News & Events
A: BLEAK HARBOR opens with a scene of 15-year-old, autistic Danny Peters standing at the end of a dock, following a dragonfly: “It skitters up as if on a wire and takes the first mosquito without slowing. Danny pictures the cruelly efficient jaws and serrated teeth tearing the prey into a gooey black mash while the dragonfly plots the geometric path to its next target.”
Making Danny obsessed with dragonflies was one of the semi-random choices I make as I conjure up characters. The choice was influenced by a story I had read in The New York Times in April 2013. The story said dragonflies are often listed with ladybugs and butterflies on lists of insects people like. Yet dragonflies are also “voracious aerial predators” that “may well be the most brutally effective hunters in the animal kingdom.”
This dichotomy fascinated me, perhaps because I find dragonflies to be creepy even though I know they cannot harm me. Danny sings a song his mother made up about dragonflies:
Their wings are sparkly gossamer
They wear diamonds on their eyes
Pretty pretty pretty pretty
Yet Danny recognizes how dangerous they are in their world and indulges this recognition by counting the number of mosquitoes the dragonflies on Bleak Harbor Bay consume. The duality also serves as a metaphor underlying the tale in BLEAK HARBOR.
At my urging, my publisher, Thomas & Mercer, prepared a few covers that included dragonflies. They didn’t really work. But then T&M included a single dragonfly on the spine of the book between the title and my name. I can’t wait to see it when the hardcovers show up.
A: I wish I knew.
It was spring of 2012 and I was nearing publication of THE SKELETON BOX, the third book in the Starvation Lake trilogy. A major editor at a big publishing house was talking to me about writing “your Mystic River.” Right. But, of course, I was seduced, and listening.
I gave her a summary of an idea involving an uncaptured serial killer who resurfaces years after his original murders. Serial killers are passe, the editor said. I tried again, this time with a totally different idea about the kidnapping of an autistic boy. I’m not positive why I chose to make Danny Peters autistic, but I have an inkling that I can’t share without crossing into spoiler territory. The editor liked the idea, but ultimately passed on publishing the manuscript. I could literally use parts of her rejection as a blurb.
I have clear recollections of the things that inspired my first three novels, from a nightmare about a snowmobile washing up on a beach (STARVATION LAKE); to a tree filled with shoes (THE HANGING TREE); to the early 20th century murder of a nun in northern Michigan (THE SKELETON BOX). I have no such clarity about the beginnings of BLEAK HARBOR, alas.
It really came to life on the page. Danny himself, his mother Carey, and his stepfather Pete all took turns inspiring story twists by making me curious about who they were and how they would behave under pressure. I can more clearly explain how I came up with the ideas for many particular things that happen in the book, but not where the story itself initially sprang from.
Mostly my ideas, big and small, sprout from the process of writing itself. As John Hiatt, one of my favorite songwriters, recently told an interviewer, “You know how writing goes for me. I get a couple of lines going, and then I just tag along as the songs start to reveal themselves. You’ve just gotta jump inside and take the ride.”
Ophelia, a character in the new novel I’m working on, likes The Book of Tobit from the Old Testament. I chose Tobit partly because, like Tobit, Ophelia is blind, and partly because Tobit’s story is beautiful and inspiring, even funny, unlike much of the Old Testament.
A: Yes. Harder. Definitely.
Non-fiction is supposedly less free than fiction because you, the writer, are limited by facts. You build a mound of facts, like a mound of clay, from interviews, observations, documents, readings, whatever else you can gather. The size of the mound depends upon how much skill, time and luck you have. When the mound is ready, you sculpt away whatever is unnecessary. What remains is your story. You are limited by the materials you can collect. Which can be a blessing.
Fiction allows you to create whatever facts you need to tell the story you want to tell, and change them as you go. The mound from which you sculpt is infinitely large, containing anything you can imagine and everything you’ve seen, heard, overheard, smelled, tasted, and felt in your life. Because your storytelling materials are unlimited, every sentence you write involves a choice that will have implications for sentences to follow–which can be a paralyzing curse.
So non-fiction and fiction are different forms that seek the same end: keeping the reader reading. The trick to this often has as much to do with what you choose to leave out as what you choose to leave in. For me, that’s what makes writing both fiction and non-fiction so invigorating and fun.