The Big Idea: Kelley Eskridge
Being alone: we all experience it at one point or another in our lives. The question is: what do we do with alone? Is it a time for reflection and restoration, or do we wish it to end as soon as possible? Each of us deal with it in our own ways. Author Kelley Eskridge knows about the power and mystery of alone, and in her newly-reissued novel Solitaire, examines the condition and how it plays out in the telling of her tale. Here’s Eskridge to tell you about it.
I always knew I would write about being alone.
I’m an only child, and I grew up in a neighborhood without any kids. I spent my time reading, or riding my bike endless miles, an intrepid explorer of my Florida town’s urban zones and weed-choked alleys and tony enclaves where the streets were still paved with red brick. It was fabulous. It never occurred to me there was anywhere I couldn’t go alone.
Alone in those days meant by myself. It wasn’t until my twenties that people began using it to mean you must be lonely. But they aren’t the same thing.
Alone. By myself. Individual. Self-determined. Without needing help. Without having it. Disconnected from others. Unencumbered. Insular. Afraid. Autonomous. Joyful. Small and stuck. Free. Limitless. Singular. Solitary.
I wrote Solitaire to explore the complicated landscape of alone. I found a character named Jackal who defines herself foremost in terms of her community and her connection to others; then I took all that away, and trapped her in the most alone place any of us can go – inside our own heads. Jackal ends up in virtual solitary confinement facing an utterly realistic experience of being locked in a cell for eight years. What happens to her there – her journey through alone – changes everything.
But change is never the end, is it? It’s only the beginning. And so it was important to bring Jackal back from her solitude into the human world, and to see whether, and how, she would find her way to reconnection.
Those three parts of the book – connected, alone, struggling to reconnect – were very different to write. Parts 1 and 3 are pretty straightforward narrative. But how to show the inward journey when there is nowhere for Jackal to go, and no one for her to talk to? Nothing to ‘show’ and no good way to ‘tell’? “As You Know, Bob” dialogue is even worse without a Bob.
The trap of sequences like this one is the temptation to do only the surface work. Eight years alone, that’d be awful! Let’s give her a big dose of the awful and get her out of there. But no one wants to see a character rolling around in the misery mud for eight years. It’s depressing – and worse, it’s boring.
And so I leaned heavily on structure. There’s a display in Jackal’s cell that shows the count of her days, and the story gives us snapshots of her behavior and thinking as being alone changes her. What would you do on Day 1 of 2,920 days? Perhaps by Day 205 you would think you had a coping system in place. Perhaps by Day 377 you would know it wasn’t working. What happens when you get into serious trouble inside your own head, and how in hell do you get out of it? And what happens when you get into serious joy inside your own head, the kind of joy you can only have alone?
I went as deep into alone as I could for this book. I pulled up everything I know about it, and took a long hard look. And then I wrote the moments I thought would best provide the blueprint for the reader to imagine the rest: the long, hard, bright, hopeful, stubborn and sometimes ecstatic days of Jackal’s time alone.
Alone is the part that gets the most attention, but it’s not where I had most of my head-banging I suck at writing moments. That was Part 3, when Jackal comes back into the world. I had to throw out 11,000 words at one point, and it hurt: I had a demanding job and limited writing time, and those words were a year’s work gone. But the words were wrong. They were misery mud, and that was a sign that I was only doing the surface work.
The deeper work was this: Jackal’s journey made me face the reality that I am not that girl on her bike anymore. Begin human is the grand dance of alone and together. There are places we must go by ourselves; there are places we can only go with others. That’s what Jackal and I both learned in the last part of Solitaire.
There’s power and wonder in being alone. There’s power and wonder in finding our way to ourselves. And then we find our way to each other.