The Big Idea: Carrie Vaughn
Carrie Vaughn is best known in many circles for her New York Times best selling paranormal series featuring a werewolf named Kitty, but as with many authors every once in a while she likes to wander away from what she’s known for and try something new. And thus, her latest novel, Discord’s Apple, in which a near-future and trouble-scarred United States mingles with stories and legends from the days of the Trojans. Trying new things is working for Vaughn, who has seen this book received a coveted starred review in Publishers Weekly (“brilliantly structured, beautifully written”) — but as Vaughn relates below, the story of Discord’s Apple isn’t so much new as it is ripe after many years.
This is a case where the final novel doesn’t much resemble the seed that started it.
Early in 2002, I went to visit my great aunt Rose, who was dying. It was the first time I’d ever visited someone for the express purpose of saying goodbye. Not to sound callous, the experience was amazing, because two of her sisters were there — my grandmother and great aunt Ag — and the three of them told stories about growing up in the tiny town of Swink, Colorado, in the 1920’s and 30’s. I’d never heard any of these stories before, and I got a window into another world. Sitting with my mother, grandmother, her sisters, three generations of women telling and hearing stories, connected me to my family in a way I’d never felt before.
About a month later, my paternal grandfather died. While in Alabama for his funeral, we visited the house where he’d grown up, which had been beautifully restored by one of my father’s cousins. A tree in the backyard had two straps of canvas hanging from one of the branches — obviously, it had once been a swing, but the swing was gone, and the straps had been there so long that bark had grown over them where they were tied. I realized that my grandfather had probably played on that swing as a child, and once again I felt this great sense of family — of my family’s history — in a new and powerful way.
See, I grew up without much of a sense of heritage. My father was a career officer in the Air Force, and I spent my childhood on the move. I never saw my extended family except for visits every couple of years or so. Our family culture was Air Force with a sprinkling of Catholicism. I have at least five different nationalities in my ancestry, and I was jealous of people with strong senses of national heritage and family pride. I’d read about England and wish I were English, I’d read about Ireland and wish I was Irish, ditto for Wales, Scotland, Sweden, the Netherlands. I’d wonder what it was like to have a dozen cousins who all spent Christmas together. I didn’t have anything.
That is, until that difficult and illuminating spring when I visited my grandfather’s childhood home, and asked my grandmother to take me to see the places she and her sisters had talked about, and realized that I do have a family culture, a family heritage. I just hadn’t recognized it.
So: Discord’s Apple is about main character Evie coming home to be with her dying father, and discovering an amazing, unbelievable family heritage that she never knew existed. Because I’m a fantasy writer, I made that treasure literal: a basement filled with magical artifacts, including a certain inscribed golden apple.
Now, that’s just an idea. It isn’t a story, yet.
A little about my writing process: I have more ideas than I will ever be able to write in my lifetime. One of my solutions to this dilemma is to put as many ideas in a book as I can manage. The more disparate the better, because finding connections between seemingly unrelated ideas can make for great stories.
In a grad school Latin course, I translated bits of the Aeneid and fell in love with Sinon. He’s the Greek spy left behind to talk the Trojans into bringing the horse into the city. He’s brash, clever, and really awesome. So I committed a very long piece of fanfic telling what happened to Sinon after the war — he was kidnapped by a very pissed-off Apollo, made a slave, granted immortality so he’d be a slave forever, and. . .well. You’ll just have to read about it, because his story is the second part of Discord’s Apple, in which we learn that the Trojan War never really ended. (It all fits together, honest.)
At first, I didn’t know quite what to do with this very long piece of fanfic. I got to thinking about the nature of epic literature in general, and I decided that Sinon’s story needed to be part of Evie’s story. You see, “Evie returns home to discover an amazing heritage” is just an idea. But Evie and Sinon meeting each other, the chaotic events surrounding that meeting, and the fact that the goddess Hera still wants to get her hands on that apple — that’s a story.
Throw in King Arthur and my deep and irrational fondness for 1980’s GI Joe comics and what I ended up with was a novel about family, storytelling, history, and war and how they get tangled together.