For today’s Big Idea, Chrysler Szarlan, author of The Hawley Book of the Dead, is here to explain a bit about running, about making one’s peace with haunted forests, and why one should avoid white vans that appear in unexpected places.
The way I write, big ideas kind of explode in my head every so often, and give shape to the book or story I’m working on. Like fireworks on the 4th of July. Sometimes you have to wait for the next one, sometimes they all come one after the other, pop, pop, pop.
When I began The Hawley Book of the Dead, my first big idea was to run away. That’s the long and the short of it. I was looking for an escape from the novel I was writing at the time, which had started bleeding creepily into my own life, producing fires, floods, and crazy people chasing me with knives (for real, not only in my nightmares). My big idea was to stop that book from becoming TOO REAL AND SCARY. So I rode my horse into the New England forest, which is where I look for ideas. And the main character of The Hawley Book of the Dead, a woman searching for her missing twin daughters, began speaking to me.
Soon, I learned that she was running away, too. That was the next big idea, that my character was running as fast as I was. Running away from a killer who was stalking her. A killer who was responsible for the death of her husband. So she fled with her daughters from Las Vegas, where she had been a famous illusionist, to the place I always felt safest: to the middle of the Hawley Forest. I discovered that Hawley had been the home of her ancestors, a family of women with special powers. Yet another pop of an idea. So I went with those glimmers of story.
Now, Hawley is a real place. A town of 300 people, bisected by this huge state forest. And it is as creepy and beautiful as the town in my book. It has a cemetery smack in the middle of it. It has old cellar holes aplenty. At one time, it held a few hundred people, farmers of the rocky soil. Now it is deserted. And eerie. There are ghost cows there, roaming the wide roads. I have seen them. They made their way into my book.
So how is it that I, and my heroine, Reve, feel safe in this haunted place, where there is a tension between the otherworldly and this world? How is it that we are both comforted by that?
I found that Reve had grown up riding her horse in the forest. She’d grown up in these haunted New England woods, and had made her peace with them. Just like me. She discovered that if you make friends with the spirits around you, you need have no fear of them, and also, that they just might protect you. That’s what I felt all my years of riding and walking and skiing that forest. I felt it would protect me, because I knew it. I felt the pulse of it, I knew it like the back of my hand, every inch of trail, every crumbling rock wall. I knew its terrors and its beauties, and I appreciated them all. I still feel safer there than in my suburban house, surrounded by people.
Reve at times in the book thinks the feeling of safety might be an illusion, her sense of credulity stretched thin, especially when her daughters go missing. Are they being protected by the forest spirits, as she sometimes thinks? Or are they dead, after all, killed by her stalker? It was a fine line to walk, a fine line to try to write.
But then I remembered the white van. You see, you can drive into the Hawley Forest, as well as ride or walk. Hunting is permitted. Most times when I saw a Jeep or a pickup truck, I’d think nothing of it, just turn my horse to let it pass. But in the fall of 2008, just around the time I started the Hawley book, I began seeing a white van driving the forest. And every time I saw it, some instinct made me plunge off the trail, into the woods, coaxing my little horse down into cellar holes even, so as not to be seen. It happened three or four times, over a period of about a month. To this day, I have no idea if the driver of the white van was evil, but that’s what I FELT. And I still believe the spirits of the forest guided me, helped me, at that time. Turned me from some kind of bad intentions.
So the transmutation of experience into fiction began. My big ideas of escape, then of finding protection in the forest, were written into the warp and weft of the book. I ran from one novel, to another novel. But the second novel gave me, and my characters, the protection of the forest to fall back on.
I can’t explain it, I only know I feel it, and that Reve feels it. We believe in magic in the real world, because we’ve been saved by it. That’s our big idea. We run from peril, to the forest place. Not spooky to us. We are New Englanders, after all.