Monique Corzilius (now Luiz) had been a child model and claimed her parents had no idea what their toddler daughter was selling when an advertising company hired her to pluck petals off a flower.
The nuclear blast and voiceover were added later, of course. But the ad was so frightening and divisive that her parents kept their daughter’s participation secret, fearing the angry blowback.
Goldwater and his supporters remained enraged by the ad, which they saw as dangerous fearmongering. Some even wanted the people associated with the ad to be arrested for inciting panic.
Even decades later, as an adult, she kept this part of her past hidden. She and her husband had settled in Phoenix, Ariz. — deep Goldwater country. Anger and grudges remained. It wasn’t until 50 years after the ad, when Goldwater was long gone, that she came forward to talk about her role in the scariest political ad of all time.
It’s amazing drama for a story. With The Killers’ music setting the tone, and the real-life “Daisy” girl’s secret suggesting a plot, I had my story for Behind the Song:
What if there was an ad like this in the recent past, something that helped elect a man who not only successfully scared the hell out of America, but then tore the nation apart after he took office?
There are many ways to end life as we know it, after all.
And what if the child from that ad, who barely remembered doing it, was now a teenager trying to live as normal a life as possible in a world she inadvertently made much, much worse?
And the final “what if”: What would happen if a young man with “eager eyes” figured out her secret — and decided to blackmail her?
You can read the opening excerpt here, as part of EW’s cover reveal for Behind the Song.
I hope it makes for an interesting thriller: A Twilight Zone-style story that takes the premise to unexpected twists and conclusions.
Within the story, I also get to pay tribute to some of my favorite apocalyptic storytellers: A teacher is named after On the Beach writer Nevil Shute, the “good” presidential candidate who has the ad used against him takes his last name from The Maze Runner author James Dashner, and the maniacal politician I dubbed “Chet Stillman” is a tribute to Stephen King’s demented candidate in The Dead Zone (and — for fun — the late, great Bill Paxton’s horrible older brother in Weird Science.)
Once upon a time, the idea of an unstable, divisive person being elected president seemed like good material for fantasy.
I just hope the rest of this story stays fiction.
The end of the world is always better at a distance.