Now that I have a published book Iâ€™ve had the giddy experience of having a few people ask me, â€œWhere do you get your ideas?â€ First of all, there is nothing so flattering as considering all the noodling and dream flotsam I have in my head as â€œideas.â€ Second, I often know where my ideas come from, but Iâ€™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 hereâ€™s one example of the strands of fictiony spiderweb that connect one book to another. In my case itâ€™s a linkage from an element in Dreamwood to the flat-out crazy that is Herman Melvilleâ€™s â€œPierre: or, The Ambiguities.â€
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 moralsâ€”and itâ€™s still pretty racy. If you read it today, youâ€™re like, â€œSo, this young man is living in a squat in New York City with how many women? And the one heâ€™s obsessed with is his sister? … Or is she really his sister??? And are they really doing what I think they are???â€
I read Pierre in a fabulous grad school course called â€œAmerican Gothicâ€ with Joan Dayan (who now goes by the name Colin Dayan). Thereâ€™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. (Itâ€™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 Devilâ€™s Thumb, I immediately thought of Pierre and his Hugely Significant Rock Formation.
In Dreamwood I call my rock formation the Maran Boulder, and itâ€™s a mysterious, dangerous place. It does try to â€œeatâ€ 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 Melvilleâ€™s era brought to descriptions of the natural world.
Which, I realize, doesnâ€™t make any difference to anyone. But so what? These are my liner notes. When I find stuff like this in other writersâ€™ work itâ€™s kind of like encountering a sample of some old pop song from junior high years in a hip hop track.
Echoes are everywhere.