People always want to know where writers get their ideas from. Most writers are accutely evasive about their answers. However, I remember the exact instant I became inspired to write The Realms Thereunder with near crystal clarity, even after five years.
It was late January in the Bavarian Alps. My mother, against all probability and power of prediction, had taken a job at a castle that had been converted into a hotel/conference centre and I was visiting on an extended vacation. The !Hero project had just folded, leaving me ruinously in debt, both financially and emotionally, and I was looking for my next project, something that would help me put the pieces of my life back together, or as many of them as I could find.
The Pinzgau region of Austria is a kind of permanent borderland. The nearest airport was in Germany, and the mountain pass that led directly into Italy could be plainly seen to the south. It had a reputation for being a sort of cultural cul-de-sac. Outsiders could call it ‘backward’, but it would more accurate to call it ‘ancient’. Bavaria, like Småland in Sweden, Devon in Britain, and the American ‘Deep South’ are all places I’ve had varying degrees of contact with, and they’re all places where the inhabitants not only have a feeling for the history of their territory, but also a sense of continuity with it. They’re places where the old ways are nearly forgotten because they were always thought too important to have to remember.
Going through a rough patch in my life – feeling in a spiritual wilderness, I entered the habit of taking morning walks in the nearby forest. The valleys between the winter Alps are places where the sun is only occasionally visible, even if it is able to penetrate the snow-heavy clouds. It was still too early for it to have risen above the mountain range, but the forest was bright with a diffused light that cast no shadows, but at the same time everything was in a shadow.
I would pick my paths along the deer trails of the forest that wound along crevices and fissures, between clearings, and through copses. Farm buildings and boundaries flitted in and out of view, but mostly it was a wilderness that didn’t give the impression of being tamed so much as trapped – cornered, like an animal.
I had just taken a step downwards, into an attractive clearing, when I heard a low whistling sound – a sort of THRUMMM – and five enormous crows came whiffling through from the woods behind me and began circling the clearing, arcing and orbiting above my head. They made no sound, but the poetry and intricacy of their flights were like a symphony, movements rising and falling in intensity. I stood frozen, barely breathing, for about a minute and a half, and then they were gone, the dark forest instantly masking their forms as soon as they left the clearing.
And as they left, it seemed as if they left a hole in reality, a gap in the world. Maybe they were attracted to it, maybe they created it, but between the boughs and the branches of the trees, I could have convinced myself that I was looking into another world, and that just ten or twenty steps would take me past the threshold of this and into an obscured and wild otherworld.
It would be nice to say that I took those steps into a new land, but I didn’t. I was terrified, and not ready to leave this one. I let the moment pass. The world turned, the neurons in my head started firing in their normal courses, and the path lengthened – the door closed. I went back to the castle and I didn’t go looking for that place again.
But I’d been inspired. I knew the story I wanted to tell now. I wanted to tell of the magic of the borderlands, of the magic that existed in the places that are between places, of the people that are between people. I wanted to tell the story of the world behind this one, which was still just on the edge of memory, and nearly out of sight. The world that Pink Floyd’s <i>Comfotably Numb</i> expresses it perfectly: “When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse/ Out of the corner of my eye./ I turned to look and it was gone,/ I cannot place my finger on it now,/ the child is gone, the dream is gone…”
The heroes of the book would be neither children nor adults. The characters they met would be neither helpful nor unhelpful, neither right nor wrong, and often neither dead nor alive. The quest they were sent on would neither be finished nor failed, and the evil, once they faced it, would not be wholly evil.
Those are the themes for Book 1, and I believe they are true, universal themes for us in our lives. There will be different themes and ideas for Book 2 and 3, but this was the story I had to tell first. All of us are born into incompletion, and we’re searching for answers, clinging to connections. We pass through many borderlands in our lives, transition from person into person – and that’s the story I needed to write first, and that’s the story of The Realms Thereunder.