The Fall of Polite by Sam Kench Genre: Post-Apocalyptic Thriller
In a freshly lawless New England in the dead of winter…
A bloodied and barefoot 17-year-old, grieving the loss of her father, trudges around a smoldering pileup on the road out of town. She’s endeavoring the 120 mile trek to her only living family member through blizzard conditions…
A once kind-hearted lumberjack splits a teenager’s nose in half with the rim of a metal gas can. Since the day his family was slaughtered before his eyes, he’s been consumed with an undying fury that can only be quelled through acts of violence…
A two-time college-dropout, trying to do good, howls in agony as her face is slashed with a razor-blade. The crackhead who did the deed is taking back her five-year-old child who the drop-out was trying to protect after finding him abandoned in a dumpster…
Anyone wishing to live must harden and adapt to the new rules of a world post-fall of polite. This dangerous new world will make you into a survivor… or a corpse.
MAISEY CROSSED the factory floor and exited out the back. She passed by the dumpster she had found the kid in. A yell flew at her from her side and made her jump. Turning around, she was met with the sight of a bone thin woman with wild and dirty hair rushing towards her.
‘Get away from my kid!’ Her black/yellow, misshapen teeth betrayed her crack and meth addiction.
‘He’s your son?’ Maisey asked, though her real question was still to follow, ‘How can you leave your son alone in this hell-hole? What kind of mother are you?!’
‘Oh shut the fuck up, bitch!’ The crackhead closed the distance between them, dirt and dust fell from her tattered white garments as she moved. Her skin was covered in a gel of grime. ‘Let go of my kid’s hand! Get over here Tommy!’
‘No, you stay away from that crazy lady.’ Maisey spoke down at the tiny terrified child. Tommy was silent, his collar pulled up over his mouth and his eyes unblinking. The crackhead was one addict who wasn’t going to let an apocalypse stop her from getting her fix. She had left the kid alone for two days to track down a drug source, of which there were still a couple in business and whose prices had raised ten-fold; truly an industry unfettered by the fall of polite. She didn’t feel an ounce badly about leaving Tommy behind. It was what was best for him, she had told both him and herself.
‘Get away from him, you fucking bitch!’ The crackhead snarled. Yellowed spit flew through the air as she slashed Maisey’s face with a razor blade held between her thumb and three bony fingers.
A curled diagonal line carved through Maisey’s face, splitting her right eyeball vertically in two. The slash continued all the way down through her top lip and gum and halfway through her bottom lip before slipping out of her flesh and back out into the open sunlight. The scream echoed around the factory as Maisey fell to the gravelly snow, clutching at her eye as if pressure would alleviate the unimaginable pain. She blinked involuntarily; the split eyelid peeled apart each time it opened and closed. Her tear ducts pumped and her eyelashes thrashed like a seizure patient.
‘Shut the fuck up!’ The crackhead yelled down at Maisey, rolling and screaming on the ground. ‘Shut up! Shut the fuck up!’ The crackhead picked up an icy orange brick from a pile beside the factory wall and clobbered Maisey over the head. The screaming terminated, followed shortly by the end of its distorted echo.
A chipped and bloodied brick hit the ground and the crackhead took off, dragging Tommy along behind her. He was yanked straight off his feet, his shoes almost coming off as they dragged along the slush covered gravel. He hung from his wrist clenched tightly in his mother’s hand like a stuffed animal hung from a claw machine, her discolored fingernails digging into his skin. He stared at Maisey as he was pulled backwards, her motionless body getting smaller and smaller.
Sam Kench is a 23-year-old writer and independent filmmaker. His screenplays and short films have been awarded by festivals and competitions around the world. Click here to check out work on BrickwallPictures.com
In 2014 he was named one of the top defenders of free speech by the National Coalition Against Censorship.
He grew up in New England and spent years exploring many of the locations that found their way into the novel. He now resides in Los Angeles. ‘The Fall of Polite’ is his debut novel.
Q: Can you, for those who don't know you already, tell something about yourself and how you became an author?
A: I first got into storytelling through the medium of film. I have an undying love for cinema that informs everything I do. I’ve written a dozen or so feature-film screenplays and I’ve had the pleasure of directing a handful of short films. I would like to think that my prose has a cinematic flair from my experiences in screenwriting that readers will enjoy. These days, I actively write in both mediums. When I come up with a new story idea, one of the first questions I need to answer is whether this story is a novel or a film.
Q: What are some of your pet peeves?
A: Bad plot twists, formulaic story arcs, author-insert characters, lazy sentence structure, pulled punches, easy plot choices, overt exposition, the “male gaze” in describing characters, baddies letting protagonists live for no reason, a murdered wife being pregnant because it isn’t sad enough if she’s not pregnant? (bonus points if the pregnancy is revealed after the fact as a twist), an item in a breast pocket stopping a bullet, “crazy” characters being able to somehow see through one-way mirrors, and wrapping up a story with a suicide.
Q: What do you do to unwind and relax?
A: I actually have a pretty difficult time relaxing. I try really hard to be as productive as possible, which can often lead to attempts at relaxing making me feel awful, like I’m wasting time that could be spent writing, researching, or planning. I really enjoy video games, for example, but find I usually can’t play them for longer than an hour or two without feeling like I should be writing instead. One way I sort of cheat a relaxing activity is by turning it into something more productive. That’s partially why I often write reviews or essays about the things I watch or read. I can justify spending the time to rewatch The Wire for the fifth time if I can consider it research for a new essay I’m writing.
Q: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
A: I would say it was a gradual process for me. I considered myself a filmmaker before considering myself a writer. In fact, I began making awful home movies without having ever written anything, and it was specifically in order to have stories to film that I began learning how to write. Eventually that priority switched, and I now consider myself a writer first and foremost.
Q: Do you have a favorite movie?
A: As I’m sure any cinephile would probably tell you, that’s a damn-near impossible question to answer. I have so many favorite movies and favorite filmmakers and even my top 20 favorite movies is liable to change depending on which day of the week you ask me. A few of my favorite filmmakers include: David Lynch, The Coen Brothers, Mike Leigh, S. Craig Zahler, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Martin McDonagh, Steve McQueen, Gareth Evans, John Carpenter, David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve, Joon-ho Bong, Chan-wook Park, John Woo, Noah Baumbach, and so many others.
Q: Which of your novels can you imagine made into a movie?
A: I would love to make The Fall of Polite into a TV show. (I may have already written the pilot script.) A new novel that I am currently working on is a story that I actually first wrote as a television series before deciding to retool as a novel, and I’m liking how it is shaping up so far in this new form.
Q: What can we expect from you in the future?
A: Hopefully, many, many stories across all genres. I have two novel projects currently in the works, one mystery/thriller, one western, plus outlines for a couple of other novels once these first two are finished. I also have a sizable back catalogue of screenplays that I hope to turn into films at some point, and I’m writing more scripts all the time (five new feature-films in 2020 as of August).
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the characters in The Fall of Polite?
A: There are three main protagonists in the novel: Maria, Eamon, and Maisey.
17-year-old Maria is grieving the loss of her father when the world falls into a state of disarray. She embarks on a 120 mile trek toward her only living family member through harsh, blizzard conditions.
Eamon, once a kind-hearted lumberjack, is now consumed by an undying fury following the slaying of his family. He wrestles with inner turmoil as he finds himself drawn more and more toward acts of violence.
Maisey is a two-time college-dropout trying to finally do something worthwhile with her life by rescuing the five-year-old boy she found abandoned in a dumpster. But when the child’s abusive mother returns and attacks Maisey with a razorblade, she is left permanently disfigured.
Each protagonist comes from different walk of life but each finds themselves stuck in the same dreadful situation as the world around them falls apart at the seams. They are bound through shared personal tragedy as they each embark on their own journey for revenge. These characters each desire revenge for different reasons, seek them through different means, and are changed by this pursuit of vengeance in drastically different manners.
Q: How did you come up with the concept and characters for the book?
A: The post-apocalypse is my favorite setting. I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about the ways in which the world would change if the rules of civility were lifted. The growing political tensions of the contemporary U.S. were a strong motivator in setting the apocalypse here and now. I lived for many years in the state where the novel is set and would often explore the abandoned structures scattered across the towns and the concrete ruins out in the forests, imagining them apocalyptic. Many locations in the novel have real-life counterpoints around New Hampshire, including Maria’s home where the novel opens which was based on the apartment I lived in throughout high school. Everything in the book is driven by the apocalyptic setting; the ways I believe people with different life experiences would act and would be changed.
Q: How did you come up with the title of your first novel?
A: The Fall of Polite is my self-coined term for the end of the civilized world. I wanted a unique phrase that could signal the novel as a post-apocalyptic story in an abstract way without saying it outright.
Q: Who designed your book cover?
A: For the cover, I reached out to an artist friend of mine whose work I’ve loved. It was their first time designing a book cover, and I think they knocked it out of the park. If any other authors would like to commission a cover design from them, you can reach out through Kayleea.com
Q: Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
A: I learned a lot about the differences between writing screenplays and writing prose. As I was far more accustomed to writing in screenplay format, I kept catching myself sticking to unnecessary structure and formatting conventions in the early stages of writing the book. Once I shook those habits, I found writing prose to be an incredibly liberating feeling. That freedom in the writing made exploring the setting and characters an extremely enjoyable experience that felt fresh and exciting.
Q: If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
A: I’m a huge of Elsie Fisher after her incredible performance in ‘Eighth Grade’. I would love to work with her and I could honestly see her playing a role in practically all of the stories I have written thus far.
Q: What is your favorite part of this book and why?
A: Exploring the post-apocalyptic world was easily my favorite part of writing the book. I’ve found that almost all apocalyptic books, movies, and games are set far into the apocalypse or begin at the very start of the apocalypse, and then jump ahead (often by having the protagonist wake up from a coma oddly enough). One sort of mission I had going into the book, if you want to call it that, was to start right at the beginning of the chaotic collapse of society and progress forward in real time without ever jumping ahead. I wanted to show the full devolution of society through the eyes of the characters and watch the civilized world crumble into full lawlessness and progressively harsher violence and turmoil over the course of the book. Getting to thoroughly explore that chunk of time that the vast majority of apocalyptic stories skip past was a great joy.
Q: Do your characters seem to hijack the story or do you feel like you have the reigns of the story?
A: I strongly root for characters hijacking the story. I greatly admire filmmakers like Mike Leigh, Sidney Lumet, and John Cassavetes who encourage freedom and improvisation from their casts, allowing the characters to dictate the story. To paraphrase Mike Leigh, if you know exactly what is going to happen before it happens, then it isn’t nearly as exciting.
Q: Did you have a particular favorite character to write in the book?
A: The most fun character to write was probably one of the antagonists, Georgie the mute sharpshooter. I’ve always found mute characters intensely interesting and writing from this ruthless killer’s point of view was always interesting.
Q: Is there a writer whose brain you would love to pick for advice? Who would that be and why?
A: I would talk to S. Craig Zahler for hours and hours. He’s the writer with the most similar style to myself (and I might be secretly attempting to model my career on his). I find his high level of output inspiring and I aspire to become as good at titling pieces as he is. I’ve certainly taken some cues from his work in regards to keeping stories surprising and in writing violence that feels visceral and heavy.
Q: What book do you think everyone should read?
A: I’ll mention one fiction and one non-fiction book that I think can serve as enlightening reads.
Non-fiction: ‘Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World’. This was a truly eye-opening read for me that cemented some of the cynicism I was already feeling about the world and introduced other facets of systemic failure that were new to me. Truly enlightening on the nature of philanthropy and the corruption of moral righteousness.
Fiction: ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’. This novel has a powerful central message delivered remarkably well. The structure and cyclical nature of the story is truly impressive. Out of every book I have ever read, ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ is the one I would most like to write and direct a film adaptation of. If I had the rights to it, I would write the screenplay right this second.
Q: What kind of research do you do before you begin writing a book?
A: It depends on the story. I tend to do some research during the planning and outlining stage, then do much more research as I’m writing the story. One research tip I could share is that there are countless highly-specific internet forums where people chat with great candor with likeminded individuals that you as a writer can read through for unfiltered insights. I’ve found some great nuggets of info that way.
Margaret Atwood described her research process for period pieces as a guess-and-check sort of approach, which I quite like. You write what feels correct for the story, then check and see if you were right and make adjustments as necessary.
Q: Do you prefer to write in silence or with noise? Why?
A: I need music on while I write; it helps me focus. Sometimes music that evokes the right sort of feeling for the story, other times just whatever music I feel like listening to. Really fast, aggressive music can serve as a great motivator for me; I find myself actually typing faster with fast music playing. I sometimes make playlists to go with specific writing projects and those become the soundtracks of those stories. I’ve found that returning to a story for edits after being away for a while is easier when I’ve already made a playlist for it as the music helps draw me back into the story’s world faster and puts me in the right mindset. The only time I will choose to write without music is if there is a storm outside, in which case, I’ll listen to the rain instead.
Q: Do you write one book at a time or do you have several going at a time?
A: I always have several stories that I am thinking about and making notes on but I try to only focus on the actual writing of one story at a time. I’m not always successful however. Sometimes an idea I’ve been mulling over will finally click into place and I’ll find my passion for one story stolen by another and I end up jumping ships. I try to use that motivation to stay productive and write whatever I feel most passionately about in the moment, to completion if possible, and then either return to what I was pulled away from, or jump right into something else that has given me that spark.
Q: Pen or type writer or computer?
A: My handwriting is so poor that even I struggle to read it sometimes myself. It can be fully illegible. I do all my writing by computer. The exception was when I had a job working in a call center and would sneakily write by hand in a notebook during shifts in my tiny cubicle. Though I do all the actual writing by computer, I do handwrite many notes, bits of dialogue, ideas, character traits, etc. I have multiple notebooks full of disparate scribbles that eventually connect or find their way into stories. I also outline by hand and make frequent use of notecards, sticky notes, white boards, etc.
Q: A day in the life of the author?
A: I wake up, crack open an energy drink, and start writing immediately. I try to write straight-out for as long as possible, without interruption, every day. I find my efficiency drops as soon as I’ve had anything to eat or taken any sort of break, so I try to delay that for as long as possible and get as much done in the day for peak productivity. My best writing days wind up doubling as fasting days when I wake up, write for 16-20 hours, then go to sleep and start over again in the morning. That’s the ideal that I pursue.
Q: Describe your writing style.
A: One critic described my writing style in a way that I quite liked. They said, “Kench’s Ability to progress the story through a mixture of conceptually heady dialogue and violent exposition defines his writing style.” In my writing I like to try to show you things you’ve never seen before, inject social commentary, keep things surprising, and I do NOT like to pull any punches.
Q: What are they currently reading?
A: I recently finished Nick Cave’s novel ‘And the Ass Saw the Angel’, then I read a few H.P. Lovecraft short stories, and now I’m making my way through ‘Blood Meridian’. After that I’ll probably be returning to Clive Barker for volume II of his ‘Books of Blood’.
Q: What is your writing process? For instance do you do an outline first? Do you do the chapters first?
A: It depends on the particular story for me. Sometimes I’ll write a quick, broad-strokes outline and then jump into the story. Other times, I’ll write out detailed descriptions for every single scene and lay them out on index cards. One tip I picked up from S. Craig Zahler is to keep the story surprising, even for you as the writer.
If we look at ‘The Fall of Polite’ specifically, this is a story that I had told or started to tell in a number of different ways before finally realizing that it was best told as a novel. It started out as a short film, then became a TV pilot, then a different short, then a feature film, then a different pilot, then a different film, all before becoming a novel, which I now know is what the story was meant to be all along. Having done so much story work through all those previous incarnations gave me a solid grasp of the world, tone, and themes that I wanted to explore in the novel before beginning the actual writing process.
I wrote short character bios/backstories and made plenty of notes but I avoided outlining ‘The Fall of Polite’ because I wanted to keep the story surprising for myself and allow plot threads to unfold/evolve naturally without making any attempt to force them in any particular direction that suited a broader narrative plan. I had goals for the characters without knowing for certain whether or not they would achieve them. I knew certain themes, moments, and ideas that I wanted to include but didn’t settle on a definitive chain of events. I saw it as a way to give the characters a little more agency in driving the story.
For example, I knew that I wanted to begin the novel following a single protagonist, and gradually widen the scope to follow three separate protagonists as their paths crossed with one another. That was planned from the beginning, but what wasn’t planned was who those three protagonists would be. Out of the three main protagonists in ‘The Fall of Polite’ (Maria, Eamon, and Maisey), only Maria was planned from the beginning. As the other two each entered the story organically with their own baggage, conflicts, and goals, I then decided they would become the second and third protagonists to follow on their journeys. It isn’t an approach that I would bring to every story but it worked for me in this instance and made the writing process feel both surprising and natural.
Q: What are common traps for aspiring writers?
A: Not finishing is the big one. I’ve had many friends and acquaintances who want to be writers and talk about their great ideas but never put them down on the page, or they start to but never finish. If you have an idea, see it through to completion. If it turns out poorly, that’s still better than not writing it at all.
Q: Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
A: I always strive for originality. I would never write a story I’m not passionate about just because I think it would be more marketable or because it’s “what’s in” at the moment. I’m only interested in writing stories that I would be interested in reading or seeing on screen as a consumer.
Q: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
A: I’m still quite early on in my writing career so I don’t exactly have much in the way of wizened advice. One thing that would have been helpful for my anxious, confidence-lacking self to hear when first starting would be: “Don’t worry, there ARE people who like what you write, it isn’t all garbage.”
Q: What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
A: I feel quite comfortable writing for characters of the opposite sex, truth be told. I probably write far more female characters than male across all of my stories. I’m not sure I know all the reasons why. It likely stems from a combination of finding many female characters from male writers unsatisfactory and wanting to do better, personally identifying with more traditionally female ideals, viewpoints, and sensibilities, and as a way to make sure no character I write is ever too much like myself; I can’t stand author-insert characters and would never want to even come close to one.
Q: Do you believe in writer’s block?
A: I believe writer’s block exists but I also don’t think I quite experience it in the way I’ve often heard it described. I may get stuck at a particular point in a story but with enough caffeine and time spent staring at my laptop screen, I can usually power through that roadblock. Sometimes it becomes clear that an idea needs a little more time to gestate in my mind before continuing with the writing processes. When that happens, I use it as a chance to jump right into another story that I’ve been holding off on so I can remain productive. Writer’s block, at least how I experience it, is no excuse to avoid writing.
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