Often times reading a book is the closest you can come to an experience without being there yourself. But can writing the book pull off the same sort of trick? Let’s ask Sarah Beth Durst, whose latest novel, Vessel, took shape at first because of a yearn to travel — or at the very least, to be elsewhere than she was. It didn’t stop there, of course…
SARAH BETH DURST:
I chose to write Vessel because I wanted to walk across a desert.
Some people might have booked a plane ticket and packed a suitcase. But I don’t like being hot, I don’t like sand, and I’m about as athletically inclined as a garden gnome. Minus the beard.
I think of it like choosing the next travel destination on my armchair traveler itinerary. I’d written about the Arctic a couple years ago and immersed myself in a world of ice. This time, I wanted to live in a world of sun and heat and sand.
But not just any desert. It had to be a fantasy desert (because that’s the way my mind works — I was the kid who would always check her closet for an entrance to Narnia, who would always put “magic wand” on her birthday wish list, and who would always memorize where she put her stuffed animals so she’d catch them if/when they moved… I probably shouldn’t admit that last one). So my initial brainstorming went a little like this:
ME: I want to write about a desert.
MY BRAIN: Sure. So long as I can write in air conditioning.
ME: But I want more than sand. Beaches have sand. Sandboxes have sand.
MY BRAIN: How about wolves made of sand? And dragons. No, not dragons, sky serpents! Made of unbreakable glass! And gods and goddesses that walk the earth inside the bodies of humans! And a trickster god! And a young emperor in a glorious palace! And desert horses! And monstrous worms! Mwah-hah-hah!
ME: You know we need a story too, right?
MY BRAIN: Oh. Right.
I found the story one night. It was the perfect night: a crescent moon, a cool breeze, and me snoring (or, as I prefer to call it, “breathing”) on my pillow. Yes, as cheesy as it sounds, the key to Vessel came to me in a dream.
I dreamed about a girl dancing. She had long, black hair and silk skirts that flowed around her as she swirled. Her feet were bare, and she was dancing on sand with the moon above her. I was the girl. And I was dancing wildly, joyfully. As I danced, I knew that when the dance ended, I was going to die.
When I woke up, I couldn’t stop thinking about that girl. I didn’t know why she was dancing, why she was going to die, or why, knowing that, she would feel so joyful and free.
In answering those questions, I found my Big Idea.
In this desert land with wolves made of sand that hunt inside storms and sky serpents made of unbreakable glass that guard mountains, every clan has its own god or goddess. Once every hundred years, the clan’s deity claims a human body and uses it to work the magic that fills the wells, revitalizes the oases, and increases the herds. Without this infusion of magic, the clan will wither and die.
Liyana has been chosen to give her body to her clan’s goddess. She doesn’t want to die, of course, but she is willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of her clan and especially for the sake of her four-year-old brother. She begins the ceremony to summon her goddess…
… but her goddess doesn’t come.
Vessel is a story about losing your destiny and what happens after.
For me, for Vessel, the Big Idea didn’t come as a lightning strike. It came as sparks that fused together. I think that’s how the creative process works a lot of the time – or at least that’s how it works for me. You start with a stray thought, a whim even, “I want to write about a desert.” You prod it, twist it, stretch it, add to it, tear it up and sew it back together, toss in a few dreams, mix it up with bits of your soul… and then suddenly, magically, after a lot of typing and a lot of chocolate, you have your story, and you are walking across a desert with a girl who’s trying to save a goddess.