The Big Idea: Julia Rust & David Surface
Sometimes walking in the woods will take you to places you never expected. During the writing of Angel Falls, authors Julia Rust and David Surface went for several walks in the woods, and this Big Idea, they tag-team tell you what they discovered.
JULIA RUST & DAVID SURFACE:
“I found an old trail. Maybe it leads somewhere.”
“Stay outta the woods!”
— The Red House, 1947 film with Edward G. Robinson and Judith Anderson
David: Julia and I love long walks in woods, preferably ones with ruins. One such place is near Bear Mountain, NY, called Doodletown—from a Dutch word that means “Valley of the Dead”. It contains ruins of a town that was settled in the 1700s and abandoned in the 1960s. Our first time there, we stumbled across an old graveyard with tombstones covered in moss.
Julia: Abandoned places have such an air of possibility, both spooky and wonderful. After Doodletown, we visited Gloucester, MA and started reading up on the abandoned area known as Dogtown, though we didn’t visit it that trip. Over bowls of “the best clam chowder in Massachusetts” we posed the question: what if a girl from NYC moves to Gloucester and meets a local boy in the spooky woods of an abandoned town? So, I wrote a chapter from Jessie’s POV, gave it to David, and he wrote the next chapter from Jared’s. Every week we’d exchange chapters, and then walk in nearby woods to discuss the story.
D: We knew there had to be a supernatural element to our story––we just didn’t know what it was. At first, I wanted to be ambiguous about it, present a series of strange occurrences that would be unexplained. While that can work in a short story, it’s hard to sustain that kind of ambiguity over the course of an entire novel. Julia kept telling me we could come up with a supernatural element that could be explained without ruining the story.
J: One day, David wrote this strange scene in which Jared’s teacher makes him think he’s burned him with a lit cigarette. His teacher flips the cigarette at the last moment, so he’s not touched by the burning end, but the character still feels it burn. That scene pretty much came out of nowhere, as did the next scene in which the burn inexplicably manifests on Jared’s arm.
D: It was fun to write but we still didn’t know why it happened––then we decided it was because Jared wanted it to, to prove that the teacher had been cruel to him. And to show that he had been scarred inside by that act, by that betrayal of trust.
J: We realized that our protagonists ‘wants’ could be the driving force behind the strange events they experience. But, as the adage says, ‘be careful what you wish for’ – there was a price to pay. In many supernatural thrillers, you have a human story and a supernatural story that sort of co-exist side-by-side. But now we no longer had a supernatural thing over there threatening our characters’ happiness––we had a supernatural element that was intimately connected to the characters’ wants and needs.
D: This affected our writing in some very powerful ways. For one thing, it required us to focus strongly on the characters’ deepest wants and needs, and to keep them front and center throughout the story. And the teacher (who faked the cigarette burn) went from being a minor character, to having a major role in the arc of the story and the culminating event.
J: By the time we first visited Dogtown, we’d completed the first draft of the novel. Entering the trail and walking among the giant stones we found ourselves laughing––it was exactly the way we’d written it. Every path and sound and feeling were completely familiar.
D: And because we’d spent so much time focusing on our characters’ deepest desires, we really felt a strong connection with them. I know it sounds like a cliche, but Jared and Jessie became real to us. And the last time we visited the woods in Dogtown, I felt like I could feel them there a few steps ahead of us, just around the next bend.