The Big Idea: Kelley Eskridge

Being alone: we all experience it at one point or another in our lives. The question is: what do we do with alone? Is it a time for reflection and restoration, or do we wish it to end as soon as possible? Each of us deal with it in our own ways. Author Kelley Eskridge knows about the power and mystery of alone, and in her newly-reissued novel Solitaire, examines the condition and how it plays out in the telling of her tale. Here’s Eskridge to tell you about it.

KELLEY ESKRIDGE:

I always knew I would write about being alone.

I’m an only child, and I grew up in a neighborhood without any kids. I spent my time reading, or riding my bike endless miles, an intrepid explorer of my Florida town’s urban zones and weed-choked alleys and tony enclaves where the streets were still paved with red brick. It was fabulous. It never occurred to me there was anywhere I couldn’t go alone.

Alone in those days meant by myself. It wasn’t until my twenties that people began using it to mean you must be lonely. But they aren’t the same thing.

Alone. By myself. Individual. Self-determined. Without needing help. Without having it. Disconnected from others. Unencumbered. Insular. Afraid. Autonomous. Joyful. Small and stuck. Free. Limitless. Singular. Solitary.

I wrote Solitaire to explore the complicated landscape of alone. I found a character named Jackal who defines herself foremost in terms of her community and her connection to others; then I took all that away, and trapped her in the most alone place any of us can go – inside our own heads. Jackal ends up in virtual solitary confinement facing an utterly realistic experience of being locked in a cell for eight years. What happens to her there – her journey through alone – changes everything.

But change is never the end, is it? It’s only the beginning. And so it was important to bring Jackal back from her solitude into the human world, and to see whether, and how, she would find her way to reconnection.

Those three parts of the book – connected, alone, struggling to reconnect – were very different to write. Parts 1 and 3 are pretty straightforward narrative. But how to show the inward journey when there is nowhere for Jackal to go, and no one for her to talk to? Nothing to ‘show’ and no good way to ‘tell’? “As You Know, Bob” dialogue is even worse without a Bob.

The trap of sequences like this one is the temptation to do only the surface work. Eight years alone, that’d be awful! Let’s give her a big dose of the awful and get her out of there. But no one wants to see a character rolling around in the misery mud for eight years. It’s depressing – and worse, it’s boring.

And so I leaned heavily on structure. There’s a display in Jackal’s cell that shows the count of her days, and the story gives us snapshots of her behavior and thinking as being alone changes her. What would you do on Day 1 of 2,920 days? Perhaps by Day 205 you would think you had a coping system in place. Perhaps by Day 377 you would know it wasn’t working. What happens when you get into serious trouble inside your own head, and how in hell do you get out of it? And what happens when you get into serious joy inside your own head, the kind of joy you can only have alone?

I went as deep into alone as I could for this book. I pulled up everything I know about it, and took a long hard look. And then I wrote the moments I thought would best provide the blueprint for the reader to imagine the rest: the long, hard, bright, hopeful, stubborn and sometimes ecstatic days of Jackal’s time alone.

Alone is the part that gets the most attention, but it’s not where I had most of my head-banging I suck at writing moments. That was Part 3, when Jackal comes back into the world. I had to throw out 11,000 words at one point, and it hurt: I had a demanding job and limited writing time, and those words were a year’s work gone. But the words were wrong. They were misery mud, and that was a sign that I was only doing the surface work.

The deeper work was this: Jackal’s journey made me face the reality that I am not that girl on her bike anymore. Begin human is the grand dance of alone and together. There are places we must go by ourselves; there are places we can only go with others. That’s what Jackal and I both learned in the last part of Solitaire.

There’s power and wonder in being alone. There’s power and wonder in finding our way to ourselves. And then we find our way to each other.

—-

Solitaire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read the first chapter. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

32 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Kelley Eskridge

  1. Not my normal thing but having read Kelley’s intro and chapter one, I might just give it a go. Thanks John, and good luck kelley, hope the lifestyle comes together

  2. This sounds more than interesting. Having four kids that through most of their lives have been less than socially active is a bit of a challenge. While they do things together, they all actually prefer to do things by themselves as I did when I was young. I might have to get this, showing the kids that being alone doesn’t have to be bad or weird. Showing the kids (and reaffirming it for myself) that a person can Use lonely instead of being ostracized for it.
    How cool!

  3. Wow. I’m going to have to order this one. Kelley, have you read Adrienne Rich’s poem “Yom Kippur 1984″? It’s about a lot of things, I guess, but one of the concepts she’s exploring I think is the difference between solitude and isolation, the relationship between being alone, being lonely, and being a member of a community. Your “Big Idea” description reminded me of it . . .

  4. @blainesgirl (#3) — I learned a while ago that it’s just as possible to feel lonely with other people as it was to be lonely by myself, you know? Sometimes moreso…

    @Gayle (#4) — Yes, there is. Enormous. That was one reason I chose the prison strategy for the book.

  5. I read this in a previous edition and really admired it, especially for the insightful examination of corporate psychology and individual psychology, the harrowing personal journey Jackal undertakes, and the depiction of the multicultural corporate family she grows up in. I hope the reissue does well!

  6. More alone in a crowd, or with someone, than by myself, oh I can identify with that, more times and places than I care to count. Reconnecting has its own oddness. You meet old classmates, and are reminded that people change, relationships change, opinions change, and you can cope with all of that (sometimes with difficulty), and then you turn and meet the next classmate, and back then was suddenly yesterday.

    Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge. A most intriguing idea, and going on next week’s order.

  7. 8 years in solitary confinement?

    The military has put Private Bradley Manning (the wikileaks leaker) in solitary confinement for the last 8 months, and word is that its causing him psychological stress and may result in permanent psychological problems for him.

    From link: http://www.texasobserver.org/cover-story/solitary-men

    “A 2003 study of the isolation unit at California’s Pelican Bay prison by Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz, reports that two-thirds of inmates in solitary confinement talk to themselves and nearly half suffered from “perception disorders, hallucinations, or suicidal thoughts.” Research by Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychologist who has interviewed hundreds of prisoners, found that about one-third of inmates in solitary confinement develop severe mental illness.”

  8. I sometimes find myself being a campaigner for Introvert’s Rights! An introvert is NOT a broken extravert, and I soooo wish people would understand that. Thanks for a book that respects being alone.

  9. @Mary Frances (#5) — I have now. Wow back, it’s beautiful. Thanks so much for turning me on to it. Yes, I think there a fair amount of thit self/community tension in Solitaire, in different ways before and after her experience in VC (virtual confinement).

    @Danielle (#7) — I hope you enjoy it!

    @wonderer (#8) — Thank you very much indeed. I hope so too ;)

  10. As Greg points out, I don’t think that pretty much anyone could realistically survive 8 years of utterly uninterrupted solitary confinement (not to mention lack of sensory input, if I’m understanding the VR “cell” correctly) and be even within a herculean stone’s throw of “sane.”

    But, hey, it’s fiction, and who knows, anyway? It sounds like an interesting story concept. I’ll keep a lookout for this book.

  11. Thank you all for your comments! Will try to keep up….

    @htom (#9) — It does indeed. I’m always intrigued by the changes, in particular — the people who I now find I can connect with, and the people who were central to me and now seem like strangers. Does life change us or make us more ourselves? I think the answer is both.

    @Greg (#10) — The stress of solitary confinement can be brutal. The statistics when I was researching the book were absolutely harrowing. That was also part of the challenge: I wanted to explore these things, but I didn’t want to write a book “about” solitary confinement (I dislike books “about” issues, you know? I think books are about people).

    @Eli (#11) — Me too! I still like to eat the occasional meat out alone, and I still get sooooo tired of the host/hostess saying, “Just one?” with that particular note of sympathy. One time, when I said yes, the host responded, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” After I picked up my jaw, I found his manager and had a little chat.

  12. Looks intriguing. I’d almost stopped reading Big Idea posts out of frustration – kept being hooked by the premise of a book only to find that nobody was selling it as a DRM-free ebook. Nice to find a counterexample here.

  13. @Michael (#13) — Yep, it’s fiction :) And there is a measure of sensory input programmed into the virtual confinement program, although none of it is “human” (no human voices or images). And then, of course, there’s what we talk about when talk about “sane.” Jackal has some out-on-the edge experiences in VC, and she also has some joy. I think both are possible. But the reader is always the final arbiter of what works for him or her.

  14. @Mike (#15) — Small Beer Press is fantastic for this, as well as many other things. They publish an eclectic mix of wonderful writers, and they do everything possible to make the books both beautiful and accessible to as many readers as possible.

  15. If i was stuck in solitary in my mind, I’m sure the Companion Cube would be threatening to stab me within a week!

  16. (I dislike books “about” issues, you know? I think books are about people).

    Sure. It’s just a pet peeve of mine to have violence or torture depicted in an unrealistic way.

    I hate it when torture always gets truthful answers when reality is that it will get whatever the guy being tortured thinks will get you to stop torturing him. example: KSM was captured on March 1, 2003, and waterboarded 180 times in that month. By March 20, the US invaded Iraq. It will likely never come out in the light of day, but I woudl bet the farm that he told his torturers the thing they wanted to hear that allowed them to greenlight an invasion. years later, it turns out the WMD’s were fictiious. But I’m sure they came from and were reinforced by torture.

    And I hate it when the good guys always withstand torture. Even McCain tells the story of how he had been tortured and at one point told his captors some real information in hopes to get it to stop.

    It doesn’t have to be a book “about” torture or “about” solitary confinment, but when I saw the “8 year” bit, I wondered how realistic it was. 8 years of pure solitary treatment, and it would be very slim odds that the person isn’t talking to themselves, having at least minor hallucinations, and acting somewhat like a sociopath unable to relate to people anymore.

    Not a requirement for lots fo people to like your book. Just a personal thing.

  17. Kelley — my current pet theory is that it has to do with the number and depth of accumulated message exchanges. Those that you have many long, heart-felt exchanges with seem to “attach” much more to you than others, and that connection can survive long — very long — periods of no contact at all.

    Back in the BBS days, there was a user -L- who I argued with; we argued about almost everything, politics, religion, cars, guns, beer, … for probably a decade. We met once, at some business function, shook hands, that’s all. Type type type. Then the BBSes died, and we lost all contact. Five or ten thousand posts — who counted? — joined two arguing strangers, the threads weaving a cable between us, but we didn’t notice it.

    Almost twenty years later, I heard his daughter had died, sent him a note saying I’d come to the wake. I walked in the funeral chapel door, we saw each other, and ran to fall into a mutual giant hug, bawling like long-lost brothers. “You came!” “How could I not?”

    In some ways, now, we’re almost as close as we are to our own brothers. Didn’t mean for it to happen, didn’t expect it, can’t explain it, but there it is.

  18. @Eternal Density (#18) — No Companion Cube for Jackal :)

    @Greg (#19) — Sure, I understand, and share your dislike of those things. And the book is what it is — you may find it convincing in its own context, or you may not. I’m reluctant to spoil this section of the book, and so I’m not talking about the specifics of what happens to her in VC, but it is certainly not an easy experience for her.

    Interesting conversation, thank you!

  19. @htom (#20) — Ah, that makes sense. I certainly have relationships like that and I treasure them partly for that very quality of “picking up where we left off” regardless of how long ago that was.

    I love the story of L. Such a human thing.

  20. John,

    Picked this up after reading about it here – finished it last night at midnight. Good read, liked the characters and the storyline (but especially the characters).

    Interesting ideas – gonna’ go explore the rest of her stuff now.

    Thanks!

    -Matt

  21. Seeing as how I worship abjectly at the altar of All That is Scalzi and follow his lead on every aspect of my daily life (All Praise to John!!) I immediately Kindled this book. It is as close to a page-turner (button pusher?) as I have read in quite a while. Jackal is such a fully inhabited and 360 degree character that I have started the usual muttering about if the author knows whats good for her there will be an ending for Jackal which, if not happy, will at least be hopeful.

  22. @Matt (#23) — So happy you enjoyed it! Thanks very much for saying so out loud. Writers are always grateful for that.

    @Old Leatherneck (#24) — Well, I won’t spoil it for you, and am delighted it’s a button-pusher.

    Very glad that you both enjoyed the characters. I love my people, every single one of them, and am glad when other people like them too.

  23. Just read Solitaire today after seeing this post; it was an excellent read. I’ve recommended it to my friends.

  24. @BlueFish (#26) — Thank you! I’m delighted you enjoyed it, and appreciate that you are spreading the word to friends — that’s the single best way I know for books to find their best audience.

  25. @Loserish (#28) — Thank you! I am grateful to you (and all here, and everyone else who has read Solitaire) for being willing to take a flyer with your money on something I wrote. Readers are the coolest people in the universe!

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