The Big Idea: Laura Lam
Sometimes, in the telling of the life of a character, it’s not just what the author reveals that’s important, but also the when — that is, when in the life of the character the author focuses her attention. So Laura Lam learned while considering the main character of her novel, Pantomime. She’s here now to give you the fuller picture.
A caveat: I hmmed and haad for a time on the subject of the post, wondering whether or not to discuss the “twist” of the story or hedge around it. I could discuss my fascination with the many interests that fed Pantomime and its world—the circus, the Victorian era, a dying empire, the line between technology and magic—but the world was not the initial “Big Idea” that led to writing Pantomime. It was the character of Micah Grey and his story. So instead of skirting around it, I’m going in: HERE BE SPOILERS (of something found out 25% into the novel).
The character of Micah Grey appeared first, in around 2007, and the world of Ellada and the Archipelago grew around him. I was apprehensive and scared that I wouldn’t be able to do the character justice: I didn’t know much about the experience of being intersex.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, intersex encompasses a spectrum of sexual development conditions. Some call these Disorders of Sexual Development/Differentiation (DSDs). There are more than a dozen types of these “disorders,” and some say that it is about as common as red hair (source: The BBC documentary Me, My Sex, and I). People who are intersex should not be called hermaphrodites, as it is considered a politically incorrect and misleading term.
For quite a while, I didn’t write about Micah Grey. I wrote some other stories and some poems. But I kept thinking about him, niggling at his background, hopes, and dreams like a loose tooth. I researched a lot, from the history of intersex people in the Victorian era to the present. I watched documentaries and I read interviews. After a year, I knew he wasn’t going to go away and his was the story I needed to tell, so I tried.
But I didn’t start with Pantomime.
I started with Micah Grey as a 27-year-old, and I have about 80,000 words of a manuscript with a more mature, world-weary person that I will re-visit one day. I was 19 at the time, and kept struggling to tap into his voice. In December 2009, when working in a very boring filing job after I’d graduated university (I’d studied creative writing after all; it was all I could get), I started thinking about Micah’s backstory as a teenager. I decided to write a short story about Micah Grey before he was Micah: when he was the daughter of a noble family named Iphigenia (Gene) Laurus, and how he would leave that life behind to become Micah Grey, the newest aerialist of the circus.
As you might have guessed, it didn’t stay a short story. As soon as I started writing 16-year-old Gene/Micah, it all clicked into place. That’s not to say that the first draft of Pantomime was perfect—it was far from it—but I had found both sides of Micah Grey: both his and her voice. Micah was a teenager trying to find himself, walking the tightrope between childhood and adulthood and between genders.
Initially, I wrote the book chronologically, but during a rewrite I split the narrative. In spring, Gene’s life of afternoon tea parties and debutante balls is contrasted against Micah Grey’s rougher life in summer as the newest member of the circus, where everyone is hiding a secret or three.
Pantomime is set in a fantasy world, with a pseudo-Victorian setting and advanced technology left behind by a long-vanished civilization, called the Alder. The Alder and the mythical beings they created called Chimaera are long gone, or are meant to be. Pantomime is set in a circus with aerialists, fire eaters, equestriennes, a ringmaster, and a freakshow with a four-legged woman and a strongman who reads philosophy.
While Pantomime is set in this world, the big idea is that every character in my book at some point feels like an outsider, or a freak, but they can also find a place they call home, if they can find the courage to take it.