The Big Idea: Teri Hall
Posted on March 5, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 23 Comments
Everyone asks questions — but are they asking the right questions? Author Teri Hall is asking herself (and us) this particular question, especially in the context of her debut YA novel The Line, in which certain questions (and whether they’re asked at all) take on a critical importance. Here’s Hall, to explain the questions, and to speculate on why the answers matter.
The Line is a dystopia, set in the near future. I got the notion for the novel while I was sleeping—yes, that’s right—I had a dream. (Take a moment to groan in disgust if you hate it when writers say that.)
It was just a scene really—a scene where a young girl was sitting in the corner of a room, a room where all the walls were made of glass. It was night, and there was a rain storm, the kind where the rain is coming down so hard that it cascades down the glass in sheets, and makes everything outside look wavery and vague. The girl was looking out into the night, trying to see, but the rain and the dark made it impossible. The girl “felt” scared in my dream, but she really wanted to see whatever she thought was out there in the dark. There was a flash of lightening, and something—I didn’t see what—was illuminated. The girl gasped, and when she gasped, I sat straight up in bed, shocked into wakefulness.
I thought about that scene for days, because I don’t generally have dreams like that, where nothing is familiar or at least signifies something familiar. I wondered why that girl was sitting in a glass room alone at night. I wondered what she saw outside when that lightening struck. I wondered why she was so afraid.
I wondered what world that was, that I had seen in that dream. And I started to write about what I thought that a world like that might be like.
That’s how I got the notion for The Line. But the Big Idea? Well, the big idea behind The Line is a question. A few questions, actually. Here they are:
1) Why are we so afraid of the Other? (Yep, the Other in the capital letter sense of Other.)
2) What does it truly mean to have courage? Can that quality ever be relative?
3) Ditto on the quality of integrity.
4) Why does our notion of beauty hinge on the quality of harmlessness?
5) Can people really change? Do we get a second chance?
I hope the questions I’m asking in The Line are question that people still care about. I think they are. I’m especially thrilled when the young folk (I love saying that phrase—it makes me feel all creaky and ancient even though I fancy I’m not, yet) get excited about these sorts of questions.
I had my very first classroom visit the other day, with a class of 7th graders who read ARCs of The Line. One boy described his favorite scene in the book—a scene where something fairly chilling happens on a public street in a small town, and nobody blinks an eye. They all just keep on walking, or worse, they watch, with a sort of sick exhilaration.
I asked the class if they could think of any countries where that scene could happen today, in real life. They answered quickly (very SMART kids), naming countries like North Korea, or China. And they were spot on. The scene could happen in places like that today.
But I wanted to say to them (I didn’t say it) that the scene could happen here, in The United States. I wanted to say the scene does happen here. And that we don’t seem to be noticing. I wanted to ask them what they thought they would do, if that scene happened in front of them. I wanted to ask them what they thought their parents might do. I wanted to see if they were aware of differences there, and if so, why those differences might exist.
I’m afraid, most of the time, of the answers to those questions. I want people to think about those questions, long and hard, and have answers at hand before they need them. And that’s the Big Idea behind The Line.
The Line: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt (pdf link).
Not related to this book, but…
[Deleted because what follows is not related to the book — but Ray, I cut and pasted what you wrote to look at later, so don’t feel like the comment is ignored. Also, if I do a general Big Idea-related post, feel free to post it again later — JS]
The idea of building outward from a single strong image resonates with me because my own creative process works in much the same way. Many of my favorite artists are my favorites because they produce images that compel this sort of explanation.
I admit that my enjoyment of this article was lessened by a spelling error. Electric arcs from the sky are “lightning”, no e. I probably would not have been bothered by this as much if I hadn’t had an argument with my third grade teacher about it.
I really like what I’ve read thus far and plan on picking this book up :)
I always wonder with books so central to one part of the world what is happening where I live in relation to the books universe. Then I realize for this book the whole point “the big idea” is for me to wonder that and realize that Teri has made that thought process open.
“Why does our notion of beauty hinge on the quality of harmlessness?”
Am I that unusual in holding both things and people that are emphatically not harmless (tigers, volcanoes, certain kinds of people) to be far more beautiful than the other kind, most of the time?
She must have been mad when Under the Dome came out first. Sounds cool though I think I’ll pick it up.
Sounds neat. Have put in a review copy request to her publicist.
Thanks, I was hoping I wasn’t the only one to feel that way. Though I must say a large percentage of the population probably does consider harmlessness to be an important part of anything beautiful. You know, insipid, eye candy, nothing deeper.
Not everybody, though.
Personally, I think beauty often contains some sort of strength, and that implies at least the potential for harm.
#4, 7: Let me float the idea that, while of course those are examples of things of great beauty, we appreciate their beauty in contexts where they’ve been rendered harmless. We are more likely to appreciate the beauty of a tiger when we see one in the zoo, or National Geographic, than we are when one is pouncing on us and tearing out our intestines. Ditto volcanoes, which are stunning to look at on an HDTV. But I suspect people in Pompeii weren’t exactly admiring the beauty that day.
Good point. It’s difficult to appreciate beauty when you’re personally in danger. Self-preservation sort of steals the focus.
You think that’s the point the author is suggesting? Embrace the beautiful even though it may kill us? The fear/danger is worth it?
Is the fear part of the beauty? Not being one who enjoys fear, in that case I would indeed avoid the source of the beauty. Hah, even discomfort will do that for me (mosquitos, ick.)
I wish she had told them it could indeed happen here in the good ol’ USA. Kids are more aware than we give them credit for, especially with the technology they are exposed to. It might help make them aware that it occurs here too many times and they can change things by not looking past it.
I’m an adult woman but this sounds like a great premise that my husband and I are excited to explore.
I’m really not trying to be snarky here, but “lightening” should be spelled “lightning.”
I have no issues with mining dream-stuff. Dreams are big inspiration generators; why ignore them?
Listen, John. I have to stop reading your Big Idea posts. I need to save money to move out of my parents’ basement, and I just can’t do that if every week I want to buy two more books (especially hardcovers!) Until such a time as I am independently wealthy, please stop publicizing awesome looking books. Or start a book revolution or something.
Sounds interesting. I think that is a cover that will catch a lot of kids’ attention. Working at a book store, I see how important that is–especially to the little ones.
Sounds like an interesting story. I liked the comment on “harmless beauty and how people can see horrible things without batting an eye. It’s shockingly common, even in countries like the US or Britain.
Also, those sort of out-of-context dreams can make great inspiration. I’ve used some of my own for stories.
@ Thomas – Hmm. Not entirely sure I agree. An element of self-protection is necessary in order to see beauty more than once, but safety isn’t necessary to find something beautiful. This is part of why humans storm-chase, become volcanologists, sail in unsafe conditions, and do really stupid things to get close to animals that want to eat them.
Unless you’re defining “harmless” in the absolutely stringent sense of “not causing current harm RIGHT NOW”, in which case I’d say it’s not a complicated or difficult question (and also, there are still masochists who’d disagree.)
16: Some people enjoy a high-risk lifestyle, true, but this is not all people or even most of them. While most people probably do find tigers beautiful, very very few would extend that appreciation to being willing to walk up to one and pet it.
I have to agree with Merryawren. I have never even heard of beauty being defined by its harmlessness. Concepts like love are exciting precisely because of the danger. Who has ever fallen in love with someone gushing over how harmless they were?
The question that caught my attention was whether the quality of integrity could be relative. I would certainly think not. If your integrity is relative then you have none.
@ Thomas: Certainly. But the original statement was inclusive – “our notion of beauty hinges”. I’m not sure that I agree that it does, given the evidence. I think there are certain social constructs of beauty that include certain variations of “harmless” in them (including, often, the major social idea of female beauty), but I don’t think one can make the broad, sweeping statement.
I may not choose to actually climb down and look at the waterfall from the cliffside, but I do so because I’m consciously aware of the risks, not because it’s less beautiful for being ANYTHING but harmless.
Cool, I didn’t want to derail discussion of this book.
19: I’d be more likely to think that the more obviously dangerous something is, what attracts people to it is less the appreciation of its beauty (though I’m sure that’s not absent) than, as 18 suggests, the adrenaline rush of excitement associated with the danger. Pursuit of excitement and appreciation of beauty can go together and do for many people, but aren’t the same thing.
21: I didn’t mean to suggest that danger/excitement is the reason for pursuit of something (although I imagine it can be for some). I just disagree that we define beauty through its harmlessness. Roses have thorns, and mankind has admired the beauty of tigers far longer than we’ve had zoos to keep them in.
@Thomas: . . . .yes. But again: the statement says “our idea of beauty hinges”. That I find tigers beautiful, and that society finds tigers beautiful, regardless of danger status to us at present, makes that statement not true. There is no element of harmlessness, unless, again as I said before, you are taking a very hard line of “it is not causing me actual harm right at this moment”.
At which point the “why” becomes rather obvious: we tend not to like things that CURRENTLY/PRESENTLY hurt us, even if we can find a lot of beauty in things that have the potential to do us a lot of harm. Mystery solved! (And again, not even that much is true for persons of a certain bent of mind.)
One of the most beautiful things I own is a very sharp, very deadly-if-used knife. Much of its beauty actually comes from its implicit threat: it is beautifully designed, perfectly balanced and otherwise a lovely piece of engineering all focused on the idea of death and harm.