In an Underground House, Near a Graveyard, with a Raccoon
The Makings of a Peculiar Writer of Unusual Books
I still remember the great Mouse Massacre of ’85. The rooms weren’t quite finished yet. There were walls, but no doors, and no real furniture. I had gone to sleep on a cot in the make-shift bedroom. Then I heard the snap. Followed by another. And another. A cacophony of metallic zings and twangs reverberated against the concrete — every single mousetrap we could find, all going off at once. Empty the sad little bodies, clean up the spatter. Reset. I no longer remember the number of the fallen, but suffice to say we got no sleep that night.
I feel bad about it now; we were technically in their territory. My family of four had just moved ourselves into a mostly underground bunker style hunting cabin and starting banging up drywall. And plugging the hole in the wall. And hacking a path through waist-high weeds to the where the truck was parked — in a clearing of thick forest that once belonged to Peabody mining company.
It’s fair to say we were an adventurous sort. No neighbors. Unless you count Blacksnake, our unimaginative name for a member of the Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta family (black rat snake). She moved into the attic, which was above ground. Penthouse, really. She paid for her stay by evicting the mice a lot more thoroughly and efficiently than we ever could.
We ourselves moved in “for real” in October, when the leaves turn glossy colors and then fell to stain the rivers or crunch under foot. Shortly after, we discovered a graveyard within walking distance if we cut across our only human neighbor’s property . He didn’t live there, but the place housed a grumpy pony named Duke. (My brother and I used to jump on him bareback when no one was home. And usually be thrown into the pond for our trouble). The cemetery was small, full of white little stones and enormous pine trees. I liked to take a picnic. And a book. About the Black Death.
That was probably my introduction to medical history: bubonic plague, black rats, ghost ships, bloody sores, and people being buried in pits. I was not, let’s say, a usual child. I didn’t have common interests with my peers. I wasn’t sure I had peers. I did have a pet raccoon. She figured out how to open the refrigerator and managed to put herself into a marshmallow and hotdog infused food coma once.
I suppose all authors are asked about their beginnings. It’s a fair question, because writing is difficult and precarious as a living (never try dividing what you make by the hours you spent making it. That way lies madness). It would be nice to have an origin story, some great moment of tragedy or comedy that arranged the atoms of your life. But for me, it’s both a series of meandering journeys — and a means of understanding myself in the world.
But if you are going to write peculiar books about things like head transplants and death and dying, or steampunk science and electrical contraptions, or detectives and forensics and clones… Well, being raised underground next to a cemetery helps. We were free range, if not quite feral, children with the freedom (and responsibility) to create our own world. I didn’t make friends. But I read books. I had book friends — and now I have author friends and reader friends. I suppose I became an author to surround myself with the very things I love best.
We are, none of us, “normal.” I don’t know what that word is supposed to mean, even. I’m neuroatypical. I process by making connections — by pattern recognition. And everywhere I go I see patterns: between pluripotent stem cells and the early discoveries of electricity, between quantum mechanics and the chaotic shift of life under leafy trees, between old tomes of Gothic fiction and modern conceptions of self, science, soul and sentience. Between one weird kid and all the other weird kids. Between me and my readers.
It’s awfully nice to meet you. Come say hi sometime.