, ,

Although today’s story introduces us to the Grim Reaper, there’s nothing grim about the poignant conversations we get to follow as our protagonist moves through the years.

old-friendsOld Friends
[Sad] [Slice of Life] • 2,330 words

She noticed the pony for the first time when she was young, not long after she’d received her cutie mark. He became her oldest friend.

FROM THE CURATORS: There’s no better way to summarize this story than Present Perfect’s formulation: “a short, quiet contemplation of the nature of death and loss.”  Those elements are also what make it such an exemplar of fanfiction.

We all were impressed at how much depth the story was able to cram into its mere 2300 words. “Although many years pass in the story, I never felt as though there were important events glossed over or skipped,” Vimbert said. “Authors who spend hundreds of thousands of words on a few days or a week could stand to read this and re-examine their attitudes towards detail.”

It also struck an admirably gentle and accessible tone. “This is a surprisingly light read, despite its seemingly weighty subject matter,” Chris said.  “The sparse descriptions and languid pacing, a seemingly odd combination in the abstract, match the tone very well. … Its sadness is a natural product of the story, not the result of any particular attempt at emotional manipulation.”

Read on for our interview, in which RBDash47 discusses demons in lightsuits, lies of omission, and slogging through a freezing river in your underthings.

Give us the standard biography.

Vell, RBDash47’s just zis guy, you know…?

I’m 26 and live in the mountains of North Carolina (though I’m originally from California) with my longtime girlfriend. I work for a software company as a developer and technical writer, and I’m currently going back to school to get my degree in Professional Writing. I’ve written very little in terms of fiction before Friendship is Magic, but I can write you instructions on how to do anything, easy! 

How did you come up with your handle/penname? 

It was originally supposed to be RBD47, but somehow that handle was already taken on Twitter and I had to think fast…

Ahem! The 47 is a reference to the other great fandom in my life; before I was a brony, I was (well, still am, J.J. Abrams’ best efforts to the contrary notwithstanding) a Trekkie. I do wonder sometimes if the brony fandom will stick with me as the Trek one has. I’ve been a Trekkie since I was a child, probably close to 20 years now, but I’ve never participated in the Trek fandom as I have the FiM one. Watching the official shows and movies and reading the official novels (and technical manuals and other reference materials) is all that’s ever interested me. Fan art, music, fiction…? No thanks. Maybe because there’s so much actual Trek to enjoy. When I first got into pony, the week after “The Cutie Mark Chronicles” aired, I watched the whole season in big binge… and I was left wanting more. But there wasn’t any more, so I turned to fanfiction, to keep experiencing this amazing world and the compelling characters I’d so quickly grown to love.

You know… hindsight’s 20/20, but I don’t actually like my handle very much. On the occasions I meet other bronies in person, it’s a mouthful, and even in chats it feels weird sometimes to be called “RB” or “Dash”… it would be like if a fan of Rarity actually got called “Rarity.” It seemed perfectly acceptable for a site admin handling the behind-the-scenes operation of a ponyfic archive… I’ve grown much more involved than I ever expected, but everyone knows me as RBDash47 and I can’t think of a better name anyway.

Who’s your favorite pony?

Dash, of course! From very early on. The rest of my Mane 6 preference order has fluctuated over the years, but Dash is always at the top. I don’t remember what first did it, but her character design, her voice, her attitude, her strengths and weaknesses all engage me; her cutie mark (unique among the Mane 6 for being a single element, not multiple stars or balloons or apples, etc) and her sonic rainbooms are badass.

I will say that while my favorite pony is Dash, I don’t think I’m much like her and indeed doubt we’d get along. I am definitely much more like Twilight Sparkle, and would prefer hanging out with her for the day than a thrillseeking weather pony.

What’s your favorite episode?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, if only because I subjected over a hundred authors to the same question. My favorite episode is “Luna Eclipsed.” It appears to be precisely calculated to engage me on every level. Twilight, Spike, Dash, Pinkie, and AJ’s costumes are great characterization (and the attention to detail! The stitching on Dash’s Shadowbolt jumpsuit…), and the townsponies’ are fun too (and the building decorations!). We get to see ponies dancing, which I like — one of the reasons I like the show are the smooth motions and animation cycles and subtle gravity (watch their manes bounce with their movements sometime) — and when they dance it’s even better. The whole episode’s at night, so the usual color palettes are all altered. The background music is good, a change from the usual. I love worldbuilding, so it’s fascinating to see the pony culture surrounding Nightmare Night. Getting some insight into Luna and seeing her difficulty with reintegrating into modern society is equally interesting. It’s great seeing Zecora take on a more involved role within the Ponyville community; she’s clearly been accepted by the townsfolk. The episode is also hilarious — Pinkie is in top form (rarer and rarer now; the writers seem to have almost as little idea as how to handle her as they do Fluttershy, these days), Dash’s pranking, Fluttershy’s reactions to Luna. The episode’s only real failing is Rarity getting cut, and perhaps not having an actual song.

What do you get from the show?

Happiness. The show is bright and cheerful and interesting; I can watch an episode or listen to some of its music on a bad day and things don’t seem quite so bad any more. In a life filled with stress and grown-up responsibilities on a personal level, and strife and madness on a global scale, twenty-two minutes of clean, simple, uncynical fun is a breath of fresh air.

I think it’s really funny that the fandom began on 4chan, and the show is the antithesis of 4chan (or at least /b/) in many ways.

What do you want from life?

Contentment. In the short term, I’m content to be working on my career and my degree; in the long term, I’ll be content to build a small house with my girlfriend on a couple acres, keep a hobby farm with a vegetable garden and goats and chickens and bees.

I like the idea of self-sufficiency, of doing things myself, and I’m slowly familiarizing myself with what it takes to build a home with my own two hands. A simple life with few dependencies on anyone or anything else is enormously appealing to me.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the farm will have a gigabit fiber ‘net connection, too — I’m no hermit.

Why do you write?

To drive out the demons, as so many others do.

“Demons,” in this case, are just story ideas, nothing too dark or terrible. Occasionally an idea takes hold of me that I can’t quite shake, that won’t leave me alone; it whispers at me throughout the day. This was really annoying, at first: I’m trying to work, Dash-in-a-lightsuit, go bother someone else. Now I kind of like it, though; they give me something to think about on long drives, passing time between classes, laying in bed at night waiting for sleep to take me. I’ve let story ideas marinate at the back of my mind for months or years, slowly ripening into something worth writing.

But we could get a touch more specific, couldn’t we, at least if you’re willing to indulge me on the subject?

I’m writing PONY Legacy because I got into ponies right around the time TRON Legacy was released on home media (and also because I figured if I’m gonna run a ponyfic site, maybe I should write some). I loved TRON Legacy, in spite of its sometimes groan-inducing story problems; it had arresting visuals and beautiful music with an intriguing premise. The image of Dash looking cocky in a neon-blue lightsuit came to me one day and I loved that, too; through the magic of friendship, or at least the magic of friendly strangers on the internet, I was able to bring that image out of my mind. But I wanted to bring that image to life too, which meant figuring out how exactly Dash would come to be on the Grid, in a way that made sense given the laws and logical restrictions of Dash’s world. Writing crossovers — at least, the kind of crossovers I write, where you take the world and characters of one universe (Friendship is Magic) and mash them up with the plot and storyline of another (TRON Legacy) — is sort of like a puzzle or thought experiment. Characters’ motives change, but the outcome — the events of the story — remain the same. PONY Legacy isn’t a straight retelling of TRON Legacy, with Dash in Sam’s place; that would be boring. An easy example of what I mean is how in TRON Legacy, Sam is confronted by an evil digital version of his father, the creator of the grid. In PONY Legacy, Dash is confronted not by an evil version of her father, or Celestia, the creator of the Grid, but herself. This opens up some interesting narrative possibilities that frankly I fear I’m too unskilled to execute properly; we’ll see. Another aspect would be making the plot work in a world for which it wasn’t designed. I had to come up with a way for the Grid to exist in Equestria, which means a computer, but ponies live in an odd sort of Middle Aged world. I had to make Equestria act out of character, as it were, so I spent a few pages (worrying pages, because I knew the average reader probably isn’t going to give a damn about the history of computers) trying to make that believable. And even then, certain terms don’t exist in PONY Legacy, like “digital,” because the word “digital” has no etymological reason to exist in the ponies’ lexicon. This can make it awkward talking about the Grid… so I don’t, if I can help it; Dash being the main character makes that easier, because she’s not really interested in the nuts and bolts of the world she’s found herself in.

Unlike PONY Legacy, which is years in the making and still ongoing, Old Friends went from conception to publication in under a day. That morning, I had been chatting with Saddlesoap Opera, and somehow we got on the topic of what Death and Granny Smith might talk about, when Death came a-callin’ at the end of her life. (In the canon of Old Friends, I actually don’t think they’d have anything to say; I don’t think Granny would be one who needed any encouragement.) My mind jumped to the pony who became the protagonist of Old Friends. So really, I wrote the story to find out what she and Death might have to say to each other. It turns out they had quite a lot more in store for me than just a quick chat, and it was really exciting finding that out. Unlike PONY Legacy, I had no outline or real notes before I started writing, just a vague impression of what the opening scene would be like. The shape of the story — a series of vignettes over the years — owes a lot to Stephen Gould’s Jumper (the book, not the abominable film), from which the first vignette’s final line “That was the first time” is a direct lift; I liked the flow and implications of the line. The story grew organically from there as I wrote.

I’m actually working on a sequel to Old Friends, untitled at the moment but swiftly steaming towards publication, that grew out of a desire to keep exploring that relationship and perhaps more selfishly to keep writing in that style, which I found myself missing. It’s turning out to be a different experience than writing Old Friends was, which in the end might be good; rehashing the same thing again would be boring.

Finally, I talked about this a little more in depth over in a blog post that went up the same time as the story, but I wrote Home as a sort of catharsis. I lost my father the year before I got involved in ponies, and the holidays are still an odd time without him. I started writing Home on Thanksgiving Day, and slowly finished it up over the next week or two. It’s shorter than Old Friends, but was much more difficult to write, and I’m still faintly embarrassed and/or scandalized that I’ve ended up eulogizing my father in a My Little Pony fanfic. I can’t imagine what he would think of it.

What advice do you have for the authors out there?

In my experience, there are two kinds of writers. There’s the kind of writer who sits down in front of an empty page and words just flow out of them. My only worthwhile advice to these authors is to get an editor. (I would think it extremely rare for a first draft written in this manner to be publishable, but not unheard of.)

I have no idea what that’s like. It sounds wonderful to me, because I’m the other kind of author, the kind who finds himself filled with inspiration and the burning desire to put words to page and who then sits down in front of an empty one and stares helplessly at the blinking cursor at the top left while all that drive and motivation slowly drains away, leaving him feeling empty and frustrated. The phrase “wringing blood from a stone” comes to mind at these times.

My advice here, if you’re one of us, is to force yourself to write something anyway. It will not flow effortlessly from your fingertips to the page; on the contrary, it will feel as though you’re slogging through a freezing river in your underthings, fighting the urge to give up and turn back and go do something else. But eventually, I find, if you keep slogging, you do eventually reach the far shore, and you clamber up the freezing, slippery bank, and then you drag yourself through the mud, and then you kick your way through the reeds and underbrush, and then the land solidifies under your feet and the underbrush and rocks give way to a grassy plain and you find yourself moving a little easier, the blood’s flowing through you and you can think more clearly, you can feel yourself stretching and getting more limber, the sun comes out and warms you up a bit, you might even be able to jog and — praise be! — sprint from time to time, and now you’re really making progress and it’s a beautiful day, it’s a good thing you forced yourself to keep going before, you would have missed all this, but now the sun’s going down so you’d better make camp for the night, but at least you’re re-energized, this is great, you know exactly where you’re going next, the fog has burned away; a fresh start in the morning is all you need. Then the next morning you wake up and look out your tent and it turns out you’re at another river, just as frigid and unwelcoming as the last one, and your mind is clouded with sleep and chill; you don’t remember where you’re going or why, only that you have to go, and the only way to get there is through the river.

That’s what writing is like for me. It’s excruciating. At lot of the time it feels like a waste, perhaps even torture. Those first few hundred words (maybe even a thousand) of the writing session feel wooden, uninspired, worthless. Oftentimes they are, and I end up rewriting them later if not cutting them outright. But it’s not wasted time, because even if what you produce during that warmup is unusable, it gets you moving, it gets you writing, and once you’ve forced yourself to shift gears into full-on writing mode, the words will flow, even if it’s only briefly, and it feels amazing.

So my advice is twofold: force yourself to write if you feel the urge to write, even if when you sit down to write nothing comes out at first; and don’t be afraid to cut what you’ve written if it turns out it isn’t working for you.

Oh, and then when you’re done, get an editor.

You’ve deliberately chosen not to give this story any character tags.  What do you think makes the story stronger if the reader doesn’t know who the main characters are before they start reading?

Okay, so… here’s the deal. It’s really hard to talk about the story at any great length and maintain the protagonist’s anonymity. If you haven’t read it yet, well… it’s barely 2,000 words. It’s shorter than this interview has been up this point (I’m so sorry)! It should only take you ten minutes or so; if you’ve come this far, I don’t feel that ten minutes more is a huge thing for me to ask. I’ll wait here for you until you’re done, I promise.

Are you back? I’m glad; I appreciate your time. I hope you enjoyed it. (I’m still not going to use her name, to prevent readers who happen to glance ahead here from spoiling themselves.)

Anyway, I actually agonized over the character tags for a little while. Not selecting her felt like lying, and possibly like gypping myself of readers who are searching for her tag specifically, but I decided I cared more about the surprise.

It almost feels gimmicky, I suppose, and I’m generally against gimmicks in writing. I don’t think the story would be nearly as powerful as it is if you found out who she is in the first line, do you? I even tried to throw readers off the scent a bit, by giving her sister a husband. (Which I thought could make for an interesting little piece of headcanon, if fleshed out; grief can do terrible things, and of the two of them, only one married…) But I was so enamored with the idea, and how well the anonymity plays with the style of the piece, and the thought of that sudden kick of insight after the reveal, when the reader’s mind flashes back through the story and reassesses everything they thought they knew up to that point, realizing the story takes place over centuries rather than years — it was just too good to pass up. And I love the subtleness of the reveal in the conversation about the sun, the matter-of-factness of the line’s delivery; the idea of someone reading it and doing a double-take just tickles me.

Stephen King talks about how many authors make choices motivated by fear, and the one choice I made with Old Friends driven by fear was explicitly stating her name in the last line of the story. I was afraid I’d been too vague, that readers might not catch the reveal unless I drove it home; I wish I’d been more trusting. Ah well.

Considering the significant stylistic differences between the three stories you have on FiMFiction, was there any particular author or style you were trying to emulate when you wrote this story?

It would not surprise me one whit to discover that I had unconsciously emulated a style I’ve read somewhere and enjoyed, but I can’t place one. (I’ve been told to read The Book Thief; I received it for Christmas but haven’t read it yet.) I was trying to capture the ethereal quality an ongoing friendship with Death might have, and cover decades a hundred words at a time — but at the same time, feeling rather timeless, since they’re both more or less immortal. I felt like the story did that well, dipping in and out of the timestream at key points.

One thing which particularly impressed me about this story was how light a read it was, despite its subject matter.  Did you have any difficulty balancing tone and story events this way?

Everything is as it should be. Could be positive, hopeful… could be negative, despairing. Depends on how you look at it. Really, it’s neutral — a pure statement of fact, because there is no other way for everything to be. It’s like death, and Death knows that: no matter what you do, how cheerfully or dismally you may view things, death happens to everyone. A simple fact of life.

Old Friends is very short, barely 2,000 words, yet the story spans centuries and nine scenes. Each word was chosen with care, if not agonized over, because in a story so short each word has to convey just the right meaning, with nothing wasted. It was more difficult to keep the tone solemn than anything else, and there were some rewrites here and there to maintain the balance.

As I was coming into the final stretch, I realized that the story as a whole was pretty dismal. I reread what I had and realized I could make use of the Chekhov’s Gun I’d subconsciously supplied myself earlier: Death’s final words to those who need them. I had no idea what they were yet, but they must be something pretty good, if they’d convince someone to release themselves from a desperate final grip on life. So I had her ask him, and then I modified my own personal life philosophy (which roughly put is “Everything works itself out in the end”) to fit. I liked it; like I said before, it can be taken a couple of different ways.

And of course, I owe a lot to how levelheaded she is throughout. In those last lines, she more or less gets confirmation that yeah, she’s gonna die too. She doesn’t seem to take that as something very terrible or worth getting upset over, and I think the reader takes their cue from her to some degree.

You wrote this story while you were still running the Pony Fiction Vault.  Do you think you would have inducted this story into your vault had it been written by someone else?  Less facetiously, did the fact that you were in a “gatekeeper” role at the time add any pressure, or influence your writing at all?

Absolutely, yes, I would have put this in the Vault without a second thought. (And of course I didn’t do so. I actually had someone inform me once that I had better not put any of my own stories in the Vault, because it would ruin my credibility. No, really?)

I worry that sounds hopelessly arrogant. In the hopes of salvaging my modesty, I would like to point out that it’s something of an “anthropic principle” issue: Old Friends is exactly the sort of story I like. I write the stories I want to read. I put the kinds of stories I wanted to read in the Vault… you see where I’m going with this.

I will say I’m also very, very proud of Old Friends, and consider it the best thing I’ve ever written in any capacity. Sometimes I re-read it for fun, like I would any other favorite fic. That sounds, mmm… weird, I think. But I just love it; sometimes I’m faintly surprised I’m responsible for it at all.

On that note, I’ve submitted it everywhere I could to try to find out if I’m ridiculously biased or if it’s actually good. Any group that has any degree of exclusivity, I submit it there. I was terrified to send it in to the Equestrian Critics Society, and delighted when it received a 9.5. I sent it in to Equestria Daily… despite being 500 words shy of their one-shot limit, it went up. I submitted it to Serious Stories, and it ended up being responsible for a new category there. I wanted very dearly to submit it to the RCL, even as I commented to defend your policy of no self-submissions, and so it felt surreal (on a couple of levels) to read the invitation to do this interview.

It’s nice to know that I’m not crazy or hopelessly biased, that there really is something to this fic. (It’s also my most “controversial” fic — six thumbs down! I kind of like that, for some reason, though it was also kind of exciting when for a day or two it was my most popular story in my little sidebar on FIMFic.) It was fun to write, and it’s fun to re-read, but it’s also fun to know that complete strangers have derived enjoyment from it. It’s fun talking about it now! Thank you for reading.

Returning to the question, as far as I know, my role as the Vault’s admin didn’t influence my writing at all. The closest I’ve come to that sort of meta-influence is my, “Well, I run ponyfic sites, I oughta write one,” attitude that nudged me toward starting PONY Legacy some years back.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Shocking though it may be, I’m having trouble thinking of anything. I think I’ve taken up enough of your time.

Thank you for reading.

You can read Old Friends at FIMFiction.net.