The Big Idea: Deb Coates
If you don’t have one Big Idea, is enough to have several standard-sized ideas, and then let them build? It’s the question Deborah Coates asks and answers today, in reference to her latest novel Deep Down. Let’s find out what happens.
I’m not sure I’m the sort of person who has Big Ideas. Frankly, I’m more the sort who gets an idea, can’t figure out what to do with it, sits on it forever, gets another idea, and another, and maybe even another. None of them big enough for a story on their own, but each a bit interesting–to me, if no one else. Those ideas sit in my back brain, never quite gone, until someday it occurs to me–hey, I could put a bunch of these together!
Deep Down is my second published novel. My first novel, Wide Open, introduced fictional Taylor county, South Dakota, and the characters Hallie Michaels and Boyd Davies. One of the things I wanted to explore in the series as a whole was the idea of liminal spaces.
Hallie Michaels was dead for seven minutes in Afghanistan. Since then, she’s occupied a liminal space between life and death. She still walks and talks and does everything the living do, but ghosts follow her and she sees things and is able to do things that no one else sees or can do.
South Dakota occupies a liminal space, too. It’s not the rolling green hills and rich farmland of Iowa or Illinois. But it’s not quite the West, or at least not the West of American myth, of cowboys and cattle and mountain ranges. South Dakota is just…South Dakota–a few interesting bits with lots of empty space between.
Afghanistan, where Hallie died and came back, has historically been a place people conquer on their way to someplace else, often more important for where it leads than where it is.
In addition, Deep Down, as the second book in a set of three, also occupies a liminal space, not the beginning, nor yet the conclusion, but the dreaded ‘middle book.’
So that was the first idea–liminal spaces.
For the second idea, it helps to know something about me: I grew up on a farm at the end of a dead-end gravel road ten miles out of town. I liked growing up on a farm. I liked showing cattle at the county fair. I liked going to a small school in a small town. I went to the Ag college at Cornell and majored in Animal Science and I got a Master’s degree from the University of New Hampshire in Plant Science (more specifically, in forages and nutrition). But I don’t farm. I don’t live on a farm. Hardly anyone else in the US does either (Only about 2% of the US population live on farms and most of those farms are not the owners’ primary source of income). I wanted to write about that, about living and working on farms and ranches and about what goes on in those parts of the US where the Interstates don’t run. A friend of mine calls it ‘farm porn;’ so, yeah, that’s Deep Down too–farm porn.
Twenty-some years ago, I moved to Iowa. I didn’t particularly want to move to Iowa or, in fact, any state that started with a vowel, but I wanted a job and that was where the job was. What I knew about Iowa at that point in my life was that it was flat and ugly and full of tornados and blizzards. The day I moved to Ames it was 102 degrees.
Ten years later, I drove through western Nebraska and found myself thinking, I don’t know why everyone says western Nebraska is boring, because, holy smokes, it’s beautiful! You could see miles in every direction! There were no trees in the way! How could that not be awesome?
In Deep Down, Hallie doesn’t want to be in Taylor county and she doesn’t want to stay there, but it’s where she is and she has to figure out exactly what that means and, more important, what she really wants.
Finally, big things happen at the end of Wide Open. And though I hadn’t initially planned on it, it didn’t make sense that those big things wouldn’t reverberate for the characters and for the world. In addition–and I realized this after I’d written and revised and handed the manuscript off to my agent–whatever was happening in Deep Down had to affect not just Hallie and Boyd, but the world. I wanted it to be an intimate story–one that affected the characters at a personal level–but it couldn’t just be that story, not after they’d lived through the events of Wide Open. The threat had to be bigger. And the bigger threat, it turned out, related straight back to the past.
So, Deep Down has lots of ideas, which I hope work together and maybe add up to a Big Idea. It’s about liminal spaces. It’s about the consequences of what’s gone before. It’s about empty places and the people who live there. And it’s–or at least the series is–about making a home out of where you live because you live there.
Oh, and ghosts. It’s got ghosts, too.