Monday, June 07, 2010

Sparrowjunk—Margit Elland Schmitt

sparrowjunk_large The story behind "Sparrowjunk" is pretty muddled, but I'll see if I can't twist it into some kind of sense. 

What took the most research was the seasonal weather and the physics of the fire escape itself.  I live in a single-story house in Southern California.  We don't have a fire escape.  We don't have much weather either, come to think of it.  Luckily, I do have some friends who were very generous with their urban, winter, fire-escape anecdotes!  Once I enlisted their help, I was able to get a believable feel for the place where the characters spend most of their time in this story.

There are one or two other elements in the plot that don't depend entirely on fire escapes.  You see, I have two boys of my own, just about the age of the little boy in "Sparrowjunk."  They love superheroes and they love books, and when they both had pneumonia this year, I realized (not for the first time) just how insanely helpless parents really are when it comes to the welfare of their children.  They were feverish and exhausted and miserable, my boys, and there were only two things that seemed to be in my power to make them feel better.  One was to pin pillowcases around their shoulders as super-hero capes, and the other was to read them fairy tales.  It happened that we had received as a gift a severely bowdlerized collection of Grimm's fairy tales, and as I dealt with grumpy kids and endless re-runs of movies about space heroes, I started wondering why those altered tales didn't work for me.  It isn't that I have anything against re-telling these old stories, I do it myself all the time.  But I think whoever put together that particular collection lacked some basic understanding about what that kind of story has at the heart of it that we, as human beings, need enough of to keep the stories alive, to make them "classic."  Faith, trust, love, magic, these wonderful threads are sewn together over very dark background themes of betrayal, loneliness, heartache, and loss.  They shine all the brighter for it.  This is equally true whether you're talking about fairytales or superheroes. With the darkness and danger washed away, what's left is a vaguely pretty tale about people we don't really care much about any more. 

That thought led me along on a "what if" journey about fairies and fairy tales, and what might have happened to a race of immortal beings who depended upon magic for survival, but are forced to live in an age of reason, a time and place when belief in magic is something considered suitable only for children, something they are encouraged to grow out of.  These fairies were being systematically poisoned by the sugary tinkle-magic-substitute that lacked depth and danger and substance.  (And this got me thinking about birds.  Hummingbirds, originally, and how well-meaning people fill their bird feeders with artificially sweetened nectar, out of fear of rampant hummingbird obesity.  In the end, I went with sparrows, which are much more common and a little bit spooky.)  Originally, I wanted to write a story about a homeless man whose dementia allowed him to see into the fairy world.  I like that idea.  I still want to write that story.  But what came here was something simpler, the idea that belief has a physical presence, a measurable value, and a story about how a parent's fight for the sake of his child might crash up against a fairy princess' fight for survival.

And that story turned out to be "Sparrowjunk."

Thanks for listening,

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