I’m excited to report that the first issue of the anthology, Straeon, edited by M. David Blake, has finally been released. It includes my novelette, “Rains of Craifa, Figure 1 – Girl with Shavlas”. (Just in case you’re wondering, a novelette is a long short story between 7,500 and 17,500 words. Another FYI — while the following discussion relates what inspired the story and discusses several facets of the theme, it doesn’t include any spoilers. ;))
This is a story I wrote a number of years ago (like many of my writing projects), and it was originally entitled “Rainy Season”. The title was changed because — not surprisingly — that one has already been used numerous times. It’s also a positive change since I like how the new one adds a little extra to the story by providing a hint about what happens afterwards. Also, although some of my own titles are simple, I actually have a fondness for long, elaborate titles, both because they are so distinctive and because they may be quite poetic as well. (A couple of memorable examples I often think of are Delany’s “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” and “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand”; Harlan Ellison has also had quite a few very long and very unique titles that are pretty tough to forget.)
Naturally one of the advantages to pulling out a story after having not looked at it for some time is that it helps you view it objectively. (As I get older I seem to find it easier to do that even if the manuscript in question has only sat for a couple of months . . . I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not! ;)) Being objective also helps make one more aware of things like symbolism. When my sister was studying Literary Criticism for her MA in English and showed me some of her assignments, I confess we laughed over how the serious critics often dissect a story in such depth that the resulting analysis seems absurdly elaborate (and sometimes rather far-fetched). The ‘lit crit’ folks would probably have a field day with this particular story, as there are many layers of symbolism and many ways in which all the elements tie together.
As I noted in a previous blog post, I find it fascinating that a lot of symbolism comes from the writer’s unconscious mind, rather than being deliberately included during the process of writing. Certainly I was aware of the basic elements of the theme I was exploring in “Rains of Craifa” involving the transience of life and beauty, like the lyrics of Nino Rota’s “What is a Youth?” from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. But many of the additional layers and details that feed into that theme came as a surprise to me, since I only realized they were there while wrapping up the final edits.
When I was inspired to write “Rains of Craifa” I’d been thinking about Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” — specifically, the idea of a place where something only happens briefly and very infrequently, so that if one misses it they may have lost their only chance to experience it. Clearly that concept can be seen as a metaphor for life itself, and how important it is to ‘seize the day’. (Although in Bradbury’s tale I see that as a secondary theme, while the main subject, IMO, is how children can unintentionally be very cruel.)
The other inspiration that fueled “Rains of Craifa” was a scene in a nature program that showed a frog that spends the dry season looking like a knot of wood on a branch. Only when the monsoon rains arrive does it transform back into a living, hopping frog, as if magically freed from a spell by the kiss of rain. And I started thinking about how it might feel to live that way, which in turn led to speculating what it would be like if there were people with a similar life cycle. So again the ‘carpe diem’ theme and the notion of a brief window of opportunity came into play.
From the first draft one of the things I liked about “Rains” is that I believe it truly captures what travel feels like. Part of that is the curious sense of obligation — almost guilt — that most travelers feel about seeing and doing the things they’re supposed to do when visiting a certain place. I.e., when you visit Paris you have to see the Eiffel Tower, when you come to Arizona, you have to go to the Grand Canyon, when you’re in Venice you have to ride in a gondola. While writing this story I certainly thought about how the fresh perspective provided by traveling can shake someone who’s depressed out of a rut and help give them ‘a new lease on life’. However, I hadn’t considered how that feeling of being obligated to do certain things when you’re only in a place for a certain period of time is also parallel to completing a bucket list during one’s life journey.
And again, while the issue of becoming depressed and withdrawing from life was always part of the overall theme in “Rains”, that element wasn’t fully developed until my final edits came together shortly before I submitted it. Then I could see how the story succeeds in conveying how a state of depression can feel like being alive without experiencing life. But that, of course, is also like spending your existence in a dreamless sleep, as one might do if one truly estivated like a frog through a very long dry season.
While I was partly conscious of the extra symbolism involved in seeing a politician without a face in the opening scene (since their face, i.e. their image and the need to be identified as someone well-known, is a crucial part of their very existence as a political figure), there are other more appealing details that I’m certain I didn’t make a conscious choice about. One of those is the pervasiveness of autumn colors in the story. Only recently did it occur to me how much those colors add another nuance of meaning, since the falling leaves of autumn are also a blatant symbol of mortality.
The passage that I’ve always been most proud of in this story (and the one that gives me the ‘Wow — did I write that?’ feeling) is the dream sequence near the end that’s featured in the excerpt I posted on my Short Stories page. So it’s neat to look at it now and start seeing numerous details that any academic-style critic might easily harvest out of that scene. For instance, the brown river, being brown like the earth and flowing like the passage of time, is also a metaphor for mortality. When the river is carrying Valco away on the boat and the girl is left behind, it’s because she seems suspended in time. But the brown cloth wrapped around her is the same as the river, for she, too, is mortal, and caught in the inevitable flow. And in the dream the colors of autumn are all around them.
White birds invariably represent something transcendent — something outside of the mundane world. It’s no surprise that in many cultures white birds are associated with the heavens, peace, purity — concepts that seem above and beyond the earth, since not only can birds fly into the sky, but the stark contrast of their white plumage against the colors of the ground, the plants, and most other living creatures makes them seem untouched by all those earth-bound things. So with that transcendent quality, here they also represent that moment when you step outside of the inescapable flow of mortality by existing fully in the present as you experience joy and beauty.
I’m sure others can find plenty of additional symbolism that I haven’t seen myself, but finding those elements in that scene was particularly fun. Incidentally, the most difficult thing about working with this story was that I was always pleased with the last few pages (the dream scene and most of what followed it), but each time I’d reread it and then flip back to the beginning, the opening seemed to lack something in comparison. To be honest, the ending is still my favorite part. But in doing the final edits and having the benefit of the input of a skillful editor (thank you, Mr. Blake!), the pieces came together well enough to make me feel confident that it’s a successful story overall.
Though the hypothetical ‘perfect’ story — in which not a word could be altered or replaced without losing something, and each and every sentence reads like an exquisite line of lyric poetry — must be the elusive grail to strive toward, there’s always a special satisfaction that comes at the moment when you can see that in weaving together a collection of words you’ve built something whole that feels like an entity in itself. (And to me, no story is finished until it’s published, because until that point it’s fair game when it comes to revising and editing.) But what really gives a completed story meaning is having the opportunity to share it and know that what you’ve made may give others a memorable experience, however briefly. So I hope many readers (even if they’re not inclined to go digging for symbolism in every line!) will find something in this story that speaks to them.