The Big Idea: David Ebenbach
Can I admit that ideas make me nervous? Especially big ones?
This isn’t to say that my fiction avoids ideas—my current novel, How to Mars, explores some pretty hefty notions.
On one level, it’s about a dubious one-way mission to Mars and the reality show that funds it. It’s also about the first off-Earth pregnancy, which happens in spite of a mission rule against sex. (If this sounds far-fetched, check out Mars One, the real-world project that inspired me.)
On another level, How to Mars is about how we’re meant to live our lives in a universe that offers us very little in the way of consistent and sensible instruction, and about how none of us can escape our past even if we travel millions of miles, and about how human nature is human nature no matter what planet we’re on.
So there are plenty of ideas there. But I had to more or less sneak up on them. Especially the deeper ones, like the nature of human nature and how to live life and so on. I couldn’t start the novel with them—not if I wanted the project to succeed.
I should mention that I have, in my metaphorical closet, seven unpublished novels, dating all the way back to college. None of these books will ever see the light of day, and they shouldn’t. They’re not good. And for the most part they’re not good because I went into most of them with a big idea right from the beginning. Can a person appear sane but not be? What would it look like to allegorically retell the story of Exodus through a person’s experience of grief? What if the United States of America was personified as a character? Et cetera. These may or may not be interesting ideas, but, because I started with them (as opposed to an image or a character or a situation), my books fell apart under their own considerable weight. Any reader could tell that I was straining to MAKE A POINT. Rather than writing in order to get to know the world of my novel or the people who lived in it, I was writing from an intellectual place. I was pontificating instead of storytelling. Thinking instead of fictioning.
For me, the characters and the story have to come first. I have to focus on those elements and just trust that, as long as I don’t strain too hard and ruin things, the book will naturally be shaped by ideas that intrigue me. This is what I meant by sneaking up on ideas.
For example, as I said above, I started writing How to Mars because of the Mars One Project, a crazy (and possibly fraudulent) plan to send people on a one-way trip to Mars, funded by a reality TV show, and with one rule: nobody was allowed to have sex on Mars. A project like this raises questions. Like, who would ever volunteer for that kind of a mission? Who would want to leave Earth forever? Well, apparently lots of folks—I watched many videos from applicants for the Mars One Project, and it looked like there was no shortage of people ready to skip out on this planet. It was the watching of those videos that launched my own book—not by giving me an idea but by suggesting characters. Above all, Josh and Jenny, the parents of the Martian baby-to-be, but several others, too. People who all had their own reasons to be on Mars, and reasons to not be on Earth. I got to know this cast of characters, page by page—and not intellectually but through their voices and desires and very tangible actions. The same way you get to know real people.
And the trust paid off, I think. Once I understood my characters, I could see that their collective story did raise some ideas that I cared about. All of these folks were pursuing something elusive or trying to leave something behind, and all of them were hoping that Mars would change everything about who they were. The broader phenomenon of human nature—the same on every planet, I think—was on display. Questions about the way to best live life naturally arose.
Ideas: second, not first.