The Story Behind The Book
The inspiration for Shelter Island cannot be attributed to a single muse. Firstly, as a children’s fantasy writer, I have always been drawn to middle grade fiction. Middle grade fiction is wide open in terms of subject, especially in the fantasy genre. Think of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Hobbit, Narnia, the works of Madeleine L’Engle, Kathi Appelt, R. J. Anderson, Kenneth Oppel, Edith Nesbit and Lemony Snicket. It just keeps on going. So, other author’s work partly form the foundation of my inspiration.
Secondly, after working on my manuscript one of my editors commented, You know you are bucking the trend here… I thought, I hope so. Shelter Island is a story for those readers, like the book’s protagonists Cary, Clarisse, and Gregory, who may need to look somewhere other than their own troubled hearts to find the courage they need to face extraordinary circumstances and enemies older, stronger and more cunning. It was certainly true of my life and I wish I had come across more stories of that ilk when I was much younger. A lot of children’s books beat the same feeble drum. Their message? Just dig deep enough, try hard enough, and take charge. Everything will work out. Just reach into your heart and you will find everything you need. That advice seems a naive sort of cure all – like Jake’s ol’ Snake Oil. What if his ‘heart’ should fail? What if he reaches into his heart and finds nothing but the ashes of regret and loneliness? Exploring the possibilities that arise out of such questions was a strong inspiration for Shelter Island.
And as odd as it may sound, the characters themselves are inspiring. Once formed, characters can alter the course of a story. I used to dismiss comments from authors who said they let their characters write their books. It seemed to me like ‘humble boasting’. But after my fourth novel, I can say a lot of that is true. Exciting, unanticipated scenes and situations arise from character’s interactions. A story’s characters think, speak and act in ways peculiar to their motives, flaws and traits. Allowing them to ‘live’ can oft times create an added scene, an unexpected journey down an untrodden path, or surprise with a dramatic twist.
As far as the inspiration for Shelter Island’s bare-bones story, a long time ago, while admiring how birds could alight, snatch a seed and launch from a swinging bird feeder, I imagined myself getting dizzy, and as I collapsed, reaching out for the rim of the bird feeder, to end up dangling from the seed tray, shrunk to the size of a shelled peanut. The idea evolved into a boy whom birds kidnap and whisk away to a world inhabited by secret civilization of intelligent birds. Not long after he arrives prominent birds in this strange civilization exploit the young man’s pride and dupe him into making a catastrophic decision that pushes an ancient conflict to the brink of war. The one boy, it turns out, had a brother and sister. The story, minus the bird-feeder scene, grew into three novels.