In talking about her new novel Nightspell for the Big Idea, author Leah Cypess gets a little meta… about the concept of a big idea, and how it relates to writing books, and, of course, specifically this one. And while this sort of recursive examination of big ideas is interesting, considering the context, what it also reveals in a larger sense is how writers can change their approach to writing over the years, and how those changes can benefit the writing. Cypess takes it from here.
When I was a teenager, I was not a believer in Big Ideas in fiction. I wanted my books to tell me good stories and keep me entertained and that was enough; I had plenty of school time for, you know, learning things. When my English teachers talked about how books had to have themes, or even character development, I sighed, rolled my eyes, and went back to reading my father’s collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs books.
I did like intricate plots, though – I read Agatha Christie even more often than Edgar Rice Burroughs – so when I started writing Nightspell at the age of 17, its Big Idea was purely about plot. What if there was a society where murder victims came back as ghosts to try and solve their murders? What would a murder mystery written in that society look like?
I wrote about 50 pages of that book, longhand in a spiral-bound blue notebook, before I ran out of steam. The characters never crystallized and the plot spiraled downward in a series of unnecessary complications. Eventually I gave it up and started writing something new.
It took ten years for me to open that notebook again; and during that time, my tastes in fiction had changed. I still think the primary purpose of a story is to entertain… but I also think it can do more than that. I had been won over to the Big Idea concept.
Nightspell is a book that I probably would never have written if not for a Church & State seminar I took almost a decade after that first attempt. It was one of the best classes I took in law school, and only partly because the professor decided to hold it in his living room (with an awesome view of the Hudson) and provided doughnuts. The class was small and discussion-oriented, and since it was on a Friday morning, the students who enrolled did so because they were sincerely interested in the subject.
My fellow classmates included Mormons, Catholics, agnostics, and undecided; if I recall correctly, two of them had formerly studied to be priests. (I was the only woman and one of the only two Jews in the class; when we went around the room on the first day, I solemnly began my introduction with, “I have never studied to be a priest.”) One of the subjects that came up often was the mutual exclusivity of various religious beliefs, and the discussions were honest and unsparing. One of the agnostics maintained that the only way for Americans to live in harmony is for us to all agree on everything (not surprisingly, he thought we should all be agnostics). Others argued that it is possible – though difficult – to believe people are completely wrong, and that there are terrible consequences for their wrongness, but to respect their beliefs anyhow.
When I finally re-opened that blue notebook, these questions were still living in my mind. I didn’t intend for them to make their way into my fantasy murder mystery, but as I began writing the book again from scratch, I found myself being drawn deeper into the implications of what would happen to those ghosts who didn’t find vengeance, whose spirits were never laid to rest. Killers would begin taking care to hide their identities from their victims, so the legions of ghosts would grow larger and larger: a mass of unchanging, immortal people who didn’t fit into anyone’s beliefs about the places of the living and the dead. Eventually, they would overtake and threaten the living, creating a two-tiered society with suspicion and prejudices on both sides. To many of my characters, ghosts are wronged creatures who shouldn’t be forced to exist at all… and here’s the thing: they’re not wrong. Or at least, not entirely. So how do they deal with a society designed to accommodate beings who shouldn’t be there in the first place?
In the end, Nightspell is a combination of two ideas. The book is still set in the world of vengeance-seeking ghosts that stuck in my mind for over ten years, still a murder mystery with princes and swordfights and tangled family relationships. But it’s more than that, this time around; it’s about prejudice, and acceptance, and conflicting worldviews. And now that I see what it turned into, I’m really glad I closed that notebook at the age of 17 and didn’t reopen it until the Big Idea was ready.