The Big Idea: Karen Healey
The unexpected: When it happens in books, it’s interesting. When it happens in real life it’s interesting too, although not always in the same way. During the writing of her highly praised novel The Shattering (“an intense and powerful novel,” wrote Publishers Weekly, in a starred review), author Karen Healey found herself captivated by the unexpected — both in how it affected the characters in her books, and how she found it suddenly having its effects in her own life.
I didn’t set out to monetize my crazy.
I didn’t even know I was crazy.
I was just lying in bed one morning, idly thinking through all the things that might happen that day and working out how to deal with them, reminding myself that I had to restock the painkillers in my go-bag and check the expiry date on my emergency kit water bottles, and rehearsing my parents’ eulogies just in case I would be called upon to make them at short notice, when I had my Big Idea for my second novel.
“Hey!” I thought. “What if there was a character who plans the way I do for horrible events that might happen? And something happens that she hasn’t planned for! Something awful, something really awful. A dead parent?
“No, Karen, everyone plans for that, don’t be silly, what’s something they don’t plan for? A sibling’s death? A sibling who commits suicide unexpectedly? Hmm. Her older brother killed himself with her father’s shotgun, and she hadn’t planned for it, and it’s upset her entire world.
“But! What if someone tells her it was actually murder? What if she had a plan to deal with murder, one that involved finding out who it was, and revenging herself on them? Okay, but why would someone suspect a murder – unless something similar had happened to them. Maybe there’s a whole bunch of unexpected suicides that aren’t. Of older brothers.
“And what if the murders don’t have natural causes? What if something sinister and supernatural is going on that a logical approach to a rational world can’t deal with? Oh wow, that would be so rough on someone who needs to plan for everything.”
I figured out most of the plot while I was lying in bed that morning. It all came from that first Big Idea, of someone who planned and prepared for horror, and was horrified when plans and preparation weren’t enough.
Someone like me.
But of course Keri wasn’t really like me. She was a biracial teenager from a low-income family who wasn’t afraid of physical violence and loved sports. I was a white woman in my late twenties who shied away from physical confrontation and thought that sports were doubtless very nice for those who enjoyed them. I had far more in common with the other two narrators; smart, book-loving Sione and showy, confident Janna.
Months later, well after I’d completed the first drafts, I ended up in a counsellor’s office. I’d spent weeks unable to sleep properly. I was afraid of everything: afraid of flying; afraid that my friends and family would die; afraid that I would be kicked out of university for being stupid; afraid that my first book was incredibly racist and would hurt people; afraid of earthquakes and fires and floods; afraid that every choice I had made to bring me to this point was wrong.
Twisting my hands together, I confessed to a nice woman that I thought I might have generalized anxiety disorder. (I’d looked it up beforehand. It’s important to be prepared!)
She agreed, gently, that I might.
Unlike anyone who’d spent much time around me prior to that point, I was genuinely shocked.
It wasn’t that I thought mental disorders were nonsense. My youngest brother has anxiety and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with autistic tendencies, and many friends have been diagnosed with clinical depression or bipolar disorder. When people implied that depression could be defeated by cheering up and getting a hobby, or that ADHD was caused by bad parenting, I got rightfully riled.
But when it came to the disjointed state of my own brain, surely it wasn’t a genuine problem, right? I really wasn’t trying hard enough! If I could stop being so lazy and think things through more carefully and make a stronger effort to be a better person, then I could control everything and the feeling of being constantly overwhelmed would just go away.
I can’t control everything. I can’t make myself neurotypical through sheer willpower. And no matter how hard I plan or how many preparations I make, the unexpected will always, eventually, happen.
It probably won’t involve black magic, though, which is an advantage I have over Keri.
The Shattering is a book about families; about the ones we are born into, and the ones we make, and the ones that make us. It’s a book about small town communities, about the steps adults will take to keep children safe, and the steps teenagers will take to make adults do the right thing. It’s a book about the cost of magic, and the clashes of cultural identity, and the sheer, terrifying beauty of New Zealand’s West Coast.
It’s also a book about what can happen if your conception of your town, your family, and your self is shattered.
And it’s about what you can do with the pieces afterwards.
I kind of lied up there; my Big Idea wasn’t really the point where Keri’s preparation for the worst failed to be enough. I began the book after her brother’s suicide, when the shattering of her world had already taken place.
What was most interesting to me, and I hope, interesting to my readers, is what she and her friends did next.