The Big Idea: David Towsey
There are times when you feel not quite yourself, and David Towsey gets what you mean. In fact, in Equinox, you could say he’s written a book in which not being quite yourself — just like everybody else — is a remarkably common occurrence.
Most of us have experienced moments when we’re in two minds about something. A situation where part of you thinks it should take one direction, while another part of you suggests a different direction entirely. Sometimes this is characterised as an angel and a devil sitting on your shoulder. Your virtue and your vice, exerting a push and pull on your decision making. And this can be for the small stuff, like: should I have an extra scoop of ice cream? (One of my vices, so the answer is always yes on this one.) But big life decisions split our feelings too. Should I take a new job, even though it would mean a big move and uprooting the family? Should I spend money on a holiday, or save it? Should I tell my father/mother/sibling what I really think of them? This kind of push-pull pressure can often make us feel like we’re at war with ourselves.
That’s the feeling I wanted to explore, in the extreme, in my new novel Equinox. The book has a quasi-secondary world fantasy setting – I say ‘quasi’ because there are some very clear carryovers from our world, such as the presence of Christianity. But the big change, the ‘big idea’, if you will, is that in this world, two people live in every single body – one personality which lives during the day, and a completely different personality in control at night. And this is true for everyone. From the moment they are born until they reach their deathbed, they are sharing life with a sibling.
I imagine, having just read this world’s core concept, you’ve already got a few questions. It’s a real headscratcher, and one that gets people’s imaginations going. Let’s take, as an example, the deathbed experience I mentioned above. If I were to write a character in the world of Equinox who was terminally ill and bed-bound, that character would be facing some very chilling questions: will I die on my side of the split? Or will I just never wake up again, and instead it’s my sibling who will have to experience those final, potentially excruciatingly painful moments? Which then raises the question: which would be better?
To give an example directly from the novel, Equinox kicks off in a prison. The protagonist, Special Inspector Christophor Morden, is called to the cell of a man who has been the victim of some dark sorcery. But prisons are a bit different in this world. When Christophor arrives, he sees a stream of people walking out of the main gates, free as you like. These are night-releases: it’s only their other selves who are incarcerated during the day. Strange as it may seem, they come right back when dawn approaches. This is because the punishment for not returning is being hunted down and summarily executed and, as Christophor notes, he can’t hang just one sibling…
With all this and so much more called into question by my central premise, it’s fair to say this was the most technically challenging story I’ve ever chosen to write. Every character is in fact two characters, who have their own agendas and are all hiding things from each other and/or themselves; it was a lot to keep track of and shape into a coherent narrative. This challenge was, of course, part of the story’s allure. I enjoy the process of taking a concept that would be more manageable if it applied just to the protagonist, and choosing instead to explode it across an entire world. I did this for my Walkin’ Trilogy, with characters coming back from the dead as ‘the thinking man’s’ zombies, able to talk and feel and remember their lives. When I was first starting to write novels, I figured I was just exploring some fun ideas. But as I reflect on that process now, the draw of this world-wide approach is something I’ve come to understand is more fundamental to how I write.
For many readers, Equinox will feel reminiscent of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But unlike Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, when the split is spread across a huge range of people and life experiences, it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to take such a binary approach. Early readers of my draft chapters wondered if the night siblings should all be meaner, or more depressed, or something equally as totalising. I understood their point; such a decision would make the concept less challenging for a reader, especially early on in the text. And this is another thing I’ve learned during the process of writing Equinox: all the demands I make of myself as a writer transfer right onto the page for a reader. But as long as I enjoy writing the complexities of the story, I anticipate my readers will enjoy exploring that same puzzle – just from the other side of the equation.
So, folks who are up for a story-setting which raises a lot of questions – some intended, some not – and which might only provide a few key answers, will, I hope, enjoy this more demanding reading experience. But it’s OK if you’re in two minds about it. There were times when the little devil sitting on my shoulder told me to write a more straightforward story. Take an easier path, it said – that way we can finish this chapter and go get some ice cream. Tempting as that was, another part of me knew my writing energy comes from the challenge. The push-pull pressure of the strange worlds that a fantasy writer can create.
The fact I wouldn’t want it any other way is perhaps the only thing I’m not in two minds about.