The Big Idea: Jeri Smith-Ready
What does astronomy — a field full of logic, physics and (in reference to human time spans) permanence — have to do with the metaphysical and supernatural nature of ghosts? In Shade, the new YA novel by Jeri Smith-Ready, quite a lot, including the need, from a writing point of view, to frame the supernatural in a world that we all know and understand. For more details on this process, Smith-Ready is here now to cast some light into the world of Shade.
I’ve loved the stars since I was a kid. By age seven, I knew every constellation visible in the Northern Hemisphere, and by age eight, I was reading astronomy texts that were way over my head, skipping the equations and funny-looking letters in search of otherworldly magic. Though I didn’t become an astronomer, I would eventually marry one (all the fun and fascination, with none of the high-level physics!). And though I don’t write straight science fiction, my new novel Shade let me revisit my childhood love of the larger universe.
In Shade, 16-year-old Aura Salvatore can see ghosts, as can everyone born after her. Her winter solstice birth marked an occurrence now known as the Shift, a metaphysical mystery that the ghost-blind adults of Aura’s society have yet to solve.
Determined to decipher the Shift, Aura investigates whether it might be connected to her missing father and an event that happened in Ireland’s Newgrange passage tomb a year before her birth. Since ghosts can be annoying and even deadly, Aura’s goal in life is to undo the Shift and make them go away—until her boyfriend Logan dies and becomes a ghost.
For ancient cultures such as those who built Newgrange and Stonehenge, the stars were a nightly reassurance of the world’s order. People could predict how the sky would look year after year, decade after decade. Aura’s attraction to astronomy springs from her need for order in the face of the Shift’s worldwide existential chaos.
After all, the presence of ghosts goes against cosmic order. They skirt the boundary of life and death, the one division we most need to rely on. To control ghosts and restore the illusion of order, many governments created agencies such as the U.S. Department of Metaphysical Purity. One innovative corporation developed a ghost-repellant technology known as BlackBox, layers of electromagnetically charged obsidian that line the walls of sensitive areas such as bathrooms and military bases.
In addition to their obsidian allergy, the violet-hued ghosts of Shade are repelled by red. The color concept is based on the visible light spectrum, where violet and red lie at opposite ends. Red corresponds with the first “chakra” (or energy center, in traditional Indian medicine), located at the base of the spine, where it represents life and the physical world. Violet is associated with the seventh chakra, at the top of the head, representing pure thought. Though I’d chosen obsidian because of its use by ghost hunters, I later discovered that the rock corresponds to the color red and the first chakra. Score one happy world-building accident
It’s ironic that a novel about ghosts—fantastical entities by most accounts—became my most science fictional book to date. I had to imagine how the knowledge of ghosts’ existence would affect not only the teens and children who could interact with them, but also the adults who couldn’t. How unsettling would it be to know that at any given time (barring the presence of the expensive BlackBox), a dead person might be watching you? Paranoia would reign, and ghosts would be the new terrorists. (It’s no coincidence that “Metaphysical Purity” sort of rhymes with “Homeland Security.”)
The biggest challenge for me as an author, especially when writing for a young adult audience, was to keep the world-building from dominating the story. I wanted to explore the intricacies of the electromagnetic spectrum and how it all ties beautifully together with chakras and ancient astronomy in some universal fictional Theory of Everything Cool. Certainly I needed to know for my own background how the Shift and the ghosts work.
But I couldn’t put it all on the page. For one thing, readers of YA fiction, whether they be teens or adults, expect a faster pace with fewer digressions. They want the Big Idea to be shown, not told.
More important, the social, philosophical, and metaphysical ramifications of ghosts are not exactly a huge priority for Aura (though she ponders them more than most people her age do). She’s too busy worrying about passing calculus, or how revealing an outfit her aunt will let her wear, or whether she should have sex with her boyfriend. When Logan dies—especially given the nature of his death—that loss becomes her entire world. Her quest for answers to the Shift takes a back seat while she rages and grieves.
So to show the world through her eyes, I had to choose which world-building details I added and when. There had to be enough background—especially in the opening scenes—to ground the reader in this contemporary yet unfamiliar world. But the focus always remains on Aura’s emotional experiences. Because while I like my books to have a brain, first and foremost they need a heart.
That’s where the real magic lies, anyway. That’s what still aches a little within me when I see a sky full of stars, some of which died long before their light reached our planet. And like ghosts among the living, they’ll retrace their old paths long after we ourselves have faded to black.