I wrote Family Rules as something of a meditation on becoming a father, and also in reflection of our time living in New York City
[which, while backdrop to the story, is almost a character as well]
the pieces of the Family Rules‘ genesis were:
- The trash bags being left by the side of the street in NYC the night before collection
- Multiple news stories of babies being deserted at hospitals, shelters, etc – with nothing but the kindness of strangers to protect them
- My own desire to be as good of a parent as my parents had been to me – and my fear, however slight, that I might not be able to do it
All of this percolated to an abandoned baby being found by absolutely the worst guy, and that guy deciding to play father to the kid.
I had ideas about this guy. Having him be a drug addict – captured in that destructive cycle of narcissism and self-loathing was an easy fit. But I also wanted him to be breaking wider taboos – positioning him as a sex addict was there at the start, though I soon moved away from that – it seemed one thread too many and, to be completely honest, I knew this wasn’t going to be a ‘scary abductor’ story.
You see, I needed a character who, while maybe not immediately likable, bred enough sympathy/empathy to take the reader into his decision to play Dad. The question of the ‘worst guy’ took on a different light – and I began to move away from stereotype/archetypes, instead asking myself the question
Who is the worst guy to be a father?
The answer was quite simple: it’s the guy who has never known what it is to have family. More specifically, the guy whose only understanding of family was a complete invention.
As ever, the universe stepped in, and I caught a documentary on VH-1 about former child stars, many of whom had descended quite tragically into drug addiction and early death. Very sad indeed.
The first inklings of Kenny began to form.
Over the course of the writing, I got to know this young man. On a conscious level, I was writing enough of his life up to the point of the abduction that the reader would at least understand his deluded decision to play Dad. But on the subconscious level, I was discovering, forming, moulding a psychology.
In many ways, I was playing Dad to Kenny. And I began to see how damaged and alone this poor kid was. Every page I wrote of his journey, particularly of his early life, left me sad – partly because I was taking experiences of my own – happy memories – and turning them on their head to the point where they had the opposite effect on Kenny, distancing him from his real family, and distorting his perspective of love – or, more accurately, the illusion of love.
By coupling those experiences with a drug dependency that begins when he’s still a young child, Kenny’s damaged psyche really began to form. As I wrote, I found myself thinking, and even saying
That poor kid
over and over again.
Having now rewritten the book twice as a screenplay, I’ve got to know Kenny even better – and it feels like he has grown up. In the process, I’ve grown some distance from the story, and some better understanding of what was a very intuitive process of writing his journey. But there are still times when I can dip back into Family Rules and some facet of his experience will hit me afresh
[I don’t think I’m alone in forgetting what I’ve written sometimes?]
and I’ll be back in his tormented heart and soul.