The Big Idea: Lynne Matson
Having just come back from a weeklong cruise that included stops at tropical islands, I can say they’re lovely to visit. But would I want to live there? Especially if I didn’t exactly choose to be there? It’s a question Lynne Matson considers in NIL — and here, she digs into the story behind a tropical paradise gone (possibly) wrong.
I can tell you the precise moment the idea for NIL fell into my head.
I had been in Hawaii (the Big Island) with my husband for all of thirty minutes. It was our first real vacation since the arrival of baby boy number four a few years earlier, and the lack of little Matson men under my charge was HUGE. It meant that as we got into our rental car, I didn’t have to wrangle anyone into a carseat, point out a passing bulldozer, or drive one-handed while I blindly fished around on the backseat for a wayward sippy cup (note: don’t do that; it’s NOT safe.) It meant that, for once, I could just look out the window, and relax. And think.
As we left the airport, we drove through miles of ancient lava fields. Broken red rock stretched endlessly both sides, gorgeous and desolate. There were no roads, no buildings, no people–only the eerie sound of wind blowing over the rocks. The silence pressed against us, powerful and real; it had a presence all its own. I specifically remember thinking how much the landscape looked like an alien planet, and thinking how creepy would it be to wake up there, alone, without a clue to tell you where you were? And what if you were a teenager, maybe one who wasn’t well-traveled? And what if–because let’s be honest, isn’t this every person’s worst nightmare?!-–you woke up naked?
NIL was born in that moment. That barren-red-rock visual locked in my head, and that’s what Charley sees when she first opens her eyes on the island of Nil. As soon as we checked into our hotel, I pulled out my laptop and my very-patient husband waited as I typed out the opening scenes of NIL.
From that point forward, the story exploded in my head with the island at the story’s core. I’ve always been fascinated with islands–and yes, I watched WAY too much Gilligan’s Island as a teen. (I was equally fascinated by Ginger’s perfect hair and the Professor’s inability to fashion a working raft even as he built a functioning receiver out of coconuts.) How could a three-hour-tour go so wrong?!
For me, islands offer the perfect mix of paradise and doom. The ocean provides a blatant and ever-present barrier to escape, but at the same time, beaches embody stunning natural beauty. The idea of being trapped in paradise gave me heaps of material to work with as I created the world of NIL . . . especially the idea of a dangerous paradise, one with cracks in the facade. What if there were other beasties trapped on the island too? Some friendly, some not so much? And of course, sometimes humans are the most dangerous creatures of all.
But let me clarify: NIL is not a contemporary Lord of the Flies re-telling; teenage savagery wasn’t my vision. Instead, my vision was one of teen survival: how do teens cling to their hope and humanity when faced with an expiration date?
I gave the teens in NIL a deadline, literally. They each have exactly one year–to escape the island, or die. It’s how the teens choose to spend those days that drives the book.
How do the teens adjust to the shock of arrival? How do they survive in a place they don’t understand, using skills they’ve never had to develop? Do they make connections with other teens, risk growing close to someone or falling in love, knowing that they might not have a future together? Do they choose to hope? Do they choose to help one another, or simply fend for themselves? How does the daily struggle to meet basic needs affect the teens’ broader hunger for understanding of the island itself? How do they fight the unknown? Or do they choose to fight at all? Do they give up? How do they cope every day with the knowledge their personal clock is winding down? I chose a veteran and a newcomer, and using a dual point of view, I worked though all of these questions and came up with different answers.
For all of us here, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. And yet, would you live differently if you knew that you had a finite number of days left to live: a year, perhaps less? And what if you might live–but then again, you might not. So for the teens on the island of Nil, death isn’t guaranteed, but neither is life. And if they do escape, they’ll have to live with the consequences of decisions made back on Nil. Time is a worthy adversary all its own. On Nil, time–especially the lack of it–colors every character’s decision, but each character makes very different choices. Some selfless, some selfish. Some perhaps, a mix of both.
In the end, NIL is a survival story. It’s also a story of love and friendship and above all, hope. Because without hope, we have nothing. Many of my characters felt that way too.
So if you find yourself on the island of Nil, hold your hope tight. Oh, and run. I’ll be rooting for you.