March 2012. I’m driving down to Orlando for a conference on the fantastic in the arts. My wife, Ann, is in the passenger seat, reading the manuscript of my new novel, Annihilation. I’m nervous as hell and finding it hard to concentrate on the highway—that boring part of I-75 that serves as a gullet down toward the artificial guts of Disney World. What the hell have I written? The book is about a dysfunctional secret agency called Southern Reach and its efforts to solve the mysteries behind Area X, a strange pristine wilderness. For 30 years, Area X has been closed off from the rest of the world by an invisible border and peculiar things are happening inside. Most expeditions meet with disaster.
As I wait for Ann’s verdict, I’m filled with doubts. Maybe the book is just an aimless ramble about four women wandering a facsimile of the 14-mile trail I hike out at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, complete with abandoned lighthouse. Maybe this isn’t the first thing to show my new agent, Sally Harding. Maybe my first novel in four years should be something else. Maybe I should just concentrate on my driving.
But the indications are good—Ann, who also happens to be an experienced editor, is making the sounds you always imagine readers would make while in the middle of it all, if you had the opportunity to eavesdrop without seeming like a stalker. The sharp intake of breath you wouldn’t put in a novel because it’s a cliché. The muttered “Oh my God.” The intense staring at words on the page that seem to have a physical impact on the world.
Yet I’m still reviewing the options in my head. What if I have to self-publish? No problem. I can do that. I’d rather do that than go with the kind of publisher where I’d be doing most of the work myself anyway. An hour passes. The highway’s still boring as hell. Ann’s still reading.
Finally, Ann finishes the novel.
And sits there.
It’s part of the ritual: I have to pull it out of her.
“So, what do you think?” Trying to sound like it doesn’t matter even though she knows it matters, because Ann never bullshits me.
“I think it’s great,” she says. “I think it’s amazing. It’s wonderful.”
Which is great to hear, even though after 30 years in the business I’m a bit cynical. I’ve had the full range of publisher encounters, from my start with indie and small presses to dealing with large, commercial houses. Over my career, I’ve had great experiences, but I’ve also had to pull a book because the editor became a born-again Christian and wanted my characters to correspond to figures in the Bible. I’ve had a novel published only after one New York editor fished the manuscript out of another editor’s wastebasket. I’ve had numbers that look like the report on a healthy 25-year-old’s vitals and others that looked like whoever that was must’ve just been put in a coffin and hauled away in a hearse.
Yet, no matter what’s happened, I’ve always remained optimistic. Not only hasn’t there really been a year where I’ve been totally out of the game, but I’ve been a full-time writer since 2007—with the scar tissue and jangled nerves to prove it.
Maybe there are options after all.
Three publishers in the U.S. wind up making offers for Annihilation and the two other books I plan to write after them. I’m calling the series the Southern Reach trilogy: The three books will complete an overarching narrative while differing in style and approach. None of the publishers who make offers are science-fiction or fantasy editors or from genre imprints. I like all three.
But the letter from Sean McDonald at Farrar, Straus and Giroux includes a unique plan to publish all three novels in one year. Sean thinks the first book will leave readers wanting more and he doesn’t want to keep them waiting. As he’ll explain a couple of years later to The New York Times, “You can end up with angry and perplexed fans. I think people are more aware of series storytelling, and there is this sense of impatience, or maybe a fear of frustration. We wanted to make sure that people knew that there were answers to these questions.”
As I read Sean’s initial offer, all of the details sound right. My bullshit detector doesn’t go off even once. Knowing that all three books will come out one after another, I feel less pressure to make Annihilation entirely self-contained, which is important to the integrity of the novel—especially when the whole series grapples with the idea of something beyond human comprehension. I’ve also always wanted to be published by FSG. To be honest, it’s the first and only time I’ve seemed to hear celestial music playing in the background while reading an offer letter. That seems like a good sign.
Of course, I’m going to have to write the second and third novels in about 18 months, but that’s no big deal, right?
The idea for Area X—the mysteriously transformed region at the center of the Southern Reach trilogy—came out of dental surgery. Not that I recommend dental surgery as the best way to find inspiration, but it worked for me. Dental surgery along with anger and grief over the BP Gulf Oil Spill. The latter was a dark, horrible spiral through my mind—all of our minds here on the Florida coast—that came back out of me in unexpected ways. For a while it had seemed like they would never stop the leak, that the oil would keep gushing out into the Gulf for decades.
After the oil spill, the spiral continued because I knew that at the microscopic level the oil was still infiltrating and contaminating the environment. That just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting you or the places you love. I’ve lived in Tallahassee, Florida, since 1992, and I’ve hiked in Florida for much longer than that. My parents were in the Peace Corps, and we spent some time in Fiji, but nowhere felt like home until we came to North Florida. The wilderness here is only landscape I’ve ever really known to the point where I felt like a part of it.
Then I had dental surgery—wisdom teeth removed plus a root canal—and it turned out my pact with the God of Paper Cuts to never get seriously sick my whole life long was just a sham. Turns out dental surgery can make you ill, overcome your defenses. Strep throat gave way to bad bronchitis. I had to slow down, confined to the house. Waking up when I woke up and just sleeping through the day.
Until one night, somewhere deep in my subconscious mind, that spiral of oil became transformed or inverted and I was possessed by a dark dream. In the dream I was walking down the steps of a tower sunk into the ground. Living words on the walls. Strange matter. Peculiar energy. The words on the wall were made of moss or fungus, so common here in North Florida that that part didn’t even register as odd.
What did register as odd was the fact the words were getting brighter, more alive, until I couldn’t ignore an essential, horrifying fact: down below me, some thing was still writing … and I was getting closer to it.
You’d think that’d have been enough to wake me up, but this was the kind of dream where you don’t know you’re dreaming. I had the lucid thought that I was on an expedition and could recall what I’d had for breakfast, and that I’d stepped outside for a walk … and encountered this …
I won’t lie. It was disorienting and terrifying. I was scared as shit in the dream. But I kept walking down those steps anyway, until I could tell that around the corner lay whatever was creating the words. And I don’t know if it was out of fear or because my writer-brain knew if I saw whatever it was I’d never write a story about it. But I woke up, with the whole plot and main characters in my head. Along with about 500 words of weird words on a wall that remained the same in the final version of the novels.
Afterwards, writing Annihilation was a simple process: I’d get up and write for three hours, fall asleep, maybe edit a bit in the evenings, and repeat the process. In five weeks, I had a finished novel. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else, in part because I was driven to write, but also because I felt so sick I was either writing or sleeping, with no energy for anything else.
It was one of the best writing experiences I’ve ever had.
March 2013. There’s a huge pit-hole in the living room where a construction crew has had to dig up our water pipes. The carpet’s a crooked curled-up sneer, preamble to the entrance to an abyss, across from which sits, incongruously, our pristine collection of first-edition books, on bookshelves under glass. I can’t say it’s not a distraction.
I’m working on Authority, the second novel, trying not to panic because I’m afraid I might have to tell my editor and my agent that there are four novels, not three. The writing is going great, but how many books will there be? I won’t know for sure until I’m almost done with Authority. The movie deal and the foreign-language deals are all based on three books. Meanwhile, Annihilation is still imprinting itself on my life: copy edits and iterations of cover design come into the house, creating waves of disruption.
So I’m thankful I already have 35,000 words of scene fragments for Authority before I start in earnest. That includes a strong sense of the events and of my main character. Unlike Annihilation, which is about the four women and their expedition, Authority is all about a man called Control, the new director of the Southern Reach agency. I know I’m going to focus on his inner landscape as much as the particulars of Area X. Without that basic starting point, I’d be adrift.
Every day I get up and write in the mornings, mostly at coffee shops. I have lunch. I exercise, as intensely as I can because I know there’s going to come a point where inertia will set in and I will have no time for anything but Authority. Slowly, and then more swiftly, red wine infiltrates my life. I cannot stop it. It seems inevitable: To write in the evenings, I need some kind of calming boost. The thought of marijuana has crossed my mind but I’m afraid it’s going to just make me sleepy and so I cancel an “order” from a friend. Red wine it will have to be.
Not the kind of thing you recommend to beginning writers: “When working on your novel, get up and have two red-eyes, enough eggs to satiate a komodo dragon, write, have lunch, exercise, write again, and then have a lot of red wine to keep going. Repeat every day for months.”
Sometimes, you have to change your coffee shop, too. At the end of one increasingly jittery week of writing, the barista asks me, “Feel any different?” “In what way?” I ask. “I dunno,” she replies, “I’ve been adding more espresso shots to your coffee, gradual, to see what would happen.”
So in some ways it’s a relief when getting my daily dose of Vitamin D contracts from walking to cafes to taking a stroll through the neighborhood to just ceaselessly pacing around the front yard—and then scuttling back inside to write, like some kind of weird scrawling creature. Do I mind this? No. It’s almost like being in a groove, the kind of obsessional writing experience you dream about.
Perhaps inevitably, I develop a fascination with the term terroir, which refers to particular aspects of a landscape and climate that affect the growing of wine grapes. In Authority, Control asks his assistant, Whitby, what the word means, and gets the answer, “What doesn’t it mean? It means the specific characteristics of a place—the geography, geology, and climate that, in concert with the vine’s own genetic propensities, can create a startling, deep, original vintage.” This preoccupation with terroir—that profound sense of location that’s more than the sum of its parts—spills out from the novel into my life over these months. It’s as if my writing self has signed some contract with the outside world, allowing my everyday surroundings to be overtaken by the terroir of my novel. As a result of this contract, a lot of weird stuff happens and I’m able to transform it into fiction.
The first dislocation happens when a routine oil change leads to gas fumes filling the car every time I turn on the AC. The first couple of days, this happens so gradually that I’m woozy without being able to recognize the source. I’m out the door to bring coffee home, and by the time I’m back to the house to write, I’m itchy and paranoid and out of sorts … and so is Control, my main character.
Once I realize what’s happening, I take the car to the mechanic and hang out at in the back of a café across the street while I’m waiting for it. I’m working on a scene involving Control and Whitby. A friend from out of town comes into the café with another person I know, goes up to the register in front. I return to my writing. Next thing I know, this friend is sitting down next to me to say hi while I’m trying to write and the person he was with is nowhere to be seen. While he’s talking to me, it’s pretty clear the other person is mouthing words at him from the balcony behind us, and he’s taking little quick looks up there. Why the other person didn’t want to talk to me, I don’t know, although I’m sympathetic. Structured avoidance is something I’m familiar with. But the paranoia of not knowing why and the idea of someone standing behind me gets shoved into the Authority draft in a terrifying way.
During this time, too, sleep becomes a problem. I keep waking up at four in the morning for two weeks. I can’t figure out why, think it must be the wine, but have a strong sense of a sharp sound of some kind occurring right before I wake up. The sound always stops once I am awake. A couple of crimes have occurred right up the street, so I’m concerned. Is someone getting into the house? Even though that’s an absurd thought. They’re getting into the house, and then what? Standing and making a sound at the bedroom door and then leaving, over and over again?
I start writing in a kind of altered state, because I need eight hours or I’m basically a zombie. Sometimes I even get up at four and write for a couple of hours and go back to bed, the family defense system—an ax—by my side. Eventually, I discover that one of our cats has taken to scratching at the door but immediately stops as soon as he hears me stirring.
But my sleep patterns are irrevocably damaged, and with a kind of impotent snarl of rage at the injustice of that—the Sleep Police aren’t going to give me back my hours—I write a searing scene involving something Unnatural skittering across the roof and then the floor. In the middle of the night. The terroir of the scene is wrong for Authority, but the terror turns out to be perfect for Acceptance, where it ultimately appears: “You nod off. You come to. You nod off again. Then you hear something creeping low and soft across the tiles of the kitchen, just out of view. A kind of terrified lurching shudder burns through you. There’s a slow scuttle to the sound, so you can’t really identify it, get a sense of what has crept into your house...”
Everything is eating everything else now and I’m as disoriented as my characters. This doesn’t bother me that much—it seems right for what I’m working on, so I encourage the tendency so long as I’m happy with the results on the page.
Ann comes home some days and I’m arguing with the cats or talking to myself. The house is a shambles because I can’t distinguish between writing time and non-writing time. All I can do is follow my character, almost literally off a cliff. (All the early stories I wrote at age 13 ended with characters on cliff. Falling off of. Pushed. Jumping.)
One day in June 2013, having gone out to get lunch in a rush and parked back at the house, I’m about to go in and wolf down my food when I spot a mosquito hovering against the inside of the car’s windshield. I swat it into the glass and forget about it.
The next morning, I get back in the car to run an errand and find the mosquito’s body obscured by a quick-acting fungus composed of delicate white filaments. I am in such a state of superstition, influenced by the novel, that I cannot bring myself to get a napkin and wipe it away. I am not even sure now that I swatted the mosquito in the first place. Is someone getting inside my car? Is someone watching me? I’m deep inside of the paranoid Southern Reach secret agency by then, and I’ve been living inside of Control’s mind so long that I’m analyzing the world a little differently.
So I leave the mosquito on the inside of the windshield until it is completely encased in white filaments. I go inside and write a scene about the end of a very taxing day for Control; I stick the mosquito incident in there, as a kind of exorcism of it from my daily life. But it catches hold, has significance, and I cannot pull it out again. I’m so superstitious about the terroir I’m generating that I don’t get rid of the mosquito in my car until I have finished the rough draft of Authority. Control keeps obsessing over that tiny insect throughout the book, tormented by his inability to figure out how it got inside his sealed car. That mosquito is there to remind me of something vital, even if it’s something I can only really sense out of the corner of my eye.
Late June 2013. I haven’t driven the car in a week, because I’ve been too busy writing. My world has contracted to the kitchen table, the desk, the free weights in the exercise room, and a refrigerator that seems to be magically refilling itself every couple of days. In the evenings, I talk out character relationships with Ann, the only person I can discuss a novel in progress with and not get blocked.
The next morning, while stretching my legs on a little walk around the front yard and driveway … I notice a red-tinged latticework spilling out from under the left side of the trunk of my car. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the otherworldly mold that plays such a menacing role in Area X has found its way into my car.
Besides, when I see the spores coming out of the trunk, I’m already feeling a little paranoid: I’ve just rewritten a scene involving a strange room and Control’s assistant, Whitby, a character I think of as the Smeagol of the Southern Reach. What the hell is in the trunk? I don’t want to open the trunk. But I’ve got to open the trunk. I have to. If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to open the trunk of this car that is fast becoming an immobile monument to my (intentionally, closely monitored) ever-deteriorating state.
So I open the trunk only to have all kinds of red dust fumes spew out. I leap back—but not fast enough to avoid getting stains on my clothing. Horrified, I brush red dust off of myself, coughing, trying not to swallow whatever’s shot up into my face.
When the dust has settled, I look in the trunk, only to find it’s been colonized by puffball and tendril fungi, which discharged spores when I opened the trunk. The water seal has broken and let in the rain. The spare tire, under the cover, is half-floating in a trough of water.
I cannot deal with this. I cannot deal with this. I put on a mask—the only one I have is a Halloween duck-face—that might keep out some fumes and I put on latex gloves and clean out the trunk and scoop out the water. Then I go back inside and drink some red wine and sing along to a song by Spoon. Shout along. Loudly. While the cats look on quizzically. I’m wondering if I should call the pot dealer after all.
Sometime around when all of this happens, I need a location for the former Southern Reach director’s house. There’s a scene in Authority where Control breaks into it, and I’ve made a promise to myself that no detail of landscape in these novels will come to me secondhand.
But this is method acting, not reality, so I don’t actually want to break into somebody’s house. After ruling out some options—like paying a friend to let me break into his house—I decide our house is the location. I get into character as Control, after first leaving our French doors facing the backyard unlocked. I walk up stealthy to the house in the late afternoon. I sneak through the backyard, only to see the neighbor staring at me from the next house down. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll get transformed into a shy kid in the novel, someone unlikely to call the police. I keep sneaking. I go in through the French doors. I walk through our house, trying to see everything with fresh eyes.
Eventually, I wind up in the master bedroom, looking at a poster against the wall that has a hand-drawn map of Area X on it, just like I thought the former director would have left behind. It’s a poster I drew myself, of course. But I stare at it for a while, and a genuine feeling of dread and fear travels up my spine. I’m seeing the room through Control’s eyes—he’s looking at a map created by some unknown source, wondering what the hell it’s doing in the former director’s bedroom.
I take the poster down.
I record all of my observations about the house.
I tell Ann I’m using our house as the former director’s house, but don’t tell her about the method acting.
It takes a while to erase the vision of the map of Area X in our bedroom from my head.
July 21, 2013. I’m in South Carolina, helping run a teen writing camp called Shared Worlds. I’ve been popping up with a smile to teach in the auditorium and then going back to my apartment and finishing up revisions to what I hope is the final draft of Authority. I’m done. I’m toast. I’m deliriously happy. To celebrate, I take the only two food items left in the apartment—chicken wings and Brussel sprouts—and stir fry them up together, a hideous dish I dub “the topographical anomaly.”
Everything seems in order, like I wanted it. Never mind the abyss back home in our living room. Never mind that there’s now a huge mound of draft pages, typed and handwritten, along with a slew of notebooks in my office in Tallahassee. Once I started piling them there, I was too superstitious too stop. They’re too much like the mound of documents Control has to wade through in the Southern Reach offices. (I won’t actually box them up until after the last book is published.)
I compose an email. I send Authority to my editor and my agent.
I’m elated. I’m drained. I collapse in an apartment that looks like it’s been violently searched by the police, who also apparently left a lot of dirty dishes in the sink and a few empty wine bottles on the counter. Detritus of two weeks of frenzied effort. I spend the evening watching movies on Netflix. I won’t remember anything I watch that night.
I spend the next few days teaching teenagers how to write. One of them, 13, finishes their story. “How many stories have you written?” I ask. “This is my first one,” she says.
I almost burst into tears.
My left knee gives out in early November 2013, while working on the third novel, Acceptance. It starts when I go out to hike the 14-mile trail at the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge that inspired Annihilation, to remember anything I might have forgotten. Any time I walk there in the winter, a crispness to the air, a freshness, blinds me to looking for hazards. The alligators are torpid and thick with cold, motionless in the mud beside the canals, their darkness lit by a phantom light over the marsh flats that’s as dramatic and enervating as anything in a painter by Turner.
Seven miles in, distracted by the light—the glorious light I keep trying to describe in these novels—I plant my left boot in a deep, grass-fringed hole and twist at the knee. A twinge, but I hardly feel it and finish the hike. The next day at the gym I mistake a tightness in my knee while doing the leg press for the usual aches and pains—and keep going.
From then on, until about July 2014, I don’t have full use of my knee, and even then need a brace. It’s an absurd, darkly hilarious development. The kind of thing that, in context, despite the pain, has me saying to Ann, “Well, now, for sure, I can’t leave the house, or get distracted. All I can do is sit and type.”
The crazy thing is that I don’t even have time to go to the doctor to have it checked out for six months because I go from writing Acceptance to pre-publicity and then out on tour. The whole time I have to hope it’s not something serious, even though until around about March I’m more or less dragging it behind me and trying to disguise the problem at readings. I’m still upbeat—I figure worst case I’ll get knee surgery in 2015. I joke with Ann that she’s going to have to trade me in for a new husband.
So … I’m unable to exercise and I’m still working on Acceptance while in a great deal of pain and uncertainty. But I started writing Annihilation while in physical distress, so maybe there’s some symmetry to the situation—something, again, to channel. It helps that the structure of Acceptance is already so clear to me: a vast, glowing starfish of a structure, with the characters set on their trajectories and my knowledge of Area X at its hub. I am an archer who knows he has a chance of hitting the very center of the target.
As my characters push through winter expeditions in the novel, winter is cresting in Florida. I’m noting the way the grass turns to the consistency of hay, with the same fresh smell, the way the lakes become a more brittle blue and the animals turn wary.
I’m still collecting details. Thanksgiving weekend, Ann takes me out to Apalachicola on the coast of the Florida Panhandle. I need some last small-town Florida texture. Seen from the car: the worn-down dark nubs of trees on the strip of an off-white beach. There’s a gutted building with no roof that has trees growing inside. A ruined boat with the paint peeling off the sides and a dark line where the water, over time, stained the wood. A weird Christmas tree with buoys hanging off of it. The swifts and swallows follow trajectories charted by a drunk mathematician across the pale blue of a cloudless sky. There’s something breathless about the birds that I fall in love with. I keep trying to write descriptions of them on the ride home, and failing to capture something important about them.
This is the last time I leave the house until I finish the novel.
February 2014. Annihilation, the first book in the trilogy, has finally been published and I’m touring down the West Coast in support of the release. Things are going great. The L.A. Times has given me a very positive review, and the New York Times has mentioned the Southern Reach trilogy in a front-page article about “binge reading.” More coverage comes from NPR, the Christian Science Monitor, and a host of others. The news about Scott Rudin and Paramount optioning the film rights has made Annihilation one of the most talked-about books at the London Book Fair, and a slew of foreign rights deals follow shortly after that.
Sean McDonald is, thankfully for me, looking like a genius, and “Annie,” his name for Annihilation, is looking like a sturdy investment. The novel’s uber-real now, and it’s being subjected to intense scrutiny, more than I’ve ever encountered before.
With all of that going on, I wake up and get out of a freezing bed in my room at a bed-and-breakfast near Mendocino. I’m hunkered down in Northern California, taking a couple of days off from the tour before driving south. The cold’s like a second skin you can’t escape, and the rain slants sideways into your eyes like tiny electric shocks. This is about as far from the climate of Florida as you can get, and yet the same desolation and silence lurks in the wilderness.
I lace up my boots and, trying not to put too much weight on my bad knee, go outside with the final manuscript for Acceptance tucked under one arm. The marked-up draft I’m carrying features a man carrying a strange manuscript and walking under the shadow of a lighthouse. And here I am, starting to resemble a grizzled old lighthouse keeper—some demented solitary guy with tired eyes who takes long naps and lives nocturnal by the sea. Which would suit me fine, just so long as Ann was by my side.
After working on the edits for a while, I go out into the wind and rain with a camera and a published copy of Annihilation under my raincoat. With difficulty because of the knee, I take a trail near Fort Bragg down to a place called the Glass Beach. I’m having trouble existing in two worlds simultaneously—editing the final book while doing publicity for the first one—so in a wild, symbolic gesture, I’m going to try to drown Annihilation in a tidal pool.
But Annihilation, it turns out, floats, and a park ranger comes up to ask what the hell I’m doing and I take my sopping wet novel and get out of that place, fast. Later, I take photos of Annihilation drying on rocks and post them on Twitter. I have no idea what effect if any they have on sales, but there’s an aesthetic quality to them I like, a texture that feels like it will suffuse Acceptance.
The point is: I’m all in. I’ll take any gig, do anything asked of me, write nonfiction and initiate “in conversation” pieces until I can’t even keep track of it all. At the same time, I’ll bite my tongue and stifle my impulsiveness and refuse to get sucked into a year’s worth of Internet drama and literary squabbles to make sure I stay focused.
Later, down the coast, I stop at a scenic historic spot, pull out the cord on the rental car GPS too fast, and the whole (unbelievably complex) mechanism explodes into pieces against the safety brake. The thought occurs as I look at the broken GPS: Maybe I should just stay in Northern California, fix up an abandoned shed to live in, and become a hermit, the one they point to and say, “He came out here to do a book tour and something just snapped and they couldn’t find all the pieces to put him together again.”
Instead, I spend a patient hour finding the pieces from under the front seats, putting the GPS all back together again so it works, because I have no idea where I am because I don’t have a real map. (And I got rid of my smartphone before the tour—too distracting.) I find that hour as calming as the hiking. Oh, to just concentrate on one thing for a moment. That’s nirvana.
The farther south I travel along the California coast, the more relaxed things get. It’s a world of bookstores and elephant seals and whale-sightings, of doing interviews via email and Skype while visiting lazy little towns and more tidal pools than I can blissfully stare into. By the time I get to the San Francisco area, I’m very relaxed, had enough time away from people to regroup. I’m giggling in the wet and the murk as a group of friends guide me to the Point Bonitas lighthouse at the edge of the Marin Headlands. Along the bottom of a sheer rock face on one side and the abyss of the sea, held at bay by the sheer cliffs to the other. Through a tunnel, across a suspension bridge. In a raging storm. Still editing Acceptance, still tweaking Authority.
By July 2014, Authority has joined Annihilation out in the world and I’m back at the same teen writing camp, staying in the same apartment where I sent off the book the year before.
This time, I’m dealing with a lot of incoming email—more touring opportunities, more review coverage all over the place, more news of foreign-language deals, now up to 21 countries. People have been coming to the readings and buying multiple copies for friends. Now, theories about Area X are beeping and tumbling their way into my inbox. There’s fan art, and multiple features in Entertainment Weekly. I’m not able to keep track of it all. It’s like a huge pile of evidence to sort through—a pile of evidence I’m truly grateful for. It means a lot to me, to connect like that. To have readers who say “I don’t usually read this kind of fiction, but …” or “I love this character or that character. I love this scene. This bit terrified me.”
Two months later, in September, Acceptance is released and I’m trying not to be nervous about how readers will receive this concluding volume, shaking off nightmares in which a disapproving Angela Carter (my patron saint) turns slowly, a frown on her face. I’m at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences with Geekadelphia’s Chris Urie, trainer Jill Sybesma, and photographer Kyle Cassidy—and a great horned owl with one wing. We’re going to get a photograph with the owl.
There’s an owl in Acceptance, an uncanny bird that reminds the biologist of her missing husband. That scene was the most emotional part of the novel to write. It required restraint, just letting the situation play out without the author intervening or editorializing. But although I studied owls closely before writing those scenes, nothing can compare to this moment, watching the owl. Up close, its feathers are even more amazing than in photographs. The detail of the coloration, the richness of the layering, has an intrinsic beauty that defies depiction.
I’m not only going to get my picture taken with an owl, but also do an event with one at the Free Library of Philadelphia the next evening. Reviewers and the public have been very kind to Acceptance. Over the summer, Vernon Reid, founder of the band Living Colour, tweeted out his love of the novels, and then Stephen King did the same thing. (His tweet became a blurb.) Which is funny, because we’d tried to bring the novels to King’s attention back before publication; instead, he’d read them because his local indie bookseller recommended them to him. During the tour, I see other booksellers recommending my books when I’m browsing in bookstores; I get a disconcerting jolt when I witness people buying them or hear clerks taking orders for them over the phone. Just by chance.
All of this is amazing, but I calculate by year’s end I’ll have gone from being a hermit in 2013 to spending five months, two weeks, and three days on the road in 2014. After the owl photo shoot and a dinner, I just sleep and order take-out and have almost no contact with another human being until the gig the next night. That pattern of enforced isolation repeats over and over until the end of the year. Otherwise, all the commotion would be just too much for an introverted curmudgeon like me.
The barn owl they bring out onto the stage in Philly shits copiously within seconds of being out of its box. The trainer continues on talking about owls while it craps all over the stage. She’s used to this, the way I’m used to being on the road. Owl shit’s just a hazard of performing with owls. It doesn’t even register for her.
Afterwards, other venues and bookstores later on the tour start asking: Does Jeff require a live owl at his events?
Must we round up a live owl? Is a live owl part of the deal?
I wish it could be. I really do. Even knowing what I know.
I didn’t know much when I signed up to publish three books in less than a year. Right up until the last moment, I didn’t even know whether I could write one of the final scenes.
Put yourself in my place: Acceptance is due in three days, but the truth is I also can’t hold onto it any longer even if I don’t finish it. Because I don’t know which end is up. Because I’m as deep as my characters are into the spiral of the tower-tunnel that hides the mystery.
The knee’s worse and it’s hard to write without scarfing Motrin. Harsh on the stomach when you’re also pushing forward on coffee. I’ve used every magician’s trick of perspective to get distance from Acceptance … and I’m one scene short. It’s all in place, but this one scene I can’t visualize. The increasingly dire situations in the novel have already put me in a place where burnout is a possibility. The novel’s quickening pace puts me more firmly there.
One scene short.
I know on an intellectual level how that scene is supposed to go: A lighthouse keeper has a conversation with a girl who visits his lighthouse, but first he’s visited by a vision, a hallucination, that leaves him shaken to the core. I don’t have that part yet, not on an emotional level. I don’t want to write something dead. I want the whole thing to be alive, owl shit and all.
From the piles of research books on the kitchen table, I pull out Taschen’s Book of Miracles, a massive Renaissance-era tome filled with illustrations of unearthly things. I open the book to a painting of a comet: an event thought of as supernatural back then. This is an image of a UFO, basically—to them. I put my finger to the page, roughly, drunkenly although I’m not drinking … as if somehow pointing to it and connecting with it will make a difference.
“This,” I say to the cats, who don’t care. “This is the scene.”
So I start to write a description of the comet in the photograph and I just keep grinding it out until at some point my imagination clicks back on and the comet erupts off the page in three dimensions and I can see this last scene and the conversation between a lighthouse keeper and the girl and the tidal pool they’re both staring into, and what it all means. And I have my scene. Somehow I have my scene exactly as I envisioned it in my head.
In the morning, I’ll send in Acceptance to my editor and then I’ll go on tour while still doing edits. But that night, when I stumble outside, my front yard looks like someplace alien, someplace I don’t know. It’s midwinter and the light is startling and the sky is a cold, cold blue.
I have nothing left. Nothing at all.
It feels great.