What I took from Herman Melville’s weirdest novel

Balance Rock

Now that I have a published book I’ve had the giddy experience of having a few people ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?” First of all, there is nothing so flattering as considering all the noodling and dream flotsam I have in my head as “ideas.” Second, I often know where my ideas come from, but I’m not sure anyone else wants to know. But here goes nothing.

Bits of life as well as all kinds of books make it into fiction. So here’s one example of the strands of fictiony spiderweb that connect one book to another. In my case it’s a linkage from an element in Dreamwood to the flat-out crazy that is Herman Melville’s “Pierre: or, The Ambiguities.”

First, a word about Pierre. After Moby-Dick, Melville was broke and desperate for a commercial hit (after all, his early books had been bestsellers but after starting out big, he watched his career tank). So he wrote this kooky gothic romance (well, a kooky gothic romance as imagined by Melville) into which he poured a whole lot disdain for the genre and the publishing industry. The book ruined Melville. To quote the handiest source, Wikipedia:

The publication of Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville. Reviewers universally condemned both its morals and its style.

Yes, an 1852 novel had scandalous morals—and it’s still pretty racy. If you read it today, you’re like, “So, this young man is living in a squat in New York City with how many women? And the one he’s obsessed with is his sister? … Or is she really his sister??? And are they really doing what I think they are???”

I read Pierre in a fabulous grad school course called “American Gothic” with Joan Dayan (who now goes by the name Colin Dayan). There’s too much to say about this weird, doomed book here. But one of the many elements I remember is a rock formation called The Memnon Stone (also called The Terror Stone). Pierre goes to it to contemplate his dilemmas and there does a mighty grappling with fate, thought, his ambition, his feelings, and all that good stuff.

Years later I still remember this odd Massachusetts rock. (It’s a real place too, called Balance Rock.) And when I was thinking of nature spirits and one that Lucy and her father might have encountered before meeting His-sey-ak on Devil’s Thumb, I immediately thought of Pierre and his Hugely Significant Rock Formation.

In Dreamwood I call my rock formation the Maran Boulder, and it’s a mysterious, dangerous place. It does try to “eat” Lucy, which is probably a years-distant echo of my memory of poor Pierre lying beneath the Terror Stone making his tragic choices. Plus, I wanted to tap the spirit of philosophy, search, and spiritual awe that writers of Melville’s era brought to descriptions of the natural world.

Which, I realize, doesn’t make any difference to anyone. But so what? These are my liner notes. When I find stuff like this in other writers’ work it’s kind of like encountering a sample of some old pop song from junior high years in a hip hop track.

Echoes are everywhere.

Dreamwood release day – hurray!

The best Post-It note I've ever received

That’s right, Momys book is OUT!

Wahoo, everyone. It’s out there! Dreamwood is real and in the world.

(Get yourself some here.)

I am celebrating so hard, it’s craziness over here in Berkeley … driving in my Volvo … to the BART parking lot so I can take public transportation in to work … where I am going to work so hard, because I am on fire with happiness. Day-umm!

And I am totally not being facetious – I am SO happy, and I am thrilled I get to go through my normal day three feet off the ground. (But side note. For some reason I am cracking up remembering Angelina Jolie, when asked by a hapless Ryan Seacrest a couple years ago about what she fed the kids the morning of the Golden Globes: “Cereal. We made cereal.” Brrr.) So guys, we may be eating cereal today and it’s all regular, but in our hearts it’s fireworks!!!

Thank you family. Thank you friends. Thank you co-workers, and neighbors, and librarians, and people on Goodreads. Thank you lovely editor and lovely agent. Thank you strangers. I think I’m off to plant a kiss on the cashier at the supermarket. It’s just that awesome of a day!!!


"The Nightmare" by John Henry Fuseli

“The Nightmare” by John Henry Fuseli

Last night I had a death dream. It’s only the second one I’ve had in my life. The first, when I was in elementary school, I was running outside and got shot by an arrow, and felt it enter and then some bleeding numbness and a crumple. Pretty simple.

But last night, I was in the kitchen, having some nice banter with my son while we cooked something. The phone rang in the other room, and I answered it. “Heather Ma-KEY?” said a man’s voice (older, governmental), mispronouncing it. “Yes,” I said. At that moment, someone came up behind me with a black fabric hood that I could just see through. As it went over my head and I felt it tighten around my neck, all strength left me. I understood “they” were using something against me—poison or a gas or magic. I tried to throw the phone down to make a noise to warn my son. But I was too weak. After initial panic and surprise my thought was “Oh no you don’t, you bastards.” Fade to black.

Of course I woke up frightened. I’ve been very stressed out lately—with work exhausting and overwhelming me, plus my book coming out in a week (haha, just a few things to do for THAT), plus the million soccer games and end-of-school stuff. Plus the fact that for years I haven’t really rested or taken time off (whenever I take time off, it’s been to work on my book!).

So in some ways I do feel physically vulnerable. The “sudden phone call” IS what I’m afraid of right now.

But by other measures this was a good dream for me to have at this moment. I’m doing something—publishing a book—that has taken years of effort, that at many times didn’t seem doable. Possibly I’m afraid that it won’t happen, that at the last second some disaster will strike that could put it still out of reach. That fear is made of psychic crud that’s built up over years of working silently. Wouldn’t facing it—and clearing it out—be a good thing?

I’m also afraid of what happens AFTER the book comes out. Change, no matter how badly you want it, can be scary, and not to oversimplify, is death of a kind. What changes would I like to make but am afraid to make right now? (A lot.) And to be honest, I guess I am afraid that this will be my one book and that’s it. But … so what? I’m pretty sure that if Dreamwood tanks or I never write again, I’ll deal. There are a lot worse fates, after all.

My death dream reminds me of these roadblocks and anxieties, how they’ve been building up in the wings of my subconscious. And yet it’s also a great thing to go through. I died in the dream, which means the worst happened. But, according to the Buddhists, you should live as if you’re already dead, because that means you’re free.

And I am kind of proud that my “dying” thoughts were defiant and focused on protecting my son. Because I have worried that in doing what it’s taken to get this book published, I’ve neglected my family. The dream reminds me to be their champion no matter what I’m going through.

Still, there is one last thing I’m afraid of—and this is probably the real danger in all that’s going on. I’ve felt so under the gun, and had to go so inward to deal, I’m afraid I’m taking myself far too seriously. Thank you, death dream, for all your lessons. But now it’s time to stop, lighten up and laugh.

Where I get my Odic force

Image of Carl Reichenbach

Carl Reichenbach image from Wikipedia

In DREAMWOOD, Lucy’s ghost clearing father is a student of an invisible force, called the Od. This isn’t something I made up.

More than a hundred years ago a German scientist, Baron Carl von Reichenbach, came up with this idea of a pervasive life energy. He called it Od after Odin.

When I was trying to come up with the world that DREAMWOOD is set in, I knew I wanted it to be like ours—mostly—but with certain spooky, quasi-scientific aspects.

In this world, ghosts were real, but could be scientifically explained (um, by me). So I started figuring out how some real scientists and philosophers DID think about spirits, ghosts, invisible forces, electromagnetism, etheric bodies, and so on.

I traveled happily along the byways of Wikipedia, learning just enough to be a danger to myself and fiction.

Dowsing led to Vitalism led to Aether … well, you get the idea. There’s something so fascinating in reading about the now-discarded theories of how life works.

Here is what the Wikipedia entry on Odic force has to say about the state of the Od today:

Scientists have abandoned concepts such as the Odic force. In western popular culture the name is used in a similar way to qi or prana to refer to spiritual energies or the vital force associated with living things. In Europe, the Odic force has been mentioned in books on dowsing, for example.

Like William Darrington in my book, Dr. Reichenbach spent his career searching for scientific proof that Odic force exists. He believed that certain people with sensory sensitivities could see auras of the life force. He treated patients for “neurasthenia” (itself a popular term in his day that’s gone out of fashion) and believed that Odic force could affect their condition. In this way he’s similar to Wilhelm Reich, who nearly a hundred years later proposed that “Orgone” energy (another life force) could cure people.

I turned Reichenbach’s theories to my own uses. Dreamwood is a powerhouse of Odic force—that’s what gives it the ability to heal. But the flipside of that power is that it can be destructive as well.

Today ideas like Odic force seem a little silly. But for me, I’m not interested in whether Reichenbach won or lost in terms of how science sees him and his theories now. He searched. There’s something fine in that.

What happened to werewolves?

Werewolf image from Dark Shadows

Wikimedia still from Dark Shadows

I tell people sometimes that I did major revisions on Dreamwood. Like, rewriting it many times. But the reality is so much worse.

When I started, Dreamwood was a story about werewolves. In fact, werewolves resurrected from their teeth. (It was not a Daughter of Smoke and Bone-type resurrection by teeth, because, um, sadly this predates it by a million years. Instead it was me trying to figure out how to take the idea of the contagion of the werewolf’s bite and see what I could do by stretching it out in time, through the power of magic werewolf DNA as it were.)

Anyway, I wrote and rewrote a story where Lucy Darrington, my plucky heroine, tries to figure out who’s responsible for these wolf attacks in this remote logging settlement. Her father was away doing research on some doomed trip to South America.

Dreamwood, a rare and dangerous tree had been in the story from the beginning. But it didn’t occupy the place it does now.

One of the changes the story went through was reimagining the entire thing with different stakes, and now without any werewolves.

I was very fond of them. I’d cooked up some awesome descriptions of what they looked like, how they transformed. And I really loved their personalities and air of menace they lent to everything. In fact, I loved them so much I wrote two completely different drafts with two completely different sets of villains turning into werewolves. Determined to keep my werewolves!

The problem was that they didn’t fit into the story at all. They were not Lucy’s problem to solve. They were instead something like a volunteer project she took on. (These darn werewolves!) And solving the problem of them didn’t solve any problem she had.

This was a fundamental misunderstanding on my part about how stories work.

It was very hard to give them up. They were cool. But I believed my editor when she told me they weren’t working. (And maybe she was also thinking that by the time this book came out there’d be werewolf fatigue among readers).

So I went back, and I thought. First, I had to come to grips with the idea. And then I had to do lots of thinking. It felt unproductive. It took months. Werewolves were so frightening, I had confused them with a threat to Lucy. So I had to understand what really mattered to her. What would threaten her. What would push her to the brink.

And the answer turned out to be … a tree.

Starred review and other Dreamwood news

Dreamwood by Heather MackeyAfter being such a theoretical only-in-my-head thing for so long, Dreamwood is making its way into the world. Somehow, time has gone by and publication is only two months away(!!). It’s a strange, exhilirating process (did I spell exhilirating right? My blog interface is underlining it like I’m wrong. But it feels right so I’m going for it. And I DID win my eighth grade spelling bee).

The most exciting news has been that for my baby’s very first review Kirkus Reviews gave it a star and said super nice as well as insightful things about it. “A stunning debut with equal parts originality and heart.”

Thank you, Kirkus! Even if everyone else hates it I’ve got you. So now I’m working on blowing that quote up to poster size and getting it on some needlepoint samplers I can hang around the house.

The other news is that mentions of Dreamwood are trickling out. Well, one of them is me, writing on the OneFourKidLit blog about my path to publication, which was, um, atypical. And then there was this lovely review in Stephanie Whelan’s “Views from the Tesseract” blog. Choice quote: “Heather Mackey’s debut novel is a strong middle grade adventure for those readers who don’t mind bloodthirsty flora and fauna and enjoy a good quest adventure.”

Haha. Who doesn’t enjoy bloodthirsty flora?

Really, I’ve been overcome by how great everyone is. I guess I’d imagined lead up to publication to be more like the Dauntless initiation in Divergent (which I did read/see and have thoughts on–if I can ever blog more I will share because they’re so … thoughtful). But it’s not. It’s Amity all the way!