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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Max Gladstone

Fasten your seatbelts, folks: Max Gladstone is about to take you on a trip. It goes to his past, and through it, and winds up at the heart of his latest novel, Last Exit.

MAX GLADSTONE:

In the summers, we packed the van and left. My parents were high school teachers then. We didn’t have the money for vacation hotels and restaurants, but we had time: oceans of it, between graduation in May and the first faculty meetings in late August. We loaded the Plymouth with tents from Wal-Mart, and freeze-dried meal packets, and a camp stove and my fiddle and Dad’s travel guitar, and sleeping bags, and my sister’s Game Boy, and mine, and tapes, and maps, and books, never enough books. I took a leave of absence from the alt.starfleet.rpg ship where I was chief engineer. And we set off.

Mom kept the itinerary, steering us between national parks and dusty backroad Kampgrounds of America and old friends’ couches and living room floors. I kept the journal—scrawled cursive in a Fisher Space Pen in the back seat, when the roads were smooth enough, describing every landscape, every park, every meal, the kids we met at the fireworks on the Fourth of July near Devil’s Tower, the moose that crashed through our camp. I read, even as we wound through broken and beautiful desert. There wasn’t much space, so I brought the thickest books I could find. I finished Lonesome Dove for the first time somewhere in Wyoming, I think.

We went slow. We stopped for a week on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I remember long afternoons sitting in a rocking chair on a deck at the Visitor Center there, catching up on the trip journal as the shadows changed.

It was a strange land. I could follow our progress on a map, but I could not understand the map and the road, assemble it into real space like the campus and the woods back home or the stretch of Cleveland exurb where we’d lived before. There was too much and it seemed too full. The same black strip of pavement, with a turn or two and nothing but time, could lead you from the eerie flatness of corn land to deep desert lunar landscape, where perilously balanced wind-carved rocks stood watch over thin crusts of lichen as they turned rock and sand to soil, millimeter by millimeter over centuries. Then, blink, and we’d wind through high mountain passes, past July snowdrifts, Dad cursing, grip white-knuckled on the wheel, as the earth fell away to the side.

The real world seemed an other-world. Cliffs red and shadow-marked at sunset became a city, and I knew, as I watched them, that this was not an illusion: that the cliffs _were_ a city, a slow, slow city. Human empires might rise and pass away beyond its gates like wind through the eaves of an old house at night. Ancient trees loomed over San Francisco and kept their own counsel, in their own language. The road was a magic all its own, a tremendous feat of engineering, millions of such feats spread out across the continent really, but it felt thin and tenuous when compared to what it crossed, to the truth of the land. There was something alive and present here. If we made the right turn, or the wrong one, we could find ourselves far beyond the edge of anything we understood. Perhaps we were beyond that edge already.

We listened to the Traveling Wilburys and to Old & In the Way, and we listened to the BBC audio drama of The Lord of the Rings, where I heard Ian Holm as Frodo say, quoting Bilbo, “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”

One late night, more than a decade later, I found myself on a bus on the highway, leaning against the window—and outside, in the dark, there was the road again, just as full and just as winding and powerful, and just as slim a thing compared to the enormous country between where I was and home. It was still there. I’d just missed it, as we so often do when we think we know where we’re going. We become creatures of the destination. It’s the uncertainty where the magic lives. You could turn a corner, and—there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.

I pulled my notebook from my pocket, and my pen, and I tried to scrawl that down, to catch it. You can’t wrestle a moment into cursive, but you can leave yourself clues. Road signs, breadcrumbs.

There was a story there, in the other worlds the road wound through, behind the country we saw, a story in the people who sought those strange exits and found them. I didn’t know if I could write that story, any more than I knew if I could find those worlds behind the wheel. And: I was less sure, now, whether I’d like what I would find. As a kid, familiar with the kind of tarp called American History that grade school pulled over the past, what was hidden seemed full of promise and adventure. But now I could see some of the bodies.

Still, the idea wouldn’t leave. I tried many approaches. Drafts and revisions gave me characters, tapped me into that central question of memory and loss, of a world damaged, foreboding, strange, familiar and yet utterly unknown, of the difference between the way we want things to fit together when we’re young, and the way we’re afraid they fit together as we grow older, as we learn. I wrote the book the whole way through, I outlined it, I built characters and I followed them into interesting situations. I set the itinerary. Draft after draft almost worked, or said the things I wanted to say but just… said them, rather than making them real. I wondered why this wasn’t working—why it felt almost right. I didn’t realize, then, that I was packing the van.

I packed it with memories of those long months on the road, of the cliff cities and the trees that stood in judgment, and of my own wandering, later, alone. In there, between the tents and the coffee-stained notebooks, I packed my hot-burning and brilliant friends, my family. We were all so certain we could change the world, and that this would be a good thing. I bundled up that strange and brightly-colored grade school tarp and the shapes beneath it. I squeezed my foreboding, and intimations of mortality, between the camp stove and the fiddle.

As the van filled, I learned more about the journey I was about to undertake. I saw bright kids, real as anyone I’ve ever known, who found that same road to anywhere I’d glimpsed so many years ago. I saw them set out full of hope and love and fear to fix things, to stop a great evil. I saw them try, and I saw them fail. And ten years later, I saw them drift back together, to try again.

I didn’t know, yet, what stops I’d have to make along the way. I didn’t know what I would discover. But I was ready.

And one day, tired, wondering, a bit lost, I picked up a notebook, and wrote a line that glistened, wet and full of promise and slender as a road against the white.

When the worst of the bleeding stopped, Zelda hitchhiked back to the Bronx to say that she was sorry.

And we set off.


Last Exit: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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