I stopped writing. Just quit. Didn’t think about it anymore. Stopped pressuring myself to submit, or complete, or revise. I bought a stack of books three feet high; biographies of Fatty Arbuckle and George C. Scott, the history of Victorian parlor microscopy, medieval French romance with commentary, a collection of papers on the late Permian, a pile of science fiction I hadn’t gotten around to. I read, and worked and cooked, and lived without guilt. Yesterday, more than eight months since I last seriously tried to write, I sat down and wrote a pair of short sentences, “Don’t write the novel. Write the world.” I have been working on a notion for over fifteen years now. It started one afternoon in St. Augustine when I took a young girl that worked at the coffee shop on a date, a picnic at the Castillo San Marco, the old bullet riddled Spanish fort that guards the bay of the Matanzas. Looking past the quaint tourist strewn waterfront and the pretty pleasure boats with their pinions and quaint, inside joke names, I could see the tidal flats, the sand bars and grass beds that loom eternal, unchanged, and I recalled a line from Heart of Darkness. Marlow, looking across the Thames estuary toward London as the sun has just disappeared beyond the horizon, says to his companions, “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
The river, Matanzas, was named by the Spanish garrison for the killing of 132 French Huguenot protestants by the first governor of Florida, Pedro Menendez in 1565. The word means, slaughters. But that was only a side show, a near meaningless skirmish in a much larger conflict that had been afflicting Europe for half a century and would culminate in an orgy of blood and betrayal on St. Bartholomew’s Day seven years later in France when nearly thirty-thousand French and Navarrese Huguenots were murdered over the course of several days. The greater horror on that shore and in the untamed hinterlands dwarfed the Wars of Religion, indeed they dwarf all of Europe’s wars and even the black death. In terms of percentages, the introduction of Old World pathogens into the Americas heralded the greatest loss of life in world history. From 1545 to 1619, on human lifespan, the population of the Americas was reduced by 90%. Even in shear numbers, nearly 90 million people, or to add some perspective, more people died in the New World than lived in all of Europe at the time. If every man, woman and child living from the Ural Mountains in Russia to the Coast of Portugal dropped dead, you would still be about ten million graves short of equivalent. That was slaughter.
I thought about this as I sat there ruining my date. I thought about the strange, wild, ghost filled land that the early European colonists (invaders?) beheld. The desolation that lay before them must have been difficult to comprehend, if they noticed it at all. And the culture and societies of the native people, already alien to European minds, would not have been the cultures and societies that had been created and evolved by the native people. The colonists would have encountered a sort of 16th century version of The Road Warrior. The social order of any culture does not survive the loss of 9 out of every 10 people let alone the sudden appearance of technologically advanced and organized expeditionary forces right on the heels of the disaster. It was the end of the world. From Atlantic to Pacific and across 125 degrees of latitude an invisible killer swept across well trodden trade routes that grew silent and unused at its passing. Kingdoms toppled leaving behind only traces of stone and mounds to mark their demise. The Inca, the authors of the largest Empire in the “New World” and one of the largest states to be found anywhere at that time, survived longer due to geographic peculiarities, but behind the disease were soldiers dressed in steel. Their empire, less than two centuries old, fell before it had even flourished. Had the Spanish arrived a century later though, it would not have mattered. Hemorrhagic fever and small pox were far more deadly than swords.
So that’s what I think about on dates. I keep thinking about the darkness that Europe visited on this land. And that, I realized, is a story I want to tell. My dear friend Maggie once gave me some story notes about “wise natives.” Don’t fall into the easy trope, I took her to say. But what is this place we live? We live upon the heaped bodies of history. We cannot turn a single stone that does not reveal a skull. So I want to write the stories of a different America. I won’t call it darker (what could be?) but a wholly alien place, populated by priestless gods bereft of ritual and powers whose descriptors have vanished. An ancient new world where the forces that underpin reality are cut loose to reek what havoc they might. Call it a new apocalyptic story.
I’ve had two long form ideas in this world; one set in the old west, the other jumping between modern and early 17th century Florida. The first idea is, no way to sugar coat this, a vampire story. My protag is an opiate addicted psychic barely making a living in El Paso where he helps the local law track down outlaws by holding something that the baddies once owned. Then he gets a piece of property from the devil himself. The second story is about a guy that owns an historical remodeling firm in St. Augustine and rehabs old properties in their original style. He is (invisible to all but the reader) followed around by seven ghastly ghosts that don’t say much anymore. An iron casket is discovered at the hurricane damaged site of a three-hundred year old Jesuit mission outside of town. As the bodies begin to pile up, our hero must face his own history, and it is a long history indeed. Of the first idea I have only ideas, research and a pile of notes. Of the second (the older of the two) I have about twenty-thousand words and a handful of pretty solid outlines. My favorite bits involve the mother goddess turning tricks in a Fort Lauderdale spring break club and a fairly revolting rebirth process involving the everglades and “all that crawls and wallows…”.
So where am I? Short stories is where. One of my literary heroes, Paul McAuly (whom I wrote to once when I was sad and replied with the kindest of words) created a world so engrossing in short stories that I was salivating for a novel or three, has taught me that subcreation is a process and that worlds must be built in bits. I am going to endeavor to build a world, with all its underpinnings, one tale at a time. The novel, but first the world.
wish me luck
ps, thanks m for not giving up on me