The Big Idea: Nicole Kornher-Stace

The things we love inspire us. Such is the case in author Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Big Idea, where they talk about a classic childhood favorite that set the groundwork for the idea behind her newest novel, Flight & Anchor.

So when I was little, I had this vintage hardbound copy of The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner from 1943. I still have it.
I must have been five or six years old when I first read it, and I vividly remember the first half of the book being just deliciously intoxicating. Kids running away! Living on their own! Being self-sufficient! Foraging for housewares in the dump! Subsisting in large part on wild blueberries! You might think a book about the minutiae of getting food and water and making a place to bathe in the woods wouldn’t have held the attention of a kid in the late 80s, but I’ve always been a sucker for stories that focus on the day-to-day practicality of living in strange situations, feeling out your survival strategy one step at a time.

I was a mess of a child who around that age once “ran away from home” with a backpack full of novelty chewing gum and zero actual food and made it a distance of one (1) suburban street from where my front lawn ended before I was spotted by a neighbor and told to go home, and that was that. So: kids leaving home with nothing but four dollars and a sewing kit and a bag of clothes to go live in the woods in hiding from every adult they’ve ever known? SIGN ME THE HECK UP.
Fast forward three decades and I got this extremely random story idea out of nowhere, whence such ideas tend to come. Part of it was realizing, randomly and entirely in hindsight, that part of what always struck me as fascinating about The Boxcar Children is how it takes place in a vanished time, when the stuff the kids scavenge at the dump or reuse from elsewhere is all made of porcelain (teacups!) and glass (milk bottles!) and metal (rusty spoons, which they scrub with sand to clean them!) and zero plastic anywhere. Very different from my suburban late-80s upbringing, or for that matter the winter of 2021 when the notion of writing a just-for-fun homage to a deeply formative childhood book winged its way out of the ether and clobbered me upside the head.
The other part of this idea, which struck me at the exact same time, was that this kind of story would look very very different if it had been airlifted out of 1942 (or 1924, when it was initially published) and deposited into a world of single-use, disposable, non-biodegradable, petroleum-based landfill fodder. Into my 80s childhood, say, or today. Or a hundred years in the future. Where I already have a couple of fictional kids known to routinely attempt escape from the life they’re stuck in.
In my 2021 hypercapitalist dystopia Firebreak, 06 and 22 are two of the surviving forty-eight children abducted as war orphans and modified into supersoldiers, forced to fight in a deliberately-endless civil war over engineered resource scarcity in a literally corporate-owned America. At that time, they’re about twenty years old, but they’ve tried and failed to escape the company a number of times by this point. Potential parallels between The Boxcar Children’s runaways and mine fell perfectly into place.

For example, how a major plot point in TBB is that one of the kids falls sick with a mysterious sudden illness, and her need for medical attention blows their cover. A plot point in Firebreak is the “mysterious sudden illness” that plagues the company supersoldiers (it’s a severe autoimmune response to the treatment protocol, but at twelve years old they do not know this, only that it is much more likely than the corporate civil war itself to be the thing that kills them). Or how the kids in TBC nearly get abducted by a bakery owner who wants to keep the older ones for child labor and turn the youngest in to an orphanage, but they overhear her scheming and run away before she can put her plan into action.

Meanwhile Firebreak provided, not a bakery, but a coffee shop, where my two runaways could stop in for provisions and overhear something that sets them on the run again—something that, while rather better-intentioned, wouldn’t have struck them as any less threatening at the time. The one major difference was the setting. The exact thing that I, in considering attempting a Boxcar Children homage, wanted to mess with.
I initially thought I’d write it in the style of The Boxcar Children, especially once I read that when it was rewritten for 1942 it was with a 15,000 word limit and a 600-word vocabulary so that it could be a school reader. (At the same time, certain elements were edited out, such as the kids’ dad drinking himself to death on page, like, one.) The challenge of that was tempting. But I never did find that vocabulary list, I would’ve had a hell of a time mapping it onto a futuristic cyberpunk setting, and by the time I was aware of its existence, this idea had its hooks firmly embedded in me and I’d already started writing.

Never in a million years did I think this was a project that would exist outside of Patreon, where I posted it for the Firebreak fans who’d been sending me messages like “You know, I liked this book, but I would have loved if there’d been more 06 & 22.” I wrote this for you guys’ amusement, one hundred percent. But sometimes one’s agent gets wind of these things, says something like “hey let me see that a sec,” and then the next thing you know, it’s also a traditionally published novella.
So I guess the moral to this story is: write whatever idea seizes you. Even if you’re doing it just for fun, or you think it’s too niche or silly for anyone to want to publish. You literally never know.

Flight & Anchor: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Author’s socials: Website|Facebook|Twitter|Patreon

4 Comments on “The Big Idea: Nicole Kornher-Stace”

  1. Haven’t read The Boxcar Children, but reading this post reminded me of the book My Side of the Mountain, which dealt with a similar theme of running away and living off the land. It was quite engrossing for me in the early 70s, much as the author relates. I believe the book was also written from young audiences. Will have to look for this one.

  2. I’m also a fan of self-sufficiency children’s books, The Boxcar Children, the Swallows and Amazons, etc. It’s part of the “competent man” idea, that is, person, that was a sort of 20th century motif. The allure of being able to hunt and gather successfully, and the necessity, as the author of The Camerons books said, of getting rid of the parens asap, so the adventures may begin.

%d bloggers like this: