The Big Idea: Jen Karner
Events can change you — and in her novel Cinders of Yesterday, author Jen Karner posits that this change can go more than just skin deep. In this Big Idea, Karner explores how we react to these events, and how we carry their marks moving forward.
Gaslighting is insidious. It’s worse when it convinces you magic doesn’t exist, and that your mom was crazy. What if you could talk to ghosts but no one believed you? Worse. What if your memories of magic were stolen, timed with a traumatic event that could have caused retrograde amnesia. What would that do to a person? These questions led to the understanding this was a ghost story wrapped in generational trauma, a place where magic and grief intermingle so that you can’t extricate one from the other. It’s messy, because surviving is rarely something cut and dry. That was the seed that would grow over the course of many years to become Cinders of Yesterday. It’s a ghost story that revolves around generational trauma and the ways we hurt ourselves and the people we love in grief and fear.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way that people react differently to similar circumstances. Just look at siblings in a family, the way one might withdraw from a trauma while the other explodes. At the same time I was drawn to magic, ghosts, the paranormal, and the way that occultism swept through America in the early 1900s. When you combine the way that women in particular were demonized and institutionalized for hysteria, while being told they weren’t experiencing what they were, it’s impossible to pretend that trauma on a cultural level isn’t baked into our experience of society.
I just went one step further.
Trauma, and the way we react to it, changes us. If it’s big enough, and terrible enough, it can change our brain chemistry and leave epigenetic traces in our DNA. I wanted to explore the root of generational trauma using magic as a mechanism to do it, allowing my characters the kind of catharsis that most survivors never get. Breaking those chains, deciding to stand your ground instead of running, or leave your hometown instead of succumbing to it, requires a certain kind of fortitude. It’s not easy. It’s messy and complicated, and in the real world, there is rarely something so cut and dry as a murderous necromancer who has been hunting you that you can blame.
Cinders of Yesterday is the first book in the Legacy of Shadows series, and it’s about confronting the trauma that created you. It’s about facing your past and your decisions, even when they were hard. Even when you didn’t make the right choice. I didn’t start the novel with a theme of trauma, but it’s impossible to miss once you start reading because it’s woven through the actions of all the main cast.
Emilie and Dani are tied together by a shared source of abuse and trauma. However, they don’t deal the same at all and they become mirrors of each other and the way that people move through grief after a traumatic event. Internal and external, angry and anxious, slowly processing and lashing out.
Both of them are damaged by what they’ve survived, but they are more than those circumstances. Being a survivor isn’t always about putting on a brave face. Sometimes it is about having a drink where no one can see, about letting yourself sob and spiral, and finding your equilibrium again. The story and the characters are messy, because trauma is messy. There is no cut and dry answer as to how you learn to keep moving after it has derailed your life. There’s just knowing that after today is tomorrow, and then the next day. Even after you get the closure you wanted, or the answers you needed, the scars remain.
Cinders of Yesterday is a story that is unmistakably about trauma – The ones we survive, the ones we run from, and how no two people deal with the same hand of cards in quite the same way.