The Big Idea: Nancy Werlin
Not every choice an author makes for his or her characters seems all that important when the choice is made — a small character note here, a little personality tic there — but as the story unfolds, the “small choice” made earlier can magnify in importance. Nancy Werlin encountered this fact in the writing of her latest novel Extraordinary, when an almost arbitrary decision about the background of her character blossomed into something, well, extraordinary. Werlin explains below.
“Even good ideas [can] feel ‘thin.’ [But] in the tension between two story ideas you can often find the creative stimulus that leads to a story.”
–Orson Scott Card
I believe this quote describes how Extraordinary happened, even if my process was less than deliberate. Two unrelated ideas came together:
- Idea #1 – Wicked, especially the song “For Good” from the musical.
- Idea #2 – A Jewish heroine for a fantasy novel.
Originally I’d have said #1 was the “big” idea. There I was, watching the musical Wicked (from the novel by Gregory Maguire, musical adaptation by Stephen Schwartz, with book by Winnie Holzman). We’d gotten to the penultimate scene where Glinda and Elphaba sing their goodbye duet:
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
I was in tears before they reached “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” For me, the play had gone beyond entertainment and arrived at that ultimate aim of all art: raw emotional truth.
Wicked and “For Good” made me want to try to write a novel that would go to that same core place. It would be about an enormously important friendship between two teenage girls, one more pivotal than a romantic love affair. This friendship would test both girls to their limits, and would force them to grow, not just into maturity, but into better selves than they could ever have imagined becoming alone.
For this to work, I felt, only a fantasy landscape would do.
Also, full disclosure. I wanted to repair what I saw as a tiny flaw in Wicked: in my view, Elphaba gave Glinda a lot more than she got in return. (And here I’ll reference Holly Black about all art being in conversation with previous art.)
But once I began working on my novel about the two teenage girls, one human, one fey, and of their friendship gone dangerously wrong because of some secret (what secret? I’d figure that out later), I had the “little” idea.
“Why can’t my human girl be Jewish?”
It was a hasty, almost thoughtless choice. I expected my human girl, Phoebe, to be largely secular in her outlook, and so I didn’t anticipate that her religious background would affect the story much. Truly, all I was thinking about was making some room at the table for girls who, like me as a teenager, loved reading fantasy but sometimes wondered wistfully why there was never anyone like them in it.
But then, as I worked, I discovered that the decision had put me into a strange place of vulnerability and fear, for reasons that I only later began to understand (see Michael Weingrad’s Spring 2010 essay, “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia,”).
And so a second and thoroughly emotional choice quickly followed: “I’ll not only make Phoebe Jewish, I’ll make her a Rothschild! I’ll make her a member of the most storied Jewish family in modern history!”
I wanted to protect her, I now see. It was pure instinct, because she was going where Jews didn’t go, and where they were—it seemed to my subconscious, which was suddenly demanding to be in charge—not known, not understood, and certainly not welcome.
And then my plot and my characters screeched off in a direction I would never have predicted, and Phoebe’s heritage gave me the answer to the pivotal question “what secret?” that I had taken on faith that I would somehow find as I wrote.
I hope you’ll judge for yourself how it all worked out.