It’s strange being a debut author, mostly because of all the questions I’m now asked that I’ve never really asked myself. Who inspired this character? What was your inspiration? Why is your story set on Mars?
I’ve told of mountain climbs in college, bullies in middle school, nights spent staring at the sky, even Greek plays. But I suppose what all of it really comes down to, as it so often does, is childhood. One moment in childhood, to be precise.
Once upon a time, I was terrified of the dark. My father firmly disagreed with the mollycoddling nature of nightlights. So when I lay down to sleep, I prepared myself for siege. Bulwarks of blankets, parapets of stuffed animals. No door could remain cracked. No window shade left parted. When darkness came, I was always prepared. But had I known what was coming on my sixth January, I might not have bothered with the defenses.
In January, four days from my seventh birthday, I found myself lost in the woods of North Carolina. It wasn’t the first time, last time, or only time I would become lost. In fact, come to think of it, there were quite a lot of times. Still are. But back then I was a troublesome kid—one blessed with a large appetite for exploration but a comparatively tiny internal compass.
I’d spent the day building a triangular fort on a wooded peninsula that bulged out over a fast-moving stream. I was so intent on attaching the tarpaulin I’d brought to the top of the fort, that I didn’t realize by the rumbling in my belly or the setting of the sun that the day was fading fast.
Of course I had brought plenty of supplies for the day. Inside the faded green backpack my father had helped me pick out at the army surplus store I had a half-filled canteen of Tang, a stack of dog-eared X-Men comics, rope, nails, a hammer, a small hand saw, extra gloves and four sticks of Slim Jim’s, which were quickly dwindling to three and a quarter. But no flashlight.
My stomach contorted as I realized it was entirely possible I’d be alone in the woods. At night. I packed up my gear and jogged from the fort. But I didn’t know those woods. My family and I had just moved for the second time of an eventual eight.
After wandering for half an hour, I recognized the scratches I’d made in the bark of a fallen tree and remembered the direction from which I’d initially come upon it. I trudged through a dry stream bed, pace quickening as the shadows lengthened and the owls started their night sounds. The winter trees hunched skinny and gaunt like old men. Arms swaying, leafless fingers hissing in the wind. There was no bramble or shrubbery, just knee-high drifts of snow that had shifted enough with fresh powder to hide my tracks.
After twenty minutes or so, I knew I’d gone the wrong way. I doubled back, looking for landmarks. By now the sun had dipped, and the sky had cooled from blue marble to charcoal. My breath came shallow. I jumped at every shift of the branches. Every flutter of wings. Thinking only of a warm house, bean soup and grilled cheese, I ran.
Soon, the wood was dark. Black. Things rustled. Things sang. And singing things fluttered branch to branch, opal eyes staring down at me. I stumbled here and there, not knowing what to do. I’d spent my life afraid of the dark, and here it’d come, steeped in all its strangeness, all its emptiness that I filled with possibilities. Possibilities of ghastly ghouls, three-winged vampire worms, evil centaurs, psychotic clowns, wolfmen and, even worse, manwolves.
I still remember the jackhammering in my chest. The feeling that I could see nothing but all could see me. I’d like to say I grew comfortable in the dark, or at least less afraid of it. Not the case. It scared the piss out of me. It could have been an hour, maybe more till I saw a small light bobbing in the distance and heard my father calling out my name.
He cut through the darkness so well—one of those tall, rangy types with hands calloused from summers of tiling roofs in Iowa. When he found me, he didn’t scold. He didn’t gripe. He just flashed a smile and said sometimes we need to get lost, like it’d been my plan all along.
We reached home. I ate my bean soup and my grilled cheese. I listened to the Adventures in Odyssey audiobook with my parents. I went to bed. But when the darkness came, I didn’t build my nightly fortress. I turned on a lamp, found printer paper, crayons, and began to draw the monsters that had filled the dark corners of the woods.
I kept drawing here and there, but I was never a good artist. In time, I abandoned the crayons for journals, finding words might express things my hands never could. Years later, I abandoned journals for novels. It took me seven before I wrote one that found its way to being published at the end of this month, courtesy of the lovely folks at Del Rey. The novel is called Red Rising, and though it is science fiction and set on Mars seven hundred years distant, I doubt it ever would have come to being if I hadn’t made a habit of getting lost in the dark.