How the Universe Slapped Me Silly
by Lisa Fernow
I had the pleasure to interview Bill Kenower recently and we got to talking about why people write. That got me thinking.
One reason I write is to experience Eureka moments. The flash of recognition when you catch a glimpse of your unconscious mind at work. When you realize you’ve tapped into a deeper meaning you didn’t intend. When your synapses fire and say, Howdy.
I’ve always fought the idea that these moments come from some force outside myself:
“My characters took over.”
“The writing seemed to flow through me. I was just the vessel.”
The chances of some unseen force guiding my writing seems as remote as finding Jimmy Hoffa’s body.
But as I revised, and revised, and revised my tango mystery, Dead on Her Feet, I started to notice … signs.
The first I dismissed as coincidence. In Dead on Her Feet the heroine’s beloved nephew, Christian, is a troubled young man and I gave him plenty to be troubled about: he’s punched out, sexually humiliated, suspected of murder by his own aunt and placed in mortal danger. He lives in Atlanta in an apartment based on a real place, the Fulton Cotton Mill lofts.
I’d scouted the lofts in person, of course. But one day I decided I needed one last detail about Christian’s crash pad for the book. So I went online for photos of the building and found this Wikipedia entry:
“On Friday, March 14, 2008 around 9:45 pm, a number of buildings on the premises were damaged by an EF2 tornado. The roof was ripped off the "E" building, and debris and suction created by the wind caused the top floor to collapse, pancaking several floors below in a domino effect.”
Poor Christian. How likely is it that a freak tornado just happens to touch down on his apartment? Coincidence? Or is some higher power telling me I didn’t torture him enough?
The second sign came as I was revising one of my drafts. Pairs of things were showing up everywhere: champagne bottles, antique drum tables, emeralds, stab wounds, and crime scene floor plans - both with mistakes. I hadn’t planned this theme, but it made sense: the only way my tango instructor could solve the crime was to pair up with the detective assigned to the case. Was this my subconscious breaking through?
The last and most powerful sign revealed itself towards the end of the writing process. One of my characters, Professor Bobby Glass, is a new dancer with bad eyesight, no rhythm, and no confidence. Contrast him with Eduardo Sanchez Jaury, an Argentine milonguero who has been dancing his entire life. When it comes to tango they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. In the back of my mind I always hoped Bobby and Eduardo would become friends.
As I started to build out their back stories I decided that one of the professor’s hobbies, since he’s a geologist, would be to help track down and authenticate gems the Nazis stole from the Jews in WWII. Don’t ask me where that idea came from. Meanwhile I decided Eduardo needed a dark past, and made him a Montonero, a member of an Argentine leftist group that carried out bombings, kidnappings and assassinations against the government. As I continued to research their fictitious histories, I discovered that while the former Argentine President Juan Peron was in power he had protected the Nazis and turned on the Montoneros he’d once supported. So Bobby and Eduardo, both hating Peron, had a reason to become great friends.
Didn’t see that one coming. But how cool.
I still don’t believe there is a higher power guiding my writing. If I hadn’t cared about getting the details right I’d have never discovered the strange coincidence of the tornado demolishing Christian’s flat. If I hadn’t listened to what each draft had to tell me I wouldn’t have noticed the “pairs” theme bubbling up from my subconscious. If I hadn’t worked to create deep back-stories for my characters I wouldn’t have found their common connection with Peron. That one is harder to explain away.
Like playing with a Oujia board: I know I must have been the one to move the planchette. But now part of me … wonders.
What do you think?
Lisa Fernow is an innovation consultant and author of Dead on Her Feet: A Tango Mystery (Booktrope, 2014). She lives in Seattle. To learn more about tango and join the conversation – or simply lurk - please visit www.lisafernow.com