Chris Astor is a man in his early forties who is going through the toughest stretch of his life. Not long before, Chris’ world sparkled – he was doing significant work, he had a good home, and his young daughter brought him more joy than he ever could have imagined. Now, divorce and estrangement have left him confused and all too often alone.
Becky is Chris’ fourteen-year-old daughter, a girl who overcame enormous challenges in her early years to become a vibrant, vital young woman. Her parents’ divorce has left its mark, though, most significantly in her relationship with her father. Once, they told remarkable stories together. Now, they barely speak. Emotional detachment from Chris is not Becky’s biggest concern, though.
Miea is the young queen of a fantasy land that Becky and Chris created when Becky was little – a fantasy land that has developed a life of its own. Miea knows nothing of Becky and Chris. She only knows that her beautiful kingdom – a place of remarkably varied flora, dignified and distinctive fauna, and an ecology that works in symphonic majesty – is in terrible, maybe fatal trouble.
At the most challenging junctures of their lives, Becky and Miea discover each other and Miea shares this discovery with Chris. For Becky, it is nearly inconceivable that a place she created has come into existence. For Miea, it is nearly inconceivable that a child created her land. For Chris, it is beyond inconceivable that he is again sharing something important in his daughter’s life. For all of them, it as though a world of opportunity has opened up before them..
My new novel Blue involves, among things, a bedtime-story fantasy world that comes to life several years after its creators have stopped telling stories about it. In creating this world, the biggest challenge I faced was avoiding making the world cute. Blue is not a children’s story but rather a story that has its foundations in the childhood of one of its characters. It was essential to me that the emotions be real in this novel, and I didn’t want to undercut these emotions with a cartoonish setting. On the surface, this shouldn’t have been a particularly difficult thing for me. I’ve been associated with the science fiction and fantasy field for nearly thirty years, and I’ve been schooled by some of the best writers, having published Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, Neal Gaiman, and so many others. Those writers never wrote cute, and I’d been steeped in their examples.
However, there was a fundamental world-building problem with Tamarisk, the fantasy world in Blue: the stories that had formed this world started when Becky, one of the storytellers, was five years old. How do you avoid making a story created by a five-year-old cute? This took quite a bit of time and quite a few iterations. At first, I kept trying to devise a world that a five-year-old would have devised. My second-youngest child was five when I started writing Blue, so I had that perspective in front of me all the time. Ultimately, though, I addressed this issue in two key ways. Becky and her father Chris kept telling Tamarisk stories until Becky was ten. If I allowed that the world they created kept changing as their storytelling grew more nuanced, then I could posit that Tamarisk evolved from that ten-year-old perspective, and ten-year-olds are significantly more worldly. This even offered me the opportunity to create the proof that convinces Miea (the primary viewpoint character from Tamarisk) that Becky in fact created her world when the two them meet when Becky is fourteen. I made Miea the only person in Tamarisk who remembered the world as it existed in those early stories:
“You know about my dancepoodle?”
“Yeah, I kinda made it up. At least I thought I made it up. Now I’m not so sure.”
The woman seemed sad suddenly. “I had a—companion, I suppose you would call it—when I was younger. It was a four-legged animal with pink, curly hair, and it performed the most entertaining dances. I loved that animal so much, but no one else remembers it—or the existence of dancepoodles at all. I’ve never seen one in the kingdom and there is no record of them anywhere. Except in my heart.”
Becky wondered why she’d mentioned dancepoodles in the first place.
She’d invented them when she was little and then uninvented them when she got older and decided that Tamarisk should be more exotic and that no one in the kingdom should own pets.
“I changed the stories,” Becky said.
“The stories I told about Tamarisk. I wanted them to be more sophisticated, so I got rid of dancepoodles.” Becky tried to remember some other early creations. “And salmoladies—they were very smart fish—and caramelpetals, a really tasty flower.”
“Caramelpetals,” the woman said softly, almost nostalgically.
The other key way I dialed back on the cute factor was by allowing that the world of Tamarisk had become entirely independent once Becky and Chris stopped telling stories about it. Once it was no longer the product of a preadolescent mind, Tamarisk could develop layers that Becky couldn’t have imagined for it. This even helped ratchet up the dramatic tension, as, when Becky travels to Tamarisk, she discovers all kinds of things she never would have considered putting in her creation.
Ultimately, Blue is about the power of imagination. To create a world that felt real and that invited adult readers to engage in the story’s very serious messages, I needed to stretch my own imagination to the limit. It’s amazing to think how far some of us will go to avoid being cute.