The Big Idea: Courtney Alameda

First off: Whoa, that cover. It’s awesome. And the cover tells some of the idea of Shutter, by Courtney Alameda. She’s here now to explain what, and why, and how in the end a story may be worth a thousand pictures.

COURTNEY ALAMEDA:

Ideas don’t strike me. Characters do—at least figuratively.

When people ask me about the idea behind Shutter, I point to the novel’s protagonist, Micheline Helsing. I met this pint-sized exorcist/photographer in a dark, dilapidated house, frozen on a stairway. She held a Nikon camera as one would a handgun, its long telephoto lens pointed at the ground, her attention trained on the landing, sweat plastering her blunt bangs to her forehead. Together, we listened to the footsteps—slow, wooden creaks—coming down the hall on the second floor. The violet light her ghostly quarry emitted grew stronger, brighter, and more brutal with each step.

I thought: There’s someone I haven’t seen in YA before.

Micheline’s ability to capture a ghost on analog film is nothing novel: It’s been done in film and video games. The belief is found in several religions across the globe, and is a mainstay concept on popular ghost hunting shows. The older I get, the more I realize most ideas aren’t new or individual in and of themselves, really. To misappropriate John Donne a little, no creator is an island entire of herself. The things we read, watch, and consume all have an impact on our subconscious mind. It’s up to us to determine how significant that impact becomes in our work.

So the game was afoot: I had to devise a fantasy construct for either Micheline or her camera, one I hadn’t come across in my reading, viewing, or gaming experiences. I started with the ultraviolet ghost and worked backward in my research, discovering first that there are species of birds and insects capable of perceiving ultraviolet light. Later, I found that some human women are born with an additional color cone in their retinas, allowing them to perceive millions of variations in color the average eye cannot discern.

I’d found my construct: These women are called tetrachromats, and one percent of women would have the ability to see this broader range of color.

The tetrachromats in Shutter see the auras of the undead in a color spectrum: The slower, longer wavelengths of light—reds and oranges—represent the lowliest creatures, shuffling zombies and the like. The bestiary moves through the entire spectrum, representing a vast number of undead creatures unique to Micheline’s world. The ghosts, of course, are made of nothing more than violet energy and light, the shortest and fastest wavelengths visible to the human eye.

I brought in the Van Helsing legacy on Micheline’s insistence. She’s a stubborn sort of girl, a lesson I would learn again and again over the course of writing the novel. But the Helsing connection gave Micheline a legacy to shoulder, as well as an illustrious, rich history that I mined for both Micheline’s character the three boys who are her dearest friends and hunting companions. But like the camera, I realized that I wasn’t the first to reimagine the Van Helsings in a modern age—in fact, aside from Sherlock Holmes, Dracula has been portrayed in film more times than any other figure from classic literature. There are books, video games, and even Japanese manga in which Van Helsing or his descendants figure prominently.

I differentiated my Helsing Corps by making them an integral part of everyday life in Micheline’s world, a sort of police force for the supernatural or undead. My father was a police officer in the San Francisco Bay Area, and so my childhood was saturated by police stories, thrilling ride-alongs, and a basic knowledge of police procedure. With that model in mind, it became easy to imagine Helsing “reapers” responding to emergency calls and patrolling the streets at night, keeping their neighborhoods safe from the undead threats lurking in the city’s abandoned places.

Better yet, the Van Helsing legacy allowed me to connect a YA novel to a piece of classic literature—and my greatest hope is that my work might inspire a young person or two to seek out the source material. Shutter is not a re-telling of Dracula, but much of Stoker’s work provides the underpinnings for my own: The unbreakable friendships between Micheline, Ryder, Oliver, and Jude are meant to mimic the ones shared by Van Helsing’s own hunting party. Crosses still have power in Micheline’s world, and she shares her religious beliefs with her famous forebear. The otherworldly vengeance that provides the basis of the plot has much to do with the events of Dracula, but saying much more than that would spoil the novel.

As I move forward in my work, I specifically look for projects that follow this model; things I can tie back to my literary godparents, both classic and contemporary. I particularly like taking tired tropes and twisting them until they remember how to breathe, or until they get so bent out of shape, they look like something readers haven’t seen before.

But most of all, I wait to see someone like the girl on the stairway with a story to tell.

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Shutter: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s Web site. Follow her on Twitter.

How I Spent My JoCo Cruise 2015

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JoCo musicians in practice for the final show. From left: Jim Boggia, Aimee Mann, Molly Lewis, John Roderick, Storm DiCostanzo, Ted Leo, Christian Cassan, Paul Sabourin, Jonathan Coulton (not pictured here but performing in final show: Jean Grae)

My thoughts, in no particular order.

* I stand on dry land, I feel like I’m swaying. This is what a week and a day on a boat will do to you. It happens every time I come back from the JoCo Cruise. It’s a little weird, but it’s also kind of nice. Like the most innocuous hangover you can have.

Also, I only gained a pound on this trip. Considering the unfathomable amount of food I ate on the cruise, this is well nigh impossible. I must have a tapeworm. Either that or constantly walking up and down stairs actually burned some calories. I suspect tapeworm, however.

* I’ve been on the JoCo Cruise three times now, but this year was the first year I was “on staff” — I was a featured guest as well as running the brand new writing track on the boat. And yes, it made a bit of difference in how I experienced the cruise, in mostly positive ways. I like being busy and I like entertaining people, so programming a writing track with nine events, all of which I participated in one way or another, kept me from being bored — which would have been a possibility this year, as unfortunately my family was not able to come on the cruise with me. It also meant I got to know the performers better, because I was able to integrate many of them into writing track events. And it meant I was able to mix with the Seamonkeys (the self-applied term for JoCo Cruise attendees) a bit more as they came to events, and then sought me out to comment on them. It was fun! And I had fun doing it.

* More importantly (for me, anyway), I think the Seamonkeys had fun with the writing track in general. This being the first year, we threw a bunch of things against the wall to see what would stick. And as it turns out, almost all of it stuck. An event on bullshit in which four writers made up “reasonable” answers to ridiculous Seamonkey questions? Jam packed into its space and a huge hit. A panel on comedy at 9am in the friggin’ morning, on the last day of the cruise when everyone was partying until 3am the night before? 80 people showed up for that. I mean, I’m not gonna lie: at that hour I don’t think that I would have showed up for it if I wasn’t on it (and I would have missed out, since the panel, with Rhea Butcher and Hari Kondabolu, was fantastic) The enthusiasm for the writing track events was pretty cool — and made me feel relieved that I actually helped to add a positive to the cruise.

* My favorite event of the writing track, if I had to name one, would be the songwriting panel, which featured Aimee Mann and Ted Leo (who were on the ship performing as The Both), John Roderick and Jean Grae. With a line up like that, all I had to do as the moderator was get out of their way and let them talk, which I mostly did (the one time I didn’t, I ended up violating my “all questions must be in the form of a question” rule, which was deeply embarrassing). It was in many ways a perfect example of what a panel event could and should be: Four people with a vast range of experiences in their field, coming in from different and diverse angles, in conversation with each other, for the benefit of the audience. It’s hard to see how it could have been better. This was closely followed by the comedy panel, and then the bullshit panel, because, well. That one was just silly fun.

* But enough of the writing track! What about the rest of it? Well, as always, the JoCo Cruise Main Stage line-up was terrific, the usual combination of people I knew I already liked (JoCo and Paul & Storm, The Both, Pat Rothfuss, Matthew Inman, John Roderick and Merlin Mann) plus people I didn’t know I liked yet (Jean Grae, Rhea Butcher and Hari Kondabolu). I like that the folks running the JoCo Cruise do this — drop in new people doing awesome things outside of my usual scope of interests, because then it means my usual scope of interest expands (additionally, they get a thumbs up for bringing in new performers who are diverse in their awesomeness, because that’s a thing worth doing too). All the main stage shows were a blast; in terms of sheer entertainment value to one’s dollar, it’s difficult to see anyone giving a better ratio than the JoCo Cruise.

* The year’s Watkins Award (given to the new performer who just blows everyone away, named after Sara Watkins, who last year made everyone else step up their game with her show) goes hands down to Jean Grae. She didn’t just make all the other performers step up, she made the audience step up as well — she didn’t let them just sit in their seats but made them get down in front of the stage and move and take part. And they did! Because she was just that good. Runner up was Hari Kondabolu, who was almost giddy that he could make a Jonathan Swift reference in a joke and nearly everyone in the house would get it. Yup, it’s that sort of crowd.

Opus Moreschi, in happier times. Photo by Linda Abbott, who is clearly a fabulous photographer and who, if you are in the Los Angeles area, you should totally hire to photograph your wedding.

* One disappointment of the cruise was that we didn’t get a lot of one of our featured performers, Opus Moreschi, because the poor fellow developed appendicitis on the second day and had to be taken off the ship for treatment. However, his spirit hovered over the entire cruise, like the benevolent, sarcastic ghost of someone who wasn’t actually dead but who had rather experienced the joys of Caribbean-style surgery — which is just like surgery elsewhere except possibly they give you painkillers in a hollowed out pineapple with little paper umbrellas in it. The details are hazy, honestly. The point is that Opus is now okay, if roughly two ounces lighter on a permanent basis, and we missed having him among us. Come back on the cruise, Opus! Next year we’ll work on your liver!

* Also one personal bit of mopery was that for various scheduling reasons, Krissy and Athena could not come on the cruise with me, so I was sad that I would be alone, so alone, for the cruise. I mentioned this to friends when I landed in Florida to get on the cruise, and it was pointed out to me that Sara Scrimshaw, who is stage manager for the JoCo Cruise, was also sans spouse for the duration of the cruise (Joseph Scrimshaw staying at home to, oh, let’s say, fight crime). And so it became that Sara and I pledged ourselves to a week of being each other’s “salt spouse,” a special personal relationship valid only on the seas, in which we did various (but not all, you dirty-minded people, sheesh) spousy things, such as go to dinners and beaches together, make sure sunscreen was applied, and generally check in on the other. And it was good!

And then Opus’ appendicitis hit. Opus brought his friend Linda Abbott on the cruise with him, and after he was taken off the ship, he encouraged her to stay on the ship and enjoy herself. The problem was she knew almost no one on the ship, and none very well. So I was asked by the JoCo folks (and also, I was inclined because I chatted with her a bit at dinner one night before Opus had to leave and found that she was a delightful human being, and I was personally concerned for her) to be available to hang out with her, bring her to dinner and generally keep her entertained — a prospect which was made easier, I should note, once it was clear Opus was going to be okay. Naturally I had to clear this with my salt spouse, who assured me that she was often busy, so it would be more than fine if I took on another salt spouse.

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Sara Scrimshaw and Linda Abbott, salt spouses

And so, on the waves of the Caribbean, I was happily saltypoly with Sara and Linda, who as it turned out were crazy about each other as people as well. Since they both live in the same town in the real world, they have plans to become totally be each other’s best friends forever now, which of course I approve of, not that it matters what I think, back here on the land.

Now, all of this sounds very silly, I’m sure, and of course it was. I was surrounded by friends and I wasn’t alone, and I was having a good time. But anyone who is has been happily married for a while knows the little bit of sadness that’s there when your spouse isn’t with you. Hanging out with Sara and Linda and doing the little kindnesses for each other that come naturally with long-time relationships and friendships made the cruise happier for each of us. And the good news is that back in the real world, I have made a new friend in Linda and have become better friends with Sara, and they have become friends with each other. And that’s a lovely thing.

The Wedding I officated on the cruise. From left: Jean Grae, Molly Lewis, Renee Nejo (bride), me, Will Courtney (groom), Jonathan Coulton. I look smaller than everyone else because I am further back, honest. Photo by Andy Steigleder
The Wedding I officiated on the cruise. From left: Jean Grae, Molly Lewis, Renee Nejo (bride), me, Will Courtney (groom), Jonathan Coulton. I look smaller than everyone else because I am further back, honest. Photo by Andy Steigleder

* Tangentally related, did I mention I married some people on the seas? No, not the “salt spouse” thing. I mean, I actually officiated a marriage ceremony. Turns out that two of the seamonkeys brought a marriage license on board were planning to simply sign it on the cruise, in the ship’s chapel, with some friends around. But then it was decided that a small ceremony would be nice, and someone remembered I was a minister in the Universal Life Church and asked if I would officiate. And I thought, sure, why not. But then one thing led to another and instead of a small ceremony with the two in the ship’s chapel, among a small circle of friends, I married the two of them on the stage of the ship’s main theater, in front of hundreds of Seamonkeys, with Jonathan Coulton standing for the groom, Molly Lewis standing for the bride, Jean Grae singing for the couple, and the Monarch of the Seas giving her blessing to the whole affair. For something that was literally thrown together at the last minute, it came together pretty well.

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I strangle Wil Wheaton live onstage while Steve Jackson (right) and one of the JoCo Cruise Singing Interns (left) look on with varying expressions of horror. Photo: Steve Petrucelli

* Oh, and I strangled Wil Wheaton. This happened during Celebrity Artemis, in which the JoCo performers do a late-night session pretending to be the bridge crew of a starship, usually whilst drinking. I was a captain this year, and decided to be the most incompetent captain possible. Which earned me quite a lot of snark from my helmsman, Wil Wheaton. Continually demoting him all the way down to “scullery lad” did not stop his haranguing, so of course eventually I had to murder him, on stage, in front of hundrends of witnesses, and then kick his lifeless corpse, which was then eventually dragged off the stage. I also made Ted Leo quit his Science Officer position in frustration, and in doing so he did the best “fuck all y’all — with science!” soliloquy perhaps in the entire history of the world. It was brilliant, and I want to be Ted Leo when I grow up. And then, being Ted Leo, strangle Wil Wheaton.

Despite all of that, we were not anywhere near the funniest Celebrity Artemis crew. That went, hands down, to the crew of Royal Caribbean staff who came in and schooled everyone on how to do drunken fake starshippery. Seriously, they were at a “I think I may be peeing myself because I’m laughing so hard” level. You can’t compete with that, you can only stand in awe. That said, I had to follow those guys. Thus: murdering Wil Wheaton. It seemed the rational thing to do at the time.

* And so on. I could tell you about the amazingness of the final concert, or how the clear affection between Aimee Mann and Ted Leo took their already brilliant set to another level, or how Rhea and Hari nailed their spotlights, or how Jim Boggia made “meow” the Word of the Cruise, or the amazing acapella interns, or how David Rees made Taylor Swift the cruise’s unofficial mascot, or the pleasant constant buzz of the gaming track and the gaming room (sponsored by Steve Jackson Games!) or how Seamonkey Gavin Verhey became as unto a god by being left behind on St. Kitts and somehow managing to get back on the ship in Haiti, which has never happened before in the history of Royal Carribean, or any other number of moments.

But I think you get the gist: This was a great year for a cruise that, in my experience of it, has always been great. If you were on it, you know. And if you weren’t on it, there’s always next year, and you should go.

The view from the stage, after the final show. See you next year, Seamonkeys!
The view from the stage, after the final show. See you next year, Seamonkeys!