The Big Idea: Teri Hall
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.
Read an excerpt (pdf link).