Friday, July 1, 2011

Behind the Book

This morning, I wrote this "Behind the Book" expose of Return to Exile for Simon & Schuster, and thought I'd post it:

Years ago, I had a story idea: a group of kids get the powers of their Halloween costumes and go on an adventure to save Halloween. For a time, I worked somewhat indirectly with the producer of “Jurassic Park” and “Minority Report” to mold the idea into a mediocre screenplay that neither of us much liked. We parted ways and he kindly offered to buy the story rights, but I held on, believing that I could turn it into something much better.

I should’ve sold the rights. The only thing I kept from my original story was the name Sky Weathers. I like the name. It renders images of hope and survival, weathering storms and reaching beyond your inherent limitations.

When I returned to the story years later, and decided to turn it into my debut novel, I realized that I wanted it to be a different kind of story, something grander and richer, more heroic and epic than what it had been. I was inspired by Tolkien’s rich milieu stemming from a sprawling history with long-lived characters and forgotten stories. Lovecraft inspired me to abandon existing mythologies and create an unknown and sometimes frightening world within our own. For story themes, I looked to the Middle East. For action and pacing I looked at Percy Jackson, and for narrative voice and story development, I turned to Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows was a particular source of inspiration. I love the way Rowlings forced Harry, Ron, and Hermione to wander, confused and lost, depending only on each other, with no clear way through until they chose it. She gave them lots of options, muddied the waters, and wove a tale that more closely resembles the complex world we all face. It’s a much harder and far less common way to tell a story, especially in speculative fiction where characters are often given a quest with a difficult yet obvious path to the end.

While these things inspired me, I wanted Return to Exile to be fresh and original, which required a different sort of approach.

This may disgust you, but when I was a kid, I loved to go to the garbage dump and find “treasures” in the trash. My family was fairly poor and I used to dream of things I could invent to make us rich. With Return to Exile, I recalled those fond and somewhat disturbing memories and I worked them into the story, giving Sky and his friends equipment they built for themselves using mostly garbage.

To flesh out the characters, I thought long and hard and decided to base each of the core monster hunters—Sky, Crystal, T-Bone, Hands, and Andrew—on a fairytale so that I could work in specific themes.

Sky was Hansel and Gretel, following breadcrumbs. Crystal was Pinocchio, a broken girl full of lies, struggling to become real. T-Bone’s family came from the nursery rhyme “there was an old woman who lived in a shoe.” Hands, like Little Red Riding Hood, visited his grandpa at the old folks home on Riding and First, a home “run by wolves.” And finally, Cinderella inspired Andrew, as is most apparent in his two wicked stepsisters who speak like characters from a Jane Austen novel (is there anything more wicked than this?).

Many of these fairytale origins slipped into the background as I developed the characters, but you can still see them if you look closely.

Return to Exile is filled with hidden things. Like Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings, it’s the kind of story that’s not only enjoyable the first time around, but also replete with subtle textures and clues, and meant to be read more than once. It’s an epic fantasy adventure full of complex characters, hard choices, unique monsters, long-lived hunters, sprawling histories, terrible secrets, and powerful forces threatening to rip the world apart. Read it and reread it. I think you’ll like it.

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