Thursday, January 15, 2015

Louise Spiegler on Writing The Jewel and the Key: Time Travel

Time travel is endlessly appealing but endlessly tricky to pull off. When I was a kid, any book with time travel was guaranteed to get my attention, and I started with the grand-mama of them all: Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet. In a future post, I’ll explore some of my favorite time-travel literature. What I’m going to share here is my experience writing my time-travel novel, The Jewel and the Key (Clarion 2011), what my own goals were, and, really - to be perfectly honest - what was so hard about it.

The Jewel and the Key, beloved second child that it was, was also the difficult child, and the difficulty was definitely compounded by the element of time-travel. Writing time-travel means taking on historical and contemporary fiction simultaneously and creating two different worlds, with two different casts of characters. You have to make both these parallel worlds equally complete.

This book was about nine or ten years in the making, with a big gap in the middle (from 2003 – 2005 while I revised my first book The Amethyst Road, for publication). Compared to The Jewel and the Key, Amethyst was straightforward. The story-line was clear and simple: a girl’s search for her disappeared mother and her quest to put her family back together. It engaged a topic about which I was passionate: racism and what it’s like to be caught between two cultures. I got to invent a culture and alternative history and set it in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. It was a story that was waiting for me to tell it.

The Jewel and the Key was entirely more complex. As soon as I realized I had a time-travel narrative on my hands, I had too many stories I wanted to tell, and, like a cook who has just gone wild at Market Spice in Pike Place Market, I wanted to throw them all in the mix.

I started writing the week the U.S. started bombing Baghdad. That was the spark for linking two different eras.

Whatever I’m teaching always informs my creative life, and my college students had been studying World War I. I’d assigned Pat Barker’s brilliant novel, Regeneration, which focuses on Siegfried Sassoon, the British poet, who was sent to a psychiatric hospital when he returned from the front to launch a protest against World War I – a war whose slaughter never justified its aims.  I felt there were just so many parallels between our new war and World War I – the stifling of dissent, the rampant nationalism, the questionable grounds of the conflict, the role of big business, the PTSD that soldiers suffered. Soon, though I didn’t know it then, I was to have students in my class who were veterans still coping with their combat experience. All of them made a very deep impression on me.

This is how my time-travel narrative came about: I saw these parallels and wanted to bring them to life for my readers, because they were so vivid and pressing to me.

But I also wanted there to be a creative counterpoint to all this, a note of hope, so I wrote about a character, Addie McNeal, who was in love with the theater, and intent on ‘bringing back to life’ a grand Seattle theater which had become derelict.

This seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it? However, when I started researching 1917 in Seattle, I realized there was another war going on besides the war overseas: a war between organized labor and management. The Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, a union which organized unskilled laborers regardless of race, gender or national origin, were agitating for organizing rights. Cities such as Everett and Spokane, WA tried to stifle the union by denying workers the right to speak on street corners about their union struggles. So the Wobs started “Free Speech Fights” -- speaking out despite the ban and filling the jails when they were arrested: civil disobedience.

When one shipload of Wobblies arrived in Everett, Washington in November, 1916, they were met by the Snohomish County sheriff’s office and vigilantes. The sheriff demanded who the leader was. When the Wobblies replied, with typical brashness, “We are all leaders!” the sheriff prohibited them from landing. Things got ugly. Shots were exchanged. Most say the sheriff’s department fired first. Lives were lost on both sides – more on the Wobblies’. At this point, 74 of the Wobblies on the ship were arrested and an important political trial was set in motion.

OK. So that was fascinating. I couldn’t leave it out. So I decided to intertwine my story in 1917, as the U.S. entered WWI, with the escape of a single Wobbly prisoner from jail, with my 1917 hero and my twenty-first century heroine hiding him and trying to spirit him out of Seattle.

It all just gets more complicated from there.

All of that material is still in the novel. It’s a complex but very fun plot. But when I submitted it to my editor in 2006, it was insanely complex, because I added a lot of other complications: Addie has just moved because Dad has lost his job. She is dislocated and misses her friends. She meets a Sudanese girl whose brother was a lost boy. He gets into a tangle with other Sudanese refugee kids – I can’t even remember why! He and his sister have a brother missing in Sudan who has been found, and they need money to get him to the U.S. There were even more plot complications than that, and, blindly in love with all of them, I happily sent the manuscript in.

My editor liked it, but there were problems, she said. Not surprisingly, the main problem was the intricately complicated plot! Another was that Addie’s best friend Whaley, who gets the action going by his gung-ho desire to go and fight in Iraq (which Addie wants to prevent at all costs), appeared in the first three chapters and then never again. Why did I just drop him out of the plot? she wondered. Why indeed?

I mourned cutting anything. However, I saw that there was a natural parallel between the two boys – Whaley in present day Seattle, wanting to fight in Iraq, and Reg in 1917 Seattle, wanting to fight in France. The Sudanese story didn’t fit into the plot in the same way, and much as I loved it, I knew my editor was right; it had to go. Admittedly, along with some other extraneous plot twists! 

So I wrote a vastly re-focused version. I developed Whaley into a fully-fledged character: always in fights, always playing his guitar, always longing to change the world, always getting the short end of the stick. And I fell in love with him. When you let something go, like the extra plot lines, you gain something in terms of focus and depth. Meanwhile, my boy in the past, Reg, got to spread his wings as an aspiring journalist, connecting him more firmly to the Wobbly story as he attempted to investigate what really happened.

This is the draft my editor took to the publishing house, and they offered a contract for it. Happily ever after, right?

Well, of course not. This is what I mean by it’s not that easy. At least three major revisions followed, and then lots of copy-editing and fact-checking. And each revision felt MAJOR. I’ll discuss the process of revision in my next blog post. See you in February!

My website:

Buy The Jewel and the Key on Amazon 
Buy The Jewel and the Key at Barnes andNoble 
Buy The Jewel and the Key at Indie Bound
Buy The Amethyst Road on Amazon 
Buy The Amethyst Road on Barnes andNoble 
Buy The Amethyst Road at Indie Bound 

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