The Big Idea: Lesley Livingston
Posted on December 23, 2008 Posted by John Scalzi 8 Comments
This is a kind of cool thing for me: I met Lesley Livingston back in 2003, at my very first science fiction convention (that would be Torcon 3, for those of you keeping score at home). I was neopro writer whose first book wouldn’t come out for a couple of years; Lesley, on the other hand, was a TV personality for Space, the Canadian science fiction cable network. Which is to say, she had fans (crazy ones!), whereas no one knew who I was, and she could have easily dropped me into the “crazy fan” territory, lurking about as I did. But she was nice to me instead, which I appreciated, and we had a nice time chatting about writing and science fiction and all those sorts of things. She was very cool, and since then I’ve been looking forward to reading what she had to write.
The wait is over: Today marks the release of her debut novel, the YA fantasy Wondrous Strange, which is about fairies and Shakespeare and acting and Central Park, all of which are things I approve. I’m delighted to be able to give her a little bit of space here in The Big Idea to tell you how they all fit together, and why they inspired her to get wondrous strange in her writing.
The Celts, the Elizabethans, the Victorians… they all believed in the existence of the Faerie. More than believed – they shared their world with them. These beings inhabited the artistic endeavors of these societies: they filled in the spaces of Celtic mythology where gods didn’t necessarily fit; Shakespeare’s audience was so fond of the Fair Folk that he gave “to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”, dedicating an entire comedy to their antics (and the effects of faerie shenanigans on the surrounding human populace); and in the middle of the 19th century, at the height of the faerie craze in Victorian England, you couldn’t swing a dead boggart without smacking it off a faerie painting. And then, at the turn of the century, all that changed. Seemingly overnight – it wasn’t, of course, but it feels a bit like it – faeries all but vanished from popular culture.
I’ve been fascinated by faerie lore since I was a kid. The stories that intrigued me the most, though, were never the ones that portrayed the Fae as tiny, sweet, sparkly things. Rather I was drawn to the idea that these were the creatures that existed just beyond the circle of firelight, or just on the other side of the threshold, or just over that far hill; things only ever glimpsed out of the corner of your eye – if you were lucky! I always knew I wanted to write a faerie story. I just didn’t know what.
Wondrous Strange is that story (or, at least, the first part of it!) but the germ of it didn’t come from staring at Arthur Rackham sketches. Rather, my Big Idea for came straight from the heart of the Big Apple.
When I signed with my agent (for another project entirely), I went to New York to meet her face to face. I went with another YA author friend of mine, Adrienne Kress, who was meeting her publisher for the first time. Both of us were wowed by the city as a whole, but I was absolutely captivated by Central Park. Even in February. It was my first visit to the city and I really didn’t know what to expect but it was utter infatuation at first sight. We did the touristy stuff on that trip – carriage ride, Tavern on the Green (both of which are now plot points in Wondrous Strange). I became fascinated by certain landmarks in the park – by the fantastic, otherworldly landscapes of the Shakespeare Garden and the Ramble and the Lake, by the statue of the Indian Hunter (a source of inspiration for Sonny Flannery and the Janus Guard in the book) and by the Carousel – which is the fourth one to stand on that spot – two previous incarnations having burnt to the ground.
Back home, I couldn’t get the park out of my head The whole place just struck me as somehow mythic. And a really good location to stick a story (obviously – I mean, writers have been doing that forever!). I just needed to find the story that I wanted to put there. I started to do a bit of research into the origins of Central Park and its creators – in particular, a virtually forgotten man named Andrew Haswell Green. Almost the only tangible tribute you will find to Andrew Green is a marble bench tucked away in an obscure corner of the park. Odd, considering the fact that this guy was, in his day, a vastly influential in figure in municipal politics and, as a city planner, was largely responsible for much of how New York exists in its present form. What’s even odder about Green is that his death in 1903, at the venerable age of 83, was untimely – he was shot to death on the steps of his Park Avenue brownstone. It was supposedly a case of “mistaken identity” wherein a crazed boiler-worker claimed that the octogenarian civic leader was having an affair with a mysterious “dark lady” who was known to ride only in curtained carriages and was rumored to be an exiled princess from some exotic land. So the boiler-worker shot the old man to death. On Friday the 13th.
Now, lest you pick up Wondrous Strange thinking this is his story – let me assure you that it is not. But damned if it wasn’t a mighty source of inspiration, one that became a sort of underpinning for the entire trilogy. You see, aside from the fact that I was fascinated by this gentleman’s story, I also love coincidences and word-play and the fact that Mr. Green’s first name, Andrew, means “man” twigged something in my brain. Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Celtic mythology and faerie lore will be familiar with the figure of the Green Man. It also didn’t hurt that ‘Haswell’ means ‘the misty place’ or ‘the Wild’. How could I resist a Wild Green Man from the Misty Place? Seriously.
At any rate, all of my random research started to form connections in my mind: between the disappearance of faeries from popular culture around the turn of the century and mass immigration to the new world; between this improbable park in the middle of this thriving new metropolis and the strange circumstances of one of its chief architects’ demise. It laid the groundwork upon which I laid the story of a young actress named Kelley Winslow who comes to the big city to follow her dream and finds her destiny. (During that time, I continued to perform with Tempest Theatre Group, a Shakespearean company of which I am a founding member, and I had already written a short story about an actress in a production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream.)
Since that first February day – it seems like a very short while ago – I have been back to the Park several times and have spent many a night busily populating it with beings from the Otherworld. If you visit, do be careful where you walk! – not all of them are friendly…
Wondrous Strange: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Powell’s
Read an excerpt of the novel here. Visit Lesley Livingston’s blog here. See Lesley discuss her book here.
Oh, this sounds like it’s right in my wheelhouse. We lived in the City for 11 years, and I never got tired of roaming around Central Park. It is a magical place.
You should be getting kickbacks for all the books you end up selling me, Scalzi. Thanks!
I think that is on my shopping list for the new year, just from this article and reading the extract. Thanks!
This sounds amazing and right up my alley! I have to get my hands on this book.
I wonder if Ms. Livingston has had the pleasure of reading Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean novels. Given the theme of her novel, she might find Bear’s series quite interesting.
Having lived in New York on and off for 25 years, I can attest to the magic of Central Park. It is a wondrous thing. The park is most magical after a fresh snowfall. If one avoids looking upwards, one feels ensorcelled by the joy of being someplace outside the realm of daily existence.
I had never heard of Andrew Green. i thought the park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux.
I’m looking forward to reading the book.
I hadn’t known what led you to this particular story, Lesley. Thanks for this! (Thanks John.) I always look forward to reading your work. This one, however? Tingles!!! Congratulations on the first of many.
It’s really quite a wonderful book…
This sounds like the sort of thing I love.
hi lesley! I happened upon your posting here and enjoyed reading about how Wondrous Strange came into existence! It’s been on my list to read so I’m going to pop over to Amazon right now and order my copy! Fun seeing you over here!