The Big Idea: Ryan O’Nan

Cover to "Winders"

We all have those moments we wish we could take back. In Winders, some people just might be able to. How might that work — and how might that affect those who could do it? Author Ryan O’Nan is here to catch us all up.

RYAN O’NAN:

When I was a baby, my uncle was killed in a motorhome. It was late at night, and he and my aunt were driving on the freeway up the west coast when their vehicle suddenly burst into flames. A propane line had ruptured, and my uncle had to make several choices in an instant. He forced my aunt out of the burning vehicle while it was still moving, but he stayed inside trying to manage the fire and lost his life when the camper exploded.

This story haunted me as a kid. My aunt did not escape the tragedy. She hit her head on a rock when she fell and lived the rest of her life in a home with severe brain damage. I would go with my grandma to visit her often as a kid, and the place scared me. The smell scared me. The people scared me, but most of all, my aunt scared me. I never knew her before the accident, but every time I saw her, and her one working eye—enlarged by the coke bottle glasses she wore—I obsessed over the same thought: how different her life would’ve been if she’d jumped ten seconds sooner, or if my uncle had chosen to get out instead of trying to save the camper.

But here’s another thought. What if they knew about the fire a minute before it happened?

Winders is a story about choices. And second chances. And third chances… It’s about what might happen if a select few among us no longer had to simply accept what fate had in store.

This is how the germ of the idea grew…

What if you could take back your worst moments the second that they happened?

This idea stuck in my head. Wedged in, and literally didn’t leave for years. And it expanded. What if there was a small population of people on the planet who had evolved the ability to reverse moments like my aunt and uncle’s horrific fire on the freeway? The ability to wind back time. Not large amounts of time. Just small microbursts. Enough to redo mistakes, or maybe even to try things out—knowing you only had to live with the consequences if you wanted to?

It’s not necessarily a new idea. Some of my favorite films have used a version of this power, but it’s almost always used as a prison. “Groundhog Day” gives Bill Murray endless tries at one day. “Edge of Tomorrow” gives Tom Cruise the same ability but this time he’s trapped in a loop during an alien invasion. There’s also the extremely charming film, “About Time,” where the protagonist can redo moments—as long as he can find a dark, quiet place to time travel from.

But what if you didn’t have to die to use this ability, or hop into a closet? What if you got to do something over and over until you got it right, but the world only saw you do it once?

The idea snowballed inside my head. Each question leading to more questions. There were so many advantages someone with this ability would have. Saving yourself from near misses was just one of them. An extra minute of knowledge of how stocks or international currencies would shift could lead to endless wealth. If a baseball player knew exactly what pitch was coming every time… If a candidate in a presidential debate always knew what their opponent was going to say right before they said it… Or if you had endless chances to say all the right things to the girl, or boy, of your dreams…

Money. Fame. Power. Sex. Dominance.

And of course, you’d have to keep it secret. First rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. If the current powers that be knew a small group of people were “cheating” at all aspects of life, I imagine those people would be found, used, and/or taken out of the equation.

So, now that I had my fun premise for a novel, I had to figure out who would lead me into this world. Would I be a fish out of water who is just learning he has this power? Or should I be a character already imbedded beneath the skin of this secret society of time winders? In the end, I decided to have it both ways. Two protagonists. Charlie is my fish, and Juniper is my expert.

But this was where it got tough. Because writing Charlie was fun and flowed out fairly easily. After all, I was once a young man searching for identity, trying to make sense of the world and attempting to survive a certain amount of trauma from a chaotic childhood. But when it came to Juniper, I have never been a young woman, and I definitely didn’t grow up inside a massively powerful secret society that controls most of the world from the shadows. But Juniper did, so I couldn’t approach the worldbuilding in the same way with her as I could with Charlie. It wouldn’t make sense for Juniper to go around describing a bunch of stuff that she takes for granted on a daily basis. I could do some of that, but it had to be done lightly or it would bog the story down very quickly. Which is exactly what happened and led to years of rewriting along the way. But, in the end, I think I fell even more in love with Juniper because I had to work so much harder to bring her to life, properly.

Winders became a fun playground to explore what it might feel like to release the panic I so often experienced while attempting to make the right choice all the time. Would such power corrupt us? Probably. But maybe not all of us.

But what if there was a faction that wanted more than just a secret advantage. What if some Winders thought of normal humans as a subspecies and that only a world of masters and slaves made sense to them? How could fascism ever not be the end result of such power?

I had so much fun diving into these questions and letting the characters and story tell me just how dark those answers might become. But I was also surprised by how much resilience and integrity some of the characters ended up displaying in the face of so much power.

Charlie and Juniper are young people who are still figuring out who they are and who they’re not. I’m really not sure how I would react to being able to do the kind of things that they can do. Having the ability to save yourself and the people you love from danger sounds great, but such an ability feels like a Pandora’s box, and inside is so much grey…


Winders: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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4 Comments on “The Big Idea: Ryan O’Nan”

  1. Hilariously, I was 90% through this piece before I realised the title is NOT Winders “windows-pronounced-oddly” of opportunity, but Winders, “those who wind (back the clock)”.

  2. Dana, that’s the first thing I thought of too!

    Book sounds very intriguing though, taking this idea to new places. I’ll check it out.

  3. In the movie Next, about a man with this exact ability, it really annoyed me that his brilliant idea about how to abuse “see a few minutes into the future and try an infinite variants of actions to see how they play out” was… becoming a stage magician and pretend to be able to read minds.

    Instead of, say, stocks trading.

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