Oh, look at that, we have just enough time to get one more Big Idea in under the wire for 2013. The honor for the year’s final Big Idea goes to Shannon Page, with Eel River, which combines 70s communes with horror — one of which, at least, was experienced by the author directly…
“You should write a book about that!”
Who hasn’t heard such words, upon telling someone about their childhood on a commune, with goats and naked hippies and a pot garden and no electricity or indoor plumbing and…
Oh, is that just me?
I did indeed have an interesting childhood on “the Land,” and I am a writer, so of course I found the idea tempting. But there are plenty of really good hippie-kid memoirs out there, not to mention some really amazing fiction, such as Drop City by T.C. Boyle. And anyway, I’m a genre writer. I love a creepy story, something with a strong dose of unreality in it. Bizarre as the hippie lifestyle was (and don’t think we didn’t know it at the time), it still actually happened. So I really wasn’t sure how to write my own “true” story.
After a few false starts, I put the idea away and wrote other novels and short fiction filled with witches and fairies and demons and monsters. You know, good stuff.
Then one year I wanted to do NaNoWriMo—the National Novel Writing Month. My writer friends had all these great ideas for their own NaNoWriMo projects, but I was still dithering. Then, in one of those blinding moments of insight, I thought, What about “the Land” story…but with a monster?
And I was off and running. In NaNoWriMo, the goal is to write 50,000 words in a month—a little too short for a novel, but it would make a good start, if it was working; and I’d have only wasted a month, if it wasn’t.
The words poured out. With the barest of outlines, the whole story came alive for me, like no other fiction I’ve ever written. Having the world-building already so well taken care of, I was free to concentrate on the characters and the story. I reached 80,000 words and “the end” before the month was over, and the novel has needed very little editing since then.
Yes, I grabbed the setting and all the colorful details I could from my own life—but it is not, after all, the literal story of my childhood. It is, however, a true story. A story doesn’t have to be “true to life” to tell the truth about life. Genre fiction—fantastical fiction—can be an easier way of exploring and understanding real life than “mundane” fiction with its “factual” details in all their obscuring complexity. Eel River is about danger and fear and betrayal; about a little girl learning to confront uncertainty, and that grownups don’t always have all the answers. It’s about the failure of great ideas when confronted with on-the-ground realities and real people. It’s about the real issues of my childhood, even though these parents are not my parents, that brother is not my brother, and, of course, the actual Land did not contain a monster.
Well, not that monster, anyway.