The Origin Story
(To read the book, go directly to the Blog)
The notion of an origin story plays a big part in Book III of The Notherland Journeys (along with singing, weaving and the creation of the universe – yes, really) The whole project actually took over a decade to write, and had many twists and turns. Here’s how it came about:
Some years back when I was doing research for a book I was writing on kids and popular culture, I came upon a study by a couple of British psychologists called The Development of Imagination: The Private Worlds of Childhood. It was about children who create their own fantasy worlds. These paracosms, as the authors named them, were far more substantial than the familiar “imaginary friend” phenomenon. They had multiple characters – sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes completely imaginary beings. They had specific characteristics that were sometimes magical or otherworldly but just as often similar to the “real” world. They weren’t fleeting in nature, often preoccupying their young creators over a period of years, during which they grew in detail and complexity. As the book’s title suggests, paracosms are a private, little-studied phenomenon. Typically the children kept them secret or only shared them with siblings or close friends. For many, being part of the study as adults was the first time they had spoken to anyone about their private worlds.
I can’t recall exactly when the “aha” moment occurred – the moment when I knew that I would one day write a story about a girl who creates her own paracosm. But the idea took hold of me, and it took a few years and several false starts before I got going on the writing itself. Because my first task was to conjure up my own imaginary world – or rather my character, Peggy’s. I can’t recall much about my initial effort, other than it had a sort of medieval fairyland flavour, with lords and ladies and people on horses. After a couple of months’ work I ended up scrapping it, deciding that the whole approach seemed passé, too much like Lord of the Rings. (In retrospect, this may not have been the wisest career move, since over the next few years medieval fantasy became huge and the Ring trilogy was made into blockbuster films.)
I decided what I really wanted was to create a fantasy world that didn’t feel familiar, that hadn’t been done before. Again, I can’t remember exactly when or how I stumbled on the idea of a Northern world, but once I seized on it, things started to really cook. It made sense: I live in Canada, a country where “the idea of North” is something of a national obsession. And it was a truly original idea: No one else had written about a Northern fantasy world! (Actually, Phillip Pullman had, in The Golden Compass, a book that I only learned about and read after The Nordlings was published – a fact I often had to explain to readers who assumed that my book had been “inspired” by Pullman’s.)
Any self-respecting imaginary world needs a name, so I set to finding / creating one. I wanted something that expressed the northern inspiration for this paracosm. Northland? Too obvious. Northworld? Ditto. I came up with several candidates that are now mercifully forgotten. As I was pondering various possibilities, two separate streams of thought came together in my mind: One was the idea of “otherness”, which was the impetus for its creation by my young protagonist, Peggy – her need to escape a painful reality and go to “another” one. The second thread came from a surname in my extended family, “Sutherland”, which means “from the south” or “the southern land”. Voila! I had it: Notherland. Original, intriguing, unfamiliar but not weird. Though I did worry that the pronunciation wasn’t obvious, and wanted to put a note in the book explaining that the name rhymed with “other land”, which didn’t actually happen until the sequel came out… But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I decided that an animal character was in order, because Notherland was a world-in-nature, a kind of wilderness, and because this type of story just seemed to call for the main character having an animal companion. I wasn’t interested in more familiar animal characters: No dogs or cats, no bunny rabbits, no bears, not even polar, though I did want it to be a creature of the northern wilderness. I recalled an encounter my family and I had had with a skunk once when we camping north of Lake Superior. It certainly wasn’t a conventional animal-companion choice, and for a short while I seriously considered it – until fortunately I came to my senses. A skunk? What was I thinking? I soon realized that the best candidate was staring me in the face – literally. Like many Canadians I have a fondness for loons, but mine goes a bit further. I had several loon carvings around my house, one of my children’s plays was called Loon Boy, and I’d had many close encounters with loons while swimming in northern lakes. Not only was it a no-brainer, it was one of my most satisfying writerly experiences, because the character of Gavi (Genus Gavia, species immer) came into my mind all at once, fully-formed.
Pretty much the same thing happened with the other “companion” character, Molly the doll. When my kids were young I discovered the wonderful doll stories of British author Rumer Godden (her The Story of Holly and Ivy provided inspiration for one of my daughter’s names) and this was a chance to create my own doll character. In Godden’s stories, dolls are have their own thoughts and emotions, but only come alive when their owners become aware of their inner lives. It’s as though Godden’s doll characters are the “emanations” of their owners’ souls, in the sense that William Blake uses the term in his writings. (While I’m on the subject, Blake himself is another inspiration for the Notherland saga, but again, I am getting a bit ahead of myself.)
So I had three characters – a girl, a doll and a bird – who travel to an imaginary world. Only gradually did it dawn on me that I was working from a familiar template: The Wizard of Oz. I had a longtime affection for L. Frank Baum’s book, published at the turn of the 20th century, because it placed a female hero at the centre of an epic story. Like Baum’s Dorothy, my protagonist Peggy is an ordinary girl with a homey name who finds herself reluctantly thrust into a heroic role. Now, you may be thinking that something’s missing from this discussion, since in The Wizard of Oz Dorothy has three friends – the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. Shouldn’t there be one more companion on Peggy’s journey? Actually, there is. But I’m not about to give the whole story away. I want you to read it yourself.
In truth, the Notherland books didn’t find much of a readership the first time around, and I think one reason is that they didn’t – and still don’t – fit comfortably into the age categories that fiction is divided into: Children’s / Young reader / Young-adult, etc. The very terms themselves are part of the problem. It wasn’t always like this. Children’s books didn’t used to be nearly so age-stratified, a phenomenon that has more to do with marketing than anything else. Take The Wizard of Oz as an example. Yes, it’s a children’s story, with magic and fantasy and characters that don’t exist in the real world. But it’s also become a modern-day myth, a touchstone, a narrative well that people of all ages can and do draw from.
I’ve come to another realization, too – something I couldn’t have known at the beginning, because the books were never planned as a trilogy. I truly thought I was only writing one book, one story with a beginning, middle and end. It was only after The Nordlings was published in 1999 (at the dawn of the 21st century) that it occurred to me that I had set up the possibility of a sequel in the last sentence: “Maybe tonight, she thought as she drifted off to sleep, I will dream a new universe into existence.” I almost smacked myself on the forehead. Of course! Mi the Nordling should dream a new universe into being! That became the jumping-off point for book II, The Shining World. While writing it, I knew there would be a third and (I was very fairly certain) final book, and I structured the ending to lead to it. In hindsight, I now see that I was writing not three separate books, but one big story, and I believe that’s the best way is to experience it. So here it is. Friends, allow me to introduce The Notherland Journeys, one story in three volumes, about three different journeys of the imagination.
Think of it as The Wizard of Oz for the 21st century.
What reviewers say about The Notherland Journeys:
“The Songweavers is a fantasy based in many interesting and imaginative worlds. McDonnell manages to develop these several strands of her story through skillful writing. Each character is well developed, and the reader develops sympathy for each of their stories… This is a challenging novel for those who appreciate different forms of literature and the interplay of symbols and imagery.”
For more reviews of The Songweavers and my other books, check out my author page on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/443527.Kathleen_McDonnell