I’m currently taking a class on Teaching Young Adult Literature, and one of my first assignments was to write my Reading Autobiography, which was a detailed description of the sort of reading I did when I was young (focusing on middle school and high school.) I enjoyed going back down memory lane for the assignment, and so I wanted to share it here.
Reading has been a big part of my life from a young age. Some of my earliest memories are of me getting in trouble for staying up late reading beside a tiny nightlight. In that sense, I was always a little ahead of the game. When my siblings and I were elementary school kids growing up in Ohio, I would always look forward to the Saturdays when we’d go to the Bexley Library to hunt for new books. I would always pick up one or two Peanuts or Garfield books, and then go straight to the kids section for the Matt Christopher baseball books. From there, I graduated to baseball players’ autobiographies. I remember reading Orel Hershiser’s and Hank Aaron’s autobiographies when I was in the third grade, and I guess I just assumed at the time that they were written for kids my age (because why else would I be allowed to read them), although looking at their lexile level now I see that they’re at a high school reading level. I think that just goes back to the whole notion that if a student is interested in the subject matter, they’ll read above their normal level. Oh, and I read a lot of the Encyclopedia Brown books, which taught me that if you ever see someone filing their nails after they’ve gotten out of the shower, it means they’re a dirty, dirty liar and shouldn’t be trusted.
We moved to Georgia when I was in fourth grade, and our primary source of books became the B. Dalton bookstore at Gwinnett Place Mall. There was also a Waldenbooks there, but for some reason that always struck me as the “fancy” bookstore. I still remember the locations of all the shelves I would venture toward in B. Dalton: The humor section where I’d get the latest Fox Trot or Garfield collection (the far back wall on the left), the juvenile book shelves (halfway back on the right), and the sports section (along the wall on the right side, just past the magazine rack.)
I read a lot of series books from fourth to sixth grade. The first ones I remember getting into were the Boxcar Children books. We probably had forty or fifty of those, and once I finished them I started reading my sister’s Babysitters Club books. Sure, I wasn’t the target audience for those, but they were still engaging reads (even if I did have to hide them inside a Sports Illustrated when I was reading them at school.) After that was Goosebumps, a series I thoroughly loved and devoured every time a new book came out. I also got into a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure books. We had a number of those that I’d read a lot, although now that I’m older I can admit with only some shame that I would cheat and sneak a peek ahead to make sure I wasn’t walking into a trap with every choice I made.
As I got further into middle school, I read more classic series books. I got sucked into the Chronicles of Narnia in sixth grade and burned through all of those pretty quick. In seventh grade, I discovered the Prydain Chronicles and made short order of that series as well. It was also my first experience with a series where multiple characters were killed off. I recall making a chart showing how and when characters were killed during The High King. It was also in seventh grade that I first got into Michael Crichton and read Jurassic Park. Crichton was my favorite author for the next several years, during which time I also read The Lost World, Sphere, Congo, Rising Sun, and Timeline (my favorite Crichton book, which also became the worst Crichton movie.) Pretty much anytime we went on vacation, I’d take a Crichton book with me to read on the plane or while lounging beside the pool.
Starting in eighth grade, my reading habits would change drastically for the next several years, not because of a book but because of a video game. It was in eighth grade that I discovered the Playstation game Suikoden. Before Suikoden, the games that I played were all fairly simple in their approach to story, as few had a plot more complex than “rescue the princess” or “stop the bad guys.” Suikoden was a whole new ballgame. It was an RPG, or Role Playing Game, where the story and character development were just as crucial to the experience as the gameplay itself (even moreso, in point of fact.) I was sucked in by the story of Tir McDohl, the son of one of the Five Great Generals of the Scarlet Moon Empire, whose best friend is killed by the consort to the corrupt Emperor and must go on the run. While in hiding he meets Odessa, the leader of the Liberation Army, a group dedicated to freeing the Empire from the Emperor’s tyranny. After Odessa is assassinated, Tir is thrust into the role of leader of the Liberation Army and must assemble the 108 Stars of Destiny to combat the Empire. It was a life changing experience for me, as the story had brilliant plot twists, moments of great triumph, and heart wrenching turns as favorite characters were killed or sacrificed themselves for the greater good. Almost twenty years later I now find myself playing through Suikoden again, and the story is still as good as I remember it. Additionally, the young adult book that I’m currently writing, Into the Black, is heavily influenced by the Suikoden series and other Japanese RPGs.
From that point on, I couldn’t get enough RPGs. I lost myself in Chrono Trigger, the Final Fantasy series, Xenogears, Vandal Hearts, and anything else I could get my hands on. Anyone who says that video games aren’t a legitimate storytelling medium is an uninformed fool who’s been playing the wrong games (I’m looking at you, Roger Ebert.) And so, on April 27th, 1997, I created my first webpage: IcyBrian’s Suikoden Page. It started out as a resource for information on the game itself: Walkthroughs, secrets, character lists, things like that. The internet was still in its infancy at this stage, and as people found my site they asked me to expand it and make pages for other games, and as I did the site became IcyBrian’s RPG Page.
And then a curious thing happened. Someone sent me a Chrono Trigger story they had written and asked if I would post it on the site. I shrugged and said, “hey, why not. Original content!” I had written little Mario stories when I was younger, so I was already familiar with fanfiction (even if I didn’t know what it was at the time.) Pretty soon, more and more people started sending me their stories to post. From there, the site became less of a resource and more of a community. I met a lot of fellow RPG fans and writers, many of whom are still friends of mine to this day.
For the next five years, IcyBrian.com was the go-to place for RPG fanfiction and fan art on the internet. My site had the largest collection of RPG fanfics anywhere (at least until the advent of fanfiction.net, an automated site where people could post literally anything they wanted without any sort of moderation or quality control, something I totally wasn’t the least bit bitter about in any way.) Throughout high school, the vast majority of my reading was fanfiction. Every day when I came home from school, I’d have a fresh batch of emails waiting for me in my inbox, containing new chapters to stories that were already posted on the site or new stories looking to be approved for posting. I would still read other books, namely the aforementioned Michael Crichton books and a number of plays, but most of what I read in high school was fanfiction. I’d print out chapters and put them in my binders with the rest of my school work so I could read them in class without arousing too much suspicion. I remember that Math class in particular was my designated fanfic reading time. I was good at math but really didn’t care about it, so I was able to get by only paying a little bit of attention in class, while dedicating the rest of my focus to the more important task of reading new stories about the RPG characters I loved.
The RPG site is still up, although a recent backend update on my server broke the script I used for the fanfic section, so I need to get that repaired so it’ll be back up as an archive. I haven’t read fanfiction in over ten years, and I now subscribe to the belief that writing in someone else’s world isn’t the best way to craft your own stories, but I still credit fanfiction with getting me back into writing and with shaping a large part of who I was in high school and in the years beyond.
Note: This interview was originally found on the Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival Tumblr. That site no longer exists, so I’ve included a transcript of the interview here:
The High Ceilings are Adam Bass, Mason Bergman, Dax de la Monta, Tim Russo, Devin Schiff, John Ugolini, and Brian Work. These “Seven White Guys Doing Improv” perform all around town, including Quenchers, the Upstairs Gallery, and an upcoming show at the Crocodile Lounge, where they’ll play alongside another Nerdfest act, The Crocodile Players.
I won Brian Work’s contact information in a backroom game of Sabacc, and cornered him to ask him about what sets these seven white guys apart from the other groupings of white guys doing improv, and what we can look forward to in their set at Nerdfest.
Fin Coe: Hi Brian! Well to start with, can you tell me a bit about yourself, and then a bit about how your group came to be?
Brian Work: Let’s see… Aside from doing improv, I’m also a writer, actor, and filmmaker. I’m currently in post-production on my first feature film, a romantic comedy called Uncommon Law that I wrote, directed, & produced with my production company, Cold Silver Films. I moved to Chicago about a year and a half ago because of the improv scene here. It was at iO that I met the rest of the guys in The High Ceilings, and after a few months we started meeting up to do improv outside of class. After doing that for a few months, we decided that we just really enjoyed working together and formed The High Ceilings. Our shows tend to be high energy and thematic, with a healthy mix of grounded scenework and bizarre characters. For the Nerd Comedy Festival, we’re doing a form called Achievement Unlocked, which is an improvised video game in the style of an RPG. I’m a huge gamer geek and have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of RPGs, so this is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. My big claim to nerd fame is that way back in the day (late 90s/early 2000s) I ran the largest website on the internet for RPG fanfiction and fan art.
Fin: I recall the glorious days when an independent site could claim that fame, before webcomic/gaming titans like Penny-Arcade, or giant corporate zine sites like kotaku and ign… Can you tell me a little more about what The High Ceilings have gotten up to since you guys formed? What’s your thing, if you can go into a little more detail; what do you all like about working together on this project, specifically?
Brian: Heh, oh yeah. It was fanfiction.net & DeviantArt that dethroned me.
The High Ceilings started performing together last August, mostly doing barprov around Chicago, but eschewing a lot of the normal barprov traits. We start out our shows talking as ourselves, then go into some grounded scenes and ramp it up from there. So, for example, a frank discussion of our debt issues transitions into a scene about a couple struggling with credit cards, which moves into the machinations of the evil Dr. Visa and Master Card. After the Nerd Comedy Fest, we’ll be performing at Upstairs Gallery every Tuesday in June, and then at the
end of June we’ll be heading to New York to perform in the Del Close Marathon. As for this project specifically, we all have our geeky sides. This form allows us the opportunity to fully embrace that. It brings back memories of being a kid and spending hours on end with a good video game, so it’s a lot of fun to pay homage to those games and live in that world. It’s also great to have a form that encourages us to play big bizarre characters, and especially allows us to tell a cohesive story over the course of 45 minutes.
Fin: Can I ask – what’s your all-time favourite RPG? Be it tabletop, videogame, LARP, whatever, what takes the cake for you?
Brian: Heh, that’d be Suikoden II, hands down.
Fin: Alright, okay. Got any advice for nerds looking to make the jump into comedy, or vice versa?
Brian: For nerds looking to make the jump to comedy, take some classes, embrace who you are, & just do it. People can relate to nerds; we all have an awkward underdog inside of us.
As for the vice versa, comedians spend plenty of time in dark, dingy rooms playing make believe, so they’re already most of the way to being nerds!
Fin: Nicely put. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions Brian, I’m looking forward to your set.
You can find The High Ceilings on Facebook and on Twitter. Catch The High Ceilings at the Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival, Thursday May 30th at 7pm, on the Thrust in Stage 773. Tickets are available now.