Write what you know is good advice, but not always to be taken literally. This blog piece first appeared as a guest post on Mary Victoria’s blog shortly after we were both published in the anthology, River, edited by Alma Alexander. I drew on my fear of water to write the story, Floodlust.
If you stand on Table Rock on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls you can look into the river at your feet – clear, fast flowing, magnificent, deadly – and see right down to the riverbed. It looks shallow enough to wade in. It almost looks calm, but put one foot into it and you’d be swept over the edge in an instant.
Yet Niagara – the river and the falls (let’s not talk about the city) – is breathtakingly beautiful. Each time I visit I’m drawn to stand at the rail and stare into the clear depths, mesmerised, enchanted, thrilled.
We don’t have waterfalls like Niagara in England, so maybe I can be forgiven my fascination for that inexorable force of water as twenty-four million gallons of water a minute falls over a 170 foot cliff. I never learned to swim as a child, saving that trial until I was in my thirties and then only in the safety of the municipal pool. Splash me in the face and I’m lost. That harsh scouring of water forcing itself up my nose, into my throat will hurl me into a choking panic in an instant. Well, they say you should write about what you know…
So I imagined a river – no not a river, but the river – a river so vast and all important that those who live on its banks believe that it’s a god. Like a god it has neither mercy nor malice. It is provider and devourer, the giver and taker of life. Surely a god so powerful would have its own spirits?
And so Floodlust began.
I wanted to write something darkly ambiguous, something lyrical and emotive. I wanted the river to be all-pervasive, the elephant in the room even when it was not centre stage. But I couldn’t just have the river, after all, a god needs worshippers. That’s when Zanna popped into my head. How cruel that someone so mortally terrified of drowning should be born into such a river-bound culture.
The story begins with a choice. Isn’t that often the way? It’s time for Zanna to choose a husband, but it won’t be a love-match. Custom dictates she weds an older man, one who has survived his time on the river and gone into the raft-building trade or the fish smokery, so she’s forbidden to choose her best friend, Brin.
Then a third possibility blossoms out of a half-forgotten dream. Nassai, a river-spirit, a man on land and liquid in the river, offers her another choice, a choice she so desperately wishes she could make. But her courage fails her at the opportune moment. She wants Nassai, but not badly enough to face her fears. She makes her choice and from then on she’s trapped by a sequence of events. She is always motivated by fear rather than desire until the very end. Only when she’s about to lose everything does she find her courage, but is it too late?
Happy ending or sad? It depends on your viewpoint. You can make up your own mind.