The Big Idea: Josh Rountree
What is the legend in The Legend of Charlie Fish? Is it about a man? Is it about a myth? Is it about something in-between? Author Josh Rountree is here to answer everything about this tale of the old west, with a twist in its tail.
Here’s my dark secret about The Legend of Charlie Fish.
It’s a monster book, but the story’s not really about a monster.
It might have started out that way, but things change, you know? My big idea was to take one of my favorite monster types, the gill-man, and place him in an old west setting. Think, Creature from the Black Lagoon meets True Grit, and you’ll get what I was shooting for.
I figured the place where my gill-man, the eponymous Charlie Fish, would feel right at home, would be the island city of Galveston. And what if he arrived there in the middle of the sweltering summer of 1900, just as the deadliest hurricane to ever emerge from the Gulf of Mexico was bearing down on the Texas coast? A storm so terrible that ever since, people just call it The Great Storm. Yeah, that would work. Already I could envision Charlie terrorizing the town, taking comfort in the storm, helping the wind and water reduce the city to ruin. Charlie Fish would make a fine monster.
But Charlie didn’t play ball.
Once I started writing, I figured out in a hurry that Charlie was funny. Charlie was kind to almost everyone. He liked to smoke cigarettes and bleat like a sheep and drip seawater all over freshly cleaned pinewood floors. He was homesick and sad, and wanted nothing more than to leave the human world and return to his life under the sea. There wasn’t a rampaging bone in his green and blue scaled body.
Writing rarely works out the way we expect it to. I dreamed up a variety of characters I planned to place at odds with Charlie. But then I began to pick at the story. Turn it over and look at it from different angles. And I started to see the things my human characters had in common with Charlie, instead of the things that made them different. A pair of mysterious orphans in search of a home. A widow without any family, who has lived a very hard life. A lonely, middle-aged man facing an uncertain future.
These weren’t people for Charlie to terrorize. These were people he could help, and who could help him. These were people for Charlie to love.
For me, one of the hardest parts of writing is to listen to the subconscious voice in my head that tells me when a story is working, and when it’s not. It’s so much easier to keep walking down the wrong road, writing the story as you planned it, ignoring what the story wants to become. But if you listen to what the story is saying, it will often send you in a much better direction.
It took self-convincing, and a load of internal complaining, but eventually I scrapped my initial notions about The Legend of Charlie Fish, and replaced them with an entirely different version of the story. It was painful. I didn’t want to do it. But once Charlie Fish met the orphans, I knew for certain I’d chosen the right road.
Monster lovers need not worry, however. Charlie Fish might not be a monster, but others lurk in these waters. There are scoundrels who would use Charlie for their own ends, men who have no qualms about upsetting the lives and the plans of our plucky heroes. There are people who might appear kindly, but turn cold shoulders to others in need.
And there is The Great Storm, of course. The biggest, hungriest monster of them all.
The Legend of Charlie Fish is still a monster book.
But the monster isn’t exactly who you think it is.