by Mark Molloy
via e-mail August, 2010
In Gennady Favel’s short story Moral Census – featured in MAKE’s spring/summer 2010 issue “Myth, Magic, & Ritual” – a young bike messenger is entrusted with delivering a very important package. Usually on time, and even ahead of schedule, Freddy finds himself thrown off track after being hit by a car and having to stay in a hospital overnight. Now his package is a day late, and it seems the failure to deliver on time will have serious consequences for humanity.
Favel creates a tale that is thrilling, compassionate, and relevant to our time. The title alone suggests that we take a look within ourselves and do some serious re-evaluation. Favel’s prose gives a bit of mystery, and ultimately keeps that mystery right through to the end. While many may not be fans of ambiguous endings, it works in this case, perhaps asking readers to supply their own answers: we have done good deeds, but against all the bad, are those good deeds enough? Have we done enough good?
Favel has a background in the world of stocks and finance, so he may have inside knowledge about how some things balance against others. Certainly, the idea of balancing comes through in Moral Census, leading to questions about the truth of the phrase “hell on earth.” Is that something we are living now? Or do we have no idea about a real hell? Favel offers no definite answers on this question either, and I don’t think it’s one we can answer until we are finally there.
Kristin Boyd: Was there a certain event that lead you to question mankind’s morals, or lack thereof?
Gennady Favel: I really wouldn’t say there was a single event, no. I think the idea of morals, or what is moral, can be approached from many different angles. If your moral views stem from wider religious beliefs, then morality for you is clear cut. You have the sacred texts—the Torah, New Testament, the Koran, etc—and in these texts God instructs mankind on what to do and how to behave. Within a religious context morals are set in stone, sometimes literally as is the case with the Ten Commandments, and there is little room for mortal interpretation. If something remains unclear, religious leaders will interpret the rules for you, so again you don’t need to do much dwelling on the subject of morals.
For most people, including myself, I think morality is more subjective. I have my beliefs, which I might feel strongly about, but I also understand that others might believe the exact opposite. I won’t always respect other people’s believes but I acknowledge their right to have them. However, I think that morals can’t exist without some sort of spiritual theme. It doesn’t necessarily have to be religion, but there has to be something more than what we can sense in our everyday life. Otherwise, if we consider that we are just lumps of matter that randomly organizes itself into a human shape, then strictly speaking we are no different than a rock, and morals don’t apply to rocks.
Getting back to the original question, there was no single event that inspired me to write Moral Census. I began writing it in early 2009, and as you probably know, this was a time of great instability in the economy and politics. I was fairly angry at the way our government was handling the financial crisis, and I wrote many articles detailing my views. During some days, it looked like our economic world was going to come to an end, and I think that’s also reflected in this story, only in a dire and direct way.
KB: How did you translate this idea into a cohesive story?
GF: The idea of two suns appearing on earth actually came to me in a dream. Maybe I was watching a sci-fi program the night before, or some show about astronomy, I don’t remember right now, but when I woke up I had a pretty clear image in my head of me walking down the street and seeing two suns in the sky. I didn’t know how I would use that idea, but I started writing the story the same day while the image was still fresh in my mind.
At first, I thought of going the science fiction route, and have the main character be a scientist who tries to explain how two suns can appear over earth. I dropped the idea because at the end, there would have to be some scientific explanation for the astronomical anomaly, and this didn’t seem to me too exciting. To me, the best science fiction stories are the ones with the twist endings or moral lesson at the end. I didn’t have either so I went with a surreal theme instead.
KB: Do you usually write ambiguous endings? I know some people hate them, but I often find them to be closer to life. Did you imagine a certain ending for this story? Or does it remain ambiguous for you, too?
GF: I don’t write a lot of fictional stories, so it’s tough to answer this question accurately. In my screenplays I try to wrap up all the loose ends and then leave a “but maybe not” as the closing scene. If my script for the horror movie Expiration Day ever gets made into a movie you’ll see what I mean.
I think there are two ways to do an ambiguous ending: the right way that will satisfy the reader, and the wrong way that will leave the reader thinking “well, that was a big waste of my time”, and then they feel frustrated. So for example, an ambiguous ending that would be perfect for a fantasy story is something like this: after a treacherous journey the heroes in the tale battle and defeat some enormous evil. However, after their great victory, they discover that there is a greater evil that must be faced and the story ends with them heading to face the new nemesis. That’s a good open-ended conclusion since there is a resolution to the main plot, but the final fate of the heroes remains unknown. At this point, the reader can project his own ideas as to how the story will really end, and everyone is happy.
An alternative ambiguous ending that wouldn’t work so well in my opinion, might go something like this: “After reaching the pit where the evil monster lived our hero drew his sword. The monster flashed his sharp teeth, and gave out a terrifying roar. The hero lifted his weapon and charged forward. The monster did the same. The end.” Now that’s a terrible ending. Nothing but frustration can be expected from the reader at this point. If you ever see me write something like that, feel free to leave angry comments on my Facebook page.
In Moral Census the ending is not actually that ambiguous. The story starts with Freddy, the protagonist, attempting to deliver a package, and in the end, he accomplishes what he set out to do. In that sense there is a resolution. Whether his actions prevented earth from becoming a possession of the devil is up to interpretation of course. If you believe that the Moral Census he was delivering accounted for enough good deeds, then the earth was saved.
KB: I firmly believe that good ideas can be sucked from any segment of life. Do you think this holds true for you?
GF: Absolutely. Most of my writings, both fiction and non-fiction, have some part in them that takes place on Wall Street, even if it’s just a small aspect of the story. I actually think that out of the pieces I had published, Moral Census had the least to do with finance and trading. Although, one can always make an argument that morals or lack of them go hand in hand when discussing Wall Street.
KB: How do you take ideas or events from Wall Street and bring them to the creative sector?
GF: Ever since I started working on Wall Street, there were ideas or stories that I wanted to tell about this place. Some are real, and should probably remain undisclosed to the public, and some are fictional tales inspired by what I see every day. It’s definitely a one of a kind area, and can sometimes be overwhelming.
You know how they say, “everything is bigger in Texas” when they refer to physical objects? Well the same can be said about Wall Street, only not in the physical sense. When I say, “everything is bigger on Wall Street,” I am referring to human emotions like loses and triumphs, greed and fear, victory and defeat; all of these are bigger on Wall Street. Not to mention the big egos and the big downfalls, the huge success stories, and as we recently saw the gigantic failures. Almost every human condition can be found on Wall Street in its raw and most explicit variety. Down on Wall Street, finding material to write about can be as easy as walking into a bar and listening to a bunch of traders discuss how they battled the market as if it was a mythical two-headed monster. So if any writer out there is jammed up creatively, I suggest taking a trip down to New York’s financial district. It’s a perfect cure for writer’s block.
KB: There is a bit of stock trading in Moral Census. I saw the “stock” as the good deeds and benevolent people, and the “trading” being humans exchanging these good deeds to avoid a literal hell on Earth. Was this an idea you consciously inserted into the story? Or was it something you noticed after completing a draft? It does seem like this stock trading was intentional, given how closely related to the plot it is.
GF: When I was initially writing this story, I wasn’t trying to intentionally infuse it with symbolism. I figured when you are dealing with ideas like theology and morals, symbolism will tend to seep in, even if not by an initial design.
I find your reference to trading is interesting, since deep down if you think about morality and being moral, isn’t that the ultimate trading game? We are moral for certain reasons, and just like in trading, those reasons are usually there to serve a self-purpose. If we are moral because the religion we subscribe to tells us that we will be rewarded in the afterlife, well then it’s just buying a bond—we pay now with the currency of morality, and in return we are eternally rewarded in the future by going to heaven. Being moral due to a belief in karma is of course just another version of moral trading, where if you do good, good will come to you in return. But even in the purely earthly logic, we use morals to trade away guilt and buy assets such as goodwill and high standing in the communality.
KB: How do you usually deal with ideas that show up or reveal themselves after drafts have been written?
It’s interesting how all these ideas pop up after the story has been written. Perhaps if I saw it earlier, I could have used it somewhere in the plot. On the other hand, I think it’s good to let reader pick out little pieces of the story and interpret them for themselves to see how they might fit in their own lives.
KRISTIN BOYD is an intern at MAKE, and an undergraduate at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC), close to completing her degree in English and Creative Fiction. She is just beginning her publishing career, and will be published in The Writing Lab Newsletter, a nationwide magazine devoted to theory involved in university Writing Centers, and the UIC Writing Center’s magazine discussing their own theories and practices in running their Writing Center. She also maintains a blog devoted to reviewing horror fiction, fullmoonhorror.blogspot.com.