Interviewer: In “The Bully Pulpit,” Seth is both detached from Senator Dillard’s campaign and the source of increasing fear among his audience. He later reveals that “Anywhere a man drew a blade against another, I was there. Anywhere a daughter shed tears on hearing her father’s fate, I was there. I was the whisper in the market, the lie in the newspaper, the shadow in the trenches…” How does the seemingly immortal Seth, then, represent facets of society in your story? Are ‘fear’ and ‘detachment’ necessary ingredients to the inner workings of civilization?
Ian Rennie: The picture of Seth in my head, as the idea of the story was developing, was of a forgotten god. In earlier days he had not merely represented fear, he had been fear, living in the moments of terror and living a little inside each person. And then something had happened, and he wasn’t any more. Not a god in retirement so much as a god in redundancy. This left him numb, cut off from the world, living only in the tiny fragments of time where he can once again play the feelings of an audience like a conductor leading an orchestra. And then it’s over, and he feels a numbness worse than pain.
Seth is the embodiment of something inside every human. Fear kept our ancestors alive at times where not being wary of danger would have killed us. Fear is primal, shooting past the upper layers of civilization to the ape inside, telling him to run or fight or freeze. Seth was there when we lit the first fire out of fear of the dark, built the first shelter out of fear of the wild. He was also there when we felt the fear but acted anyway.
Today, fear motivates our society in positive and negative ways. We work hard out of fear that our children won’t get the life we want for them. We hold our loved ones close out of fear that we might lose them. We also lock our doors out of fear of our neighbour, turn away out of fear of what happens when we get involved. And those fears can be turned on us, used to make us act a certain way, vote a certain way, distrust a certain type of people. A real-life Seth would have the political consultants of the world beating a path to his door, not just because he could manipulate the fears of others but because he was unconnected from the consequence.
And yet even in that detachment, Seth represents an aspect of us. It would be impossible to live in a society of more than about twenty people without making the decision, directly or indirectly, to not care what happens to some of them. Civilization would not function if we didn’t, on a day to day basis, care more about the people close to us than about our fellow man. And that’s a bit scary.
Interviewer: Which other emotion would you attribute to your story, if it wasn’t your own theme?
Ian Rennie: While my story is in many parts bleak, I think an essential ingredient was hope. We have to hope that things can get better in order to fear that they won’t. And with hope as your true north I think you can see this as a positive story. It even has a happy ending, if you squint.
Interviewer: After finishing your story, what was the single most valuable take-away from the experience?
Ian Rennie: My most valuable take-away was that it’s okay to change your mind. The first story idea I came up with for a major theme of fear and a minor theme of detachment was nothing like this one at all: not the same setting or even the same genre. I had a scene by scene breakdown of the other story before this idea came to me, unbidden, during a plane flight where I couldn’t sleep. I’d written the first section of this on my phone before the plane landed and knew that I had to finish this story, if only so I could reject it in favour of the other. In the end, I wrote both and had the toughest time picking which to submit. Ultimately this one felt truer to the brief. And it wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t learned the value of changing my mind.
Interviewer: Given that this is a “score” anthology, what representative piece of music would you connect to “The Bully Pulpit”?
Ian Rennie: The piece of music going through my head when I think about this story is “In The Flesh, Part 2” by Pink Floyd. If you ignore the lyrics entirely it’s a big, bombastic, triumphal piece of music halfway between a prog rock anthem and an orchestral piece. However, the lyrics are pure Politics Of Fear, pointing out those who are different as enemies of the cause. Nothing in this story goes as far as that song, but I can picture Seth, off to one side, yelling “Against the wall” with the rest of the chorus.
Buy the Score anthology, which includes Ian Rennie’s story “The Bully Pulpit” focused on Fear and Detachment.