Thursday, April 17, 2008

"From the Clay of His Heart" by John Brown

The story behind From the Clay of His Heart

I was on a business trip, and just before checking out of my hotel, I read an interview with Deborah Vetter who used to be the editor for Cicada. She said that many stories she liked took a common theme and gave it an unexpected twist. Cicada was open to fantasy at the time, and so I asked myself: what’s a twist on a common fantasy element?

I got my luggage together, checked out of the hotel, and drove over to a Lowe’s around the corner. All this time I’m running various fantasy elements through my mind—witches, ghosts, dragons, etc.—asking how I might twist them. I got out of the car at Lowe’s, walked in, and realized I needed to use the restroom. I made a bee-line for the back, but kept running options through my head. About halfway there, on the trim isle, I got to “golem.”

All the golem stories I had read were about the guy who created the golem. So I asked: what if it wasn’t about the guy who creates the golem? What if it’s about someone who finds a golem?

I immediately saw the bank of a river, the Evanston, Wyoming river my girls and I had been playing on a few weeks earlier. I imagined the river in autumn, yellow leaves on the ground. I imagined a bald man of red clay, half exposed in the freshly shorn bank, the rune of power on his forehead and neck. The river was low, the mint growing on the exposed sand and gravel bars, the smell of leaf mold hanging low over the water.

My cool meters went wild. Some ideas carry such a delicious energy.

I finished my business, captured the image on a scrap of paper, and began asking questions. Who finds it? A woman. Zing! Where? In the woods of North Carolina. Zing! And it was some Native American creature. Zing! What’s the problem? What’s at issue? Either the redman has his own agenda, I thought, or it's others forcing it on him, or he's trapped. A trapped soul…and the woman and the golem love each other…Zing!

I did pre-draft work for the NC setting and found I wanted to move it in time and location to Medieval Croatia. That’s just were the juice led. So I did research on Croatia and golems. I followed the idea of her finding the golem, taking the thing home, cleaning it, stroking its cheek, humming to it, stitching clothing and socks. And then one night she hears a gasp. It’s alive. It’s a story of obsession, I thought. But the energy of that idea eventually petered out.

So I went searching for another problem. I made the following entry in my pre-draft document.

What's at stake? The woman finds this thing, so what? She's obsessed. But what's the big issue here?

· Danger, if she wakens maybe it will kill

· Maybe if people find out they will want to use

· Maybe she will be declared a witch

· Maybe it will eat her out of home

· Eat her children

· Maybe it will force her to feed it, force her to bring people to him so he can kill them

· Is it a thing of danger?

· Maybe it will force love upon her? Breed with her and create a race of goblins or trolls.

· It is a great thief--bringing her presents, presents for the master. And one day it brings a child.

· A goblin with long hair and not dumb, not brutish, by hungry, a predator, one who will eat you, who loves hunt and chase, but can dress and act civilized.

· Maybe that's the thing--it draws you, draws your dreams or your mind, feeds on these things until it has strength to go on and takes a part of you with it, your longing, longing, longing for it to return.

I tried a few drafts, still focusing on it being a thing she wakens, but they all eventually lost energy. So I tried something new. Here’s what I wrote:

What if it IS about him stealing things? "The golem was a thief, and this made her believe it might not have been such a holy thing after all."


She's looking. Can't destroy it because of its holiness. But didn't the wizards of the devil turn rods into snakes in the Pharaoh’s court? And didn't men always take God's gifts, like Adam, and throw them away?

This was a question.

That last line brought in a voice. I tried that on for size and wrote the first paragraph of the current story. The paragraph just rolled out of me—“The golem was a thief”--and so I wrote another and another until I ran out of ideas, which took me to about page three. I loved the voice. I loved the issue. I realized the idea that was crackling with life wasn’t about obsession, but something else entirely.

And so the process of creation continued until the very last piece, which, in this instance, was the title. The story was originally named “The Valiant Women of Plavca.” I wasn’t satisfied with that, but I couldn’t come up with anything better at the time. Luckily, Edmund requested something with “a bit more punch,” and, after much creative Q&A, I found the current title—yet another small joy in the long line of delights I discovered while writing this story.

(artwork for this story (in the current issue of IGMS) by Scott Altmann: (John's website:

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