Monday, November 2, 2015

Dreams and Nightmares: Writing The Nest

Illustration c. Jon Klassen from THE NEST
I’ve been writing down my dreams (and nightmares) for years. Like morning mist, they burn off quickly, so it’s best to write them down first thing on waking. I’ve got a pretty big collection now. They always make good reading, sort of like hearing stories other people might tell about you, with the facts all mixed up, or altogether invented; sometimes with malicious intent.

There is definitely a Top Ten playlist to my dreams. Many share common ingredients and plot lines and themes and I can see my real life easily enough in the fun house mirrors; other dreams are more enigmatic, featuring strangers and locations with which I somehow have a deep personal connection. I am many ages and have many different homes: my dream self has many lives. My dreams do not tend to be serene and meandering; they are mostly fierce, intense things. There is a great deal of menace and peril --- not unlike the kind of books I write.

I had terrible nightmares as a kid. I slept under the covers with only a tiny air hole to keep me from suffocating. I was scared of the dark. I was paralyzed by the fear someone might be standing unseen in my room. I made a lot of night time sprints into my big brother’s bed, or my parents’. When I was a bit older, I’d even have nightmares about scary movies other people had seen (after, of course, stupidly begging them to tell me the entire plot).

It wasn’t just nightmares, of course. I also had many dreams of flying (some fraught with peril, others purely ecstatic) which might explain why I’ve written so many books about winged creatures and people who live in the sky aboard airships. To this day I continue to mine my dreams and nightmares for material. Sometimes it’s just an emotion, a striking image. In THIS DARK ENDEAVOR and SUCH WICKED INTENT, some of the young Victor Frankenstein’s dreams and nightmares are my own, pretty much verbatim. Perhaps this should worry me. I’ve even pilfered my daughter’s dreams (she’s quite a dreamer, too; it runs in families), one of which gave me an amazing idea for a new novel. (Please tell me your dreams, so I can steal them.)

So, it’s hardly surprising that dreams form such a big part of my latest book, THE NEST, or that my hero, Steven, is an anxious kid who’s scared of the dark. At the heart of the book is a series of dream conversations that Steven has with a mysterious winged creature he at first believes to be an angel. Like all of us when we dream, Steve discovers that he’s both powerless and powerful. He may not have control over the stage set, but he can say and do things he would never do in his real life. In THE NEST, Steven is able to confide things and wish for things he probably wouldn’t allow himself to do in his waking life. In his dream he can be reckless, but also be courageous. And in his dreams he must decide whether to say no or yes.

I’d been writing notes and bits of scenes for THE NEST for ten years, without being able to figure out the characters and story properly. But it kept pulling me back, insistent as a recurring dream. And when it suddenly made sense to me, when it finally came, the novel poured out of me in just six weeks, scene after scene, with the intensity of the best nightmares.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Boundless: Author With Train

Credit: Ian Crysler
I'd written a book about a train and I wanted a picture of myself with one. Fortunately for me, photographer extraordinaire Ian Crysler was perfect for the job.

(Ian himself, I've learned, has a fascinating history with trains -- and a much more exciting one than me! When he was a foolish youth, he and his friend would hop westbound trains and ride through the Rockies, gazing at the stars.)

On a chilly November morning we went down to the Toronto Roundhouse and looked longingly at the fenced off caboose and locomotive until the kindly staff of the Toronto Railway Museum took pity on us and said we were welcome to take photos of whatever we wanted. (Thank you, Bob Dickson, for your generosity!)

We started with the beatiful red caboose...

Credit: Ian Crysler

And then moved on to the locomotive....
Credit: Ian Crysler
To get an interesting shot of me inside the caboose cupola he decided he needed to climb on top of the locomotive. There he goes in his green jacket...

I was kind of worried because it was wet and icy and the ladder rungs were slippery, and he had all his camera equipment....

He made it up just fine. Because that's what a kickass professional photographer does.

And he ended up getting  some pretty cool shots...

Credit: Ian Crysler

Credit: Ian Crysler

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Boundless: The Caboose

Of all the spaces aboard a train, the caboose is one of my favourite. It's not as luxurious as first class, exciting as a saloon, or thrilling as the locomotive, but it has the cozy charm of a self-contained little world.

Traditionally the caboose is occupied by the guard and a brakeman, who spend the entire journey there. They are responsible for braking the train when needed, and for ensuring the train's safety as it enters and leaves a station. There is a special cupola at the rear of the caboose which gives the guard an elevated view across the top of the train, and the surrounding area.

The guard and brakeman have bunks, a stove and kitchen, a bathroom, a little office, and lots of windows.

One of my favourite scenes in The Boundless takes place in the caboose. At a station stop, Will almost misses the train and has to run to catch the caboose. The guard, a man nicknamed Sticks because he has a wooden leg, takes him in and sets him by the stove to warm up, and gives him a meal (a delicious stew). He gives Will a bed to spend the night, until the next station stop, when he can travel back to the passenger cars.

In Wind in the Willows there's a wonderful scene in which Rat and Mole get lost at night in the Wild Woods. It's deep winter, and they're cold and anxious -- and then they find the buried door to Badger's house. The kindly Badger admits them into his warm and cozy house. In the book there was a wonderful illustration that I loved to look at.

I think that scene inspired my caboose scene in The Boundless.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Aboard The Boundless: Zirkus Dante

Behind the miles of its freight and boxcars, The Boundless pulls eighty cars belonging to the world famous Zirkus Dante. One of the first circuses to take to the rails, it has eclipsed PT Barnum as the greatest show on earth.

The ringmaster is Mr. Dorian, a Metis with a vague past, who oversees an unrivalled collection of performers, acrobats, wonders (he abhors the word "freaks"), automatons, and wildlife. He is always on the lookout for new talent and marvels to add to his circus.

He is particularly interested in acquiring a certain painting reputed to have miraculous attributes.

He may or may not have caught and trained a sasquatch.

Among his star talent are the Zhang brothers, Siamese twins who are expert stilt walkers.

Mr Beaupre, the tallest man in the world.

In the Zirkus Dante's collection of oddities is the Feejee Mermaid, the only known skeleton of a real mermaid.

The Zirkus has many acrobats, but the Miraculous Maren is the best. An expert wire walker, she is also an accomplished escape artist.

She is a very useful friend to have.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Aboard The Boundless: The Funeral Car

It was Van Horne's dying wish that his body be carried within a special funeral car attached to The Boundless.
Crossing and re-crossing the continent on the rails he helped lay.

The funeral carriage is impregnable, welded together from plates of battleship steel, no windows, no doors. Inside is a mausoleum which contains the sarcophagus of Cornelius Van Horne -- and, rumour has it, other things of great value. When at rest in a station, a guard stands watch over the car. To make it even more inviolable, the exterior is electrified with a high voltage current. Anyone touching it would be electrocuted.
There is a key that turns the electricity on or off, and only the guard has one...
And one other person aboard The Boundless....


Friday, May 16, 2014

Aboard the Boundless: Cornelius Van Horne

The General Manager of the CPR, Cornelius Van Horne’s job was to make sure the railway got built, pushing it west to meet up with the tracks being built into the mountains from Vancouver.
Van Horne's energy and drive were legendary. He joined survey teams and hefted a sixty pound pack  through the wilds of the Rockies. No detail of the railway was too small for him to overlook. He had many and varied interests and hobbies, a restlessly curious mind; he slept very little.
Alas, he did not live to see his masterpiece, The Boundless, leave the station on its maiden voyage across the continent.
He died just months earlier.

But he's still on the train...