The Big Idea: Kathe Koja
To dance well requires two things: skill, the ability to feel and match the tempo, swell, or skitter of the music; and rhythm, the capacity to just let go and trust that music to lead you away. When we consider the waltz, the first seems to make perfect sense for a dance of such structure and formality. (Although the Times of London once “remarked with pain” on that “indecent foreign dance called the Waltz … the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies …” Yowza! Twerk that, Vienna!) But the second, the letting-go – how so?
As on the dance floor, so at the desk . . . Under the Poppy, that tale of wild Victorian love, betrayal, and reunion, came to me as a passionate surprise. After eight YA novels, the grown-ups were definitely back onstage, tossing dark confetti and parading their dangerous puppets all around. As that novel came to its close, I felt a large and definite pang—goodbye, grimy, lovely, intricate world.
But such a fully theatrical story seemed to beckon for a matching adaptation. So, in company with some very talented actors and collaborators, I wrote and directed a series of immersive (were they ever) performances. Here’s a look at the shows leading up to the grand performance in a Victorian mansion. Writing the scripts and assembling the creative ensemble was a new way of viewing that world of the brothel, its characters and desperations and desires.
But the music was still playing.
The Mercury Waltz is a manner of accidental sequel, nothing I intended to write, nothing I even knew was available to write, until the Poppy came to what I thought was its end. Then that big pile of unused notes, those phrases and sketches, that research, reached a sudden accretion, as if a door had been opened, a turning made to show an entire, and entirely vivid, new bend in the road for those gentlemen of the road, stalwart Rupert and winking Istvan: and the new young gentlemen whose paths cross theirs, the stubborn, poetic, provincial writer Frédéric-Seraphim Blum and the slippery street sharpster Haden St.-Mary, alongside a fierce and mystical young lady called Tilde, whose blue eyes I saw with an immediacy just as vivid and intense. And their histories, their fears and longings, their hopes, all converged in an aged city on the fatal cusp of change, a place as jittery as badly-tuned clockwork, as bright and false as paste jewels in a mercantile window, a city where a theatre called for Mercury, that god of commerce and tricksters, opens its doors to show the populace some jolly, strange, and truthful puppet plays.
Which is where the dance comes in, and the letting-go.
If, from the beginning, I had suspected that this story was so large, much larger than I guessed in its conception, and so emotionally complicated, that it needed more than one book to tell it, would I have been bold enough to begin? Or would I have backed away in doubt: A sequel? What if I forget plot points, or mix up chronology, what if I don’t have the stamina? What if … If I had considered only the demands on my skills—the long patience required to keep walking, tussling, finding the way, the painstaking attention to be sure no threads were dropped or characters confused (and yes, I used a lot of sticky notes)—the whole project could have been stillborn.
But when the brothel closed, the Mercury Theatre opened, its music gone tinkling and mechanical and fey; and I trusted that music, and I let go. And waltzed.
And now the book is done, and the dance is ready for you to join, as the story of these men, these heroes, continues. And not only in the linear sense of travels accomplished, friends met and dangers faced: for as much as it’s a story of this new city and those new battles and loves, The Mercury Waltz is at its heart the continuing exploration of the shared life of Istvan and Rupert, the pains they carry, and the losses, and the wishes, the boyish glee and professional pride, the whole world their stage and themselves their sweetest audience. They learn what they learn, or cannot learn, from those pains and that sweetness, they keep playing the puppets as the music plays on.