The Big Idea: Matthew J. Kirby
Sometimes the big idea when the author starts a book isn’t the same big idea that the author finishes with. Matthew Kirby had this experience with his Viking fantasy Icefall — somewhere between the first and last words of the tale, some telling particulars had changed… and so had the story. Kirby tells you now about the process of discovery, and Icefall’s journey to find its true self.
MATTHEW J. KIRBY:
When I wrote my first novel, The Clockwork Three, I had a clear sense of the big idea, or rather ideas, going in, and the shape of the book changed very little once I began writing it. Not so with my second novel, Icefall, into which I went with one big idea, but emerged with another.
It all began with a dream, which isn’t as clichéd or mystical as it might sound. At the time, I was reading my friend Rebecca Barnhouse’s manuscript for her novel The Coming of the Dragon, a retelling of a portion of the epic Beowulf. Rebecca so clearly evoked the Scandinavian world of Geats and Danes that I had Vikings plundering my thoughts, and apparently my sleep. I don’t normally remember my dreams, but this one was particularly vivid and haunting. In the dream, I saw three children clinging to each other in the courtyard of a fortress situated in a remote fjord. It was winter, bone-achingly cold, and an army of Viking warriors approached the earthen fortress walls. I knew the warriors had been sent to protect the children, and yet the children were terrified of them. I woke up as the army entered through the fortress gate, and I was left with a lingering claustrophobia and a fear that felt almost paranoid.
Upon waking, I began to ask questions, as writers do. Who were the children? Why were they there in that place? Who were the warriors, and if they were the good guys, why were the children afraid of them?
The answers to these questions led me to Solveig, the plain and undervalued second daughter of a Viking king. In Icefall, Solveig is sent with her brother and sister to a remote hall for their protection during a time of war, along with a few trusted servants and a company of her father’s elite berserker warriors. Winter descends upon the outpost, walling them in with ice and snow. But it soon becomes apparent that an assassin has been sealed in with them, and the traitor could be any one of them. With no way in or out until the summer thaw, and no way of knowing whom to trust, it is up to Solveig to uncover the truth and help her siblings survive the winter.
I thought that was the big idea of the book. A dark, claustrophobic, Viking survival tale.
And then it came time to write the scene I’d dreamed about, and something unexpected happened. From between the berserker warriors emerged a character that I hadn’t known anything about when I conceived of the story. The king’s skald, or bard, had accompanied the berserkers to the fortress without my knowing it, and his presence changed everything. I had thought that over the course of the novel, Solveig would prove her worth to others and herself by saving her siblings from an assassin. But I learned that Solveig would also, and perhaps more importantly, become a skald, inspired and tutored by the man who sneaked into my book. Solveig would not only learn to tell stories, but to wield her stories as weapons to survive, and would ultimately use their power to save her loved ones.
Suddenly I had a new big idea. A bigger big idea. Icefall became a story about story. It is about the power of story to entertain, to comfort, to anger, to frighten, and to incite. It is about the stories we tell each other, but also tell ourselves. It is about truth, and lies, and the way we all use story to organize and give meaning to our lives.