The Big Idea: Alexandra Coutts
It’s the end of the world as we know it. How do you feel? This is the question Alexandra Coutts has to confront in her novel Tumble & Fall. Getting to the right answer for her book was more difficult than you might expect.
Finding the Big Idea behind Tumble & Fall was, in many ways, the experience of fighting the “Big Idea,” tooth and nail. I had decided to write a book about “the end of the world,” so, clearly, I was starting from a pretty high-concept place. But beyond that, I knew from the get-go that I wanted to shrink it all down—the characters and how they spend their final earthly days—as much as possible.
It would have been easy to jump to that “big” place right away. An asteroid is heading straight for earth. Three teenagers risk everything to save the world as we know it—for example.
Instead, I spent a great deal of time thinking about what the end of the world would actually look and feel like, particularly in the days leading up to an asteroid strike. As a member of the general, mostly-asteroid-science-ignorant public (as opposed to the daughter of an astronaut, or some such…) what would we know about what to expect, if the end of days were truly near? Would there be any hope for survival?
I started by checking in with the Internet. (In the absence of an astronaut parent, wouldn’t the Internet be the first place we’d turn?) I learned that if our planet were to collide with an asteroid big enough to do severe and lasting damage, chances are that the point of impact would land in the ocean. The force of impact would send massive tsunamis rippling out in all directions, quickly followed by a giant cloud of fire and ash and debris. Anything (or anyone) not destroyed by the initial waves of water or dislodged chunks of flaming earth, would be deprived of sunlight in the dusty aftermath, indefinitely.
As far as surviving goes, it wasn’t looking good.
Next, I started asking questions: What would these scenarios, these conjectures, these odds, do to the way we lived our final days? How would we start to think differently about the natural world? What it would feel like to be outside, at night, under a star-studded sky? How terrifying would it suddenly feel to be near the ocean, when we knew that it could so quickly turn against us?
I also wanted to think about how our relationships would change with each other. Since I was writing a book for Young Adults, I knew early on that one big tension would be the pull of family vs. the desire to spend time with friends. This is one of my strongest memories of adolescence: negotiating the family/friend balance. How much more intense would that social tug feel if there were only a limited number of family dinners left? If every party with friends you were invited to could be the very last? It may seem trivial, in the face of total destruction, but as a teenager, when everything feels like “the end of the world” to some degree, each moment you spend away from the person you want to be spending it with can feel apocalyptic.
I thought a lot about death, and the afterlife. Most of us, by the time we are sixteen or seventeen, have already lost somebody we love. How would we feel about those people, those losses, if we knew that, in very short order, life could be over for the rest of us, too? No matter our religious beliefs, I imagined we would feel closer to our dead, and perhaps even hopeful that we might see them again. Hopeful that the end would also be a beginning, physically, or spiritually, or, at the very least, emotionally, as we made our peace with those left around us.
And that’s where my Big Idea caught up with me, in the end. Hope. A book about the end of the world without hope would be just as insufferable to read as it would have been for me to write. I knew my characters weren’t going to be shooting off into space to deflect an asteroid, sacrificing themselves to science in exchange for the promise of a better tomorrow. But I also knew I wanted them to never give up hope. I wanted them to never stop believing that what they did in their final hours mattered, on some scale, big or small. Even if it was just a family dinner, or a party on the beach with their friends. Each of my characters would choose to live while they still had the chance.
It’s what I would do. I hope.