The Big Idea: Janni Lee Simner
Janni Lee Simner’s latest novel Faerie Winter features a world in change — moving from state of being to another in a way that’s both dramatic and unprecedented. But how to tell of that dramatic change, especially when the writer’s own personal experience with the sort of change being described is vastly different? For Simner, it meant going deeper, and taking a closer look at the world she lived in.
JANNI LEE SIMNER:
I began writing Faerie Winter during the early scorching days of a desert summer–dragon season, when the sun stings my eyes, the hot wind caresses my skin, and any object left too long in the sun (seatbelts and steering wheels included) can turn hot enough to raise blisters when touched.
The book is, of course, about winter. Because the universe has a sense of humor that way.
Not an ordinary winter, either, but the protagonist–Liza’s–first real winter. Faerie Winter is a sequel to Bones of Faerie, and Bones of Faerie was set in a world where the deciduous trees–trees that had developed a taste for human blood and bone during the war with Faerie–were now always green, no matter how cold the air.
In Faerie Winter those trees drop their leaves at last, and sixteen-year-old Liza is faced with winter’s endless gray for the first time. Most of us believe instinctively that gray winter will give way to green spring eventually. We’ve seen it happen, year after year, all our lives–as Liza, who struggles to believe in spring, has not.
Except … that transformation from gray to green isn’t a desert transformation, either. Winter isn’t the season where we feel cabin fever here in Tucson. It’s a season of bright green plants that soak up the desert rains, of gray skies that only last a day or two at a time. It’s a season when we long to be outdoors.
So as I wrote, I did all I could to remember different seasons, the seasons of my more deciduous childhood and young adulthood. While I slathered on sunscreen, I thought of how one winter, when I lived in the Midwest, the sun didn’t come out for three weeks straight. While I pulled on my broad-brimmed sunhat, I thought of what it was like to have wind bite through my scarf and gloves, to feel like no matter what I did, I could never get my feet warm. While the swamp cooler strained to cool my house and even my computer seemed to give off far too much heat, I dug through my old photos, and searched Flickr for terms like “snow Missouri,” and asked lots of questions of friends living in more northern climes.
Eventually the dry dragon’s breath air of early summer gave way to monsoon-season stickiness of late summer, and I developed the desert version of cabin fever: an increasing reluctance to go outside, an increasing impatience with all the small hassles of day-to-day life, an increasing desire to estivate until, say, November. In June, I love and welcome the desert heat. By August–well, by August nothing anyone says around here should be taken too seriously, because by then we’re all thoroughly tired of the heat and of each other. We’re ready for the weather to break, for a new season to come.
Sounds … familiar. Sounds pretty much like how I once felt when I went three weeks without seeing the sun.
Understanding winter isn’t really about describing gray sky and white snow in sufficient detail. It’s about remembering what winter feels like, deep down, about remembering the bone-numbing despair that can make us fear that better days are never really going to come.
Really, summer in southern Arizona was the perfect time to write this book.
Really, that sort of despair can come in any season and in any clime.
But harsh seasons aren’t only about despair, in Liza’s world or in ours. I know people who leave Tucson before summer begins and return only after it ends. I understand why they do, but I also feel like they’re missing something. Summer here is difficult, sure, but that doesn’t mean I’d want to skip it entirely; my year would feel strangely incomplete if I did that. I’ve heard friends say the same thing about their snowy gray winters. They struggle with winter, but they love it, too, and claim they couldn’t live further south because they’d miss it too much.
Even Liza can appreciate her winter: the bright glint of sun on ice, the unexpected freedom of walking safely in a forest that all her life has sought her blood. I wonder, sometimes, how long it will take her to see gray as an expected part of her year, too–and if she’ll ever believe, as so many of us instinctively believe, that of course spring will come.