Web Exclusive – March 29, 2011
Behind the book: From a sleepless night to “Once upon a time...”
Lights out. Can’t get to sleep. My wife’s voice in the darkness: “Tell me a story.” This happens a lot, and every time Wyatt asks me I feel a touch of panic—performance anxiety, I guess you’d call it. Finally I came up with: “Once upon a time, there was, let’s see, a cobbler who made a strange-looking shoe, a shoe that fit nobody. And yet everyone who heard about it wanted to own it.”
I didn’t get much farther than that, but my mumbling voice had worked its magic. My wife was asleep.
The next morning, Wyatt told me I should write the story down.
“What story? There is no story.”
I learned to listen to my wife years ago when she forced me to write down another bedtime story. It grew into a book, The Great Good Thing, and was published to blushingly good reviews, optioned for film and translated into several foreign languages.
But I am stubborn. Anyway, I was already mulling another book idea and didn’t want to be distracted.
Still. . .
I see in my journal a notation from that time: “Wrote a couple of pages of a little story about a shoe. Doesn’t seem very promising, but it’s fun and I hope to have a draft to give Wyatt on Mother’s Day.”
Clearly, I was thinking of dashing off a 10- or 12-page fairy tale to enclose with a greeting card. Three years and countless drafts later, the postman thumps a package on my doorstep. It is my author’s copy of The Blue Shoe: A Tale of Thievery, Villainy, Sorcery, and Shoes, published in blue ink and illustrated by Mary GrandPré, the wonderful artist who did all the Harry Potter books.
Getting from confused murmurs in the darkness to the bright daylight of publication was quite a journey, and outward events didn’t make the trip any easier. We put our house up for sale and bought another one. Health issues came up and were faced down. And my editor at Simon & Schuster retired, leaving me orphaned—leaving me, in fact, without a contract and torn between two novels, not fully committed to either one.
Then a curious thing happened. The tone of The Blue Shoe began to get to me. There was something sweet about it, confiding. I found I liked being in the midst of this off-center fairy tale rooted in magic and blossoming into revolution and finally transformation.
I put the other story aside.
Once committed to The Blue Shoe, I gave myself permission to love my characters: Grel the shoemaker; his young assistant Hap; Hap’s feisty friend Sophi; the mayor’s greedy wife, Ludmilla the Large; a villainous taskmaster named Slag; and an enslaved race of trolls who toil in the mineshafts of Mount Xexnax, a peak named for a mysterious goddess last sighted 900 years ago. A work of fantasy, to be sure, but I soon realized it was raising important questions about greed, prejudice, environmentalism and the cost of courage. The boy, Hap, for instance, finding himself deep in the mines of Mount Xexnax, comes to feel that the mountain surrounding him is alive, that it has a spiritual dimension and is “wounded” when men blast away at it, grasping for gems. Is he imagining things, or is he realizing a truth?
By now I was totally absorbed. Who cared if the house we’d just moved into needed a year’s worth of renovations? There I sat at my computer, imagining “the sunny mountain village of Aplanap, famous for its tilted streets, cuckoo clocks and Finster cheese,” while workmen banged merrily away on all sides.
The book was a paradox: it dealt with serious issues while still being fun, even funny. Just thinking about the story made me smile. More to the point, it made my agent smile, and she soon found the right editor at a topflight publisher.
So, when some sleepless night you hear a voice in the darkness saying, “Tell me a story,” don’t stop to wonder if you’re up to the task, just take a deep breath and begin, “Once upon a time. . .”
Roderick Townley’s books have received many stars and accolades. You can read more about him at www.rodericktownley.com. He lives in Kansas.