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.


Deep Down: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog.  Follow her on Twitter.


15 Comments on “The Big Idea: Deb Coates”

  1. Speaking as a former Nebraskan, I think part of Western Nebraska’s lack of appeal is fatigue. If you are making the drive from Lincoln/Omaha to Denver/Cheyenne/farther west, you hit Western Nebraska about when you are very sick of being in a car on I-80. Actually going there as a destination (we once visited Ogallala and Scottsbluff on the way to Denver, taking a week to make the Lincoln-Denver trip, and made a separate trip of camping in the badlands near the South Dakota border) makes it rather different.

  2. My car once broke down in South Dakota on a cloudy, blustery November morning. It was beautiful, but exceptionally stark. I literally saw one tree, off in the distance. And one cow, looking at me pityingly. The winds just cut through my overcoat like it was a t-shirt.

    Let me tell you, I can imagine no better place for a ghost story than South Dakota.

  3. I’ll have to look into these. We farm, but are well aware that we’re a dying breed. I also like the idea of that second layer of space that’s sort of there, sort of not, but not in the way you expect. Thanks for putting me in the way of these books!

  4. I think I’m going to out myself as the friend of Deb’s who refers to her agricultural neepery as farm p0rn. A more writerly way of putting it is that, for this city boy, the way she reveals character through significant details about tractors and fields and cattle makes for strong, interesting writing. I loved WIDE OPEN (a current Stoker nominee for best first novel), and I’m delighted DEEP DOWN is out in the world.

  5. I like her theory on ideas. I have tons of small ideas that used to seem disconnected. Now though, I can see how they all build together into a much bigger idea than I ever realized. It’s taken about 2 years to notice they all fit together. But before that it was twenty or so years for me to recognize that I ever had ideas of any depth at all.

  6. @Becca I used to have that reaction when I first moved to Iowa and would have to drive down to Red Oak–long stretches of road where you could practically SEE where you wanted to go, but never seemed to get there.

    @Michael: I wrote a short story once about the cold and the wind in South Dakota because, yeah, it’s cold. Except when it’s hot.

    @Kate: I hope you enjoy them and that they read ‘right’ to you. I’ve found that though farming can involve different crops and livestock and land there’s a lot of it that’s the same no matter where you are.

  7. Er…That was me. Deb Coates masquerading as charmingbillie (my dog, FWIW–because she’s charming!). A couple of additional comments:

    @NeuroticChihuahua: I’d like a poster too! Personally, I love the colors in both the covers. Fantastic!

    @Impower You: I figure everyone’s got ideas. It’s figuring out what to do with them that’s hard.


  8. Way back in the middle of the last century, when I was a sophomore in college, I had a little poster showing a totally flat landscape with a single windmill on the horizon. It was captioned “Ski Nebraska”. I though it was hysterical. (I got better…)

  9. Would it be too much to ask that perhaps a Big Idea piece could give a reader a small, ever so slight, idea concerning what the novel is, uh, ABOUT? And the author describing Afghanistan with “has historically been a place people conquer on their way to someplace else” simply tells us that she knows nothing about the country.

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