What were the initial germinations for “The Herons of Mer de l’Ouest”?
The first inkling I had of this story came when I was visiting a heron rookery (or, technically, a “heronry”) in my home state of Ohio with my mother. Herons are very nervous, and they often respond to intruders by vomiting down on them—which is both unpleasant for the visitors and very bad for the birds. So we were only allowed to visit because it was winter and the nests were empty.
Up above in the bare trees were these enormous nests—not as big as an eagle’s nest, but still very impressive. And underfoot were bits of small animals the herons had fed to their young. You could actually sift through the leaves on the ground and find small bones. It was a scene that made an impression on me, and I filed it away for future use.
The other spark came was when I read a reference to Mer de l’Ouest in Ken Jennings’s book on maps, Maphead. This so-called “Sea of the West” was a huge imaginary bay that was essentially invented by 18th-century mapmakers (though rumors and wishful thinking had persisted for centuries before that) and which covered the entire Pacific Northwest. In fact, this bay was considered a state secret for decades—France didn’t want any of the other colonial powers to know about this shortcut across the continent that they believed they had found, so they suppressed the news of its existence. It only became widely known when a stolen map was copied—and then, of course, the whole thing turned out to be totally imaginary.
All in all, it seemed like a fantastic place to set a story—this legendary, nonexistent location where presumably anything could happen.
Solitude and themes thereof seem to be the motivating emotion in this story. What was it about loneliness that drew you to write about it?
I’m fascinated by people who live and travel without safety nets. In my life, I’m always walking well-worn paths and always within easy call of other people. The most isolated I’ve ever been in my life was on a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, and even then I was no farther than fifteen or twenty miles from the outfitter who had rented us our gear. Even if all our gear and food had sunk in a lake, the result would have been mere inconvenience—maybe a cold night, a hungry day, and a long walk.
So the idea that there are places where help is just entirely out of reach is really compelling to me. Reading about early Antarctic expeditions or sea voyages—or even the Apollo flights to the Moon—you realize how much these people were taking their lives in their hands. Their journeys were often based on theories that left little room for errors. There could come a point, as with Scott’s ill-fated trek to the South Pole, when they realized days ahead of time that they miscalculated and they weren’t going to make it. But most of the time, they would still keep going.
This story is not exactly about that. I think it’s more about a guy who wants to be on that kind of journey, but who finds he just can’t get far enough away from civilization. He keeps trying to remove himself from the world, but he finds that there’s always somebody else waiting for him over the horizon. Which I hope is a hopeful message in the end.
Can you tell us more about your choice of setting? In that same vein, one does not typically think of birds as being predators. What led you to this idea? Which came first, the setting or the predator?
The two ideas arose independently. I get lots of half-ideas for stories that just hang out in my head until I find two or three that go together in an interesting way. For this story, the setting and the predators were two separate ideas that clicked together. The third idea behind this story was that I wanted to write a monster story where the characters couldn’t communicate, and had to find other ways besides talking to develop their trust and coordination.
In fact, I’ve used a couple of those ideas more than once in different mixtures. I wrote another story with a heron as the “monster”—but that one was from a frog’s point of view (“The Famous Fabre Fly Caper” from The Journal of Unlikely Entomology). And I used the idea of characters unable to speak to each in another monster story, but that time in a monastery with a partial vow of silence (“After Compline, Silence Falls” from Beneath Ceaseless Skies). But those stories are all very different, and I’m not even sure anybody else would link them together as coming from the same sources of inspiration.
I will say a little more about herons, though, because they really are the apex predators of your local pond. Great blue herons will eat any living thing that fits in their mouth—fish, rodents, insects, snails, crustaceans, amphibians, and even young birds and turtles and snakes.
If we don’t realize herons are predators, it’s because they don’t threaten us. But they definitely have a predator’s eye when they’re stalking the shallows of a pond, stabbing their bill at anything that moves. It wasn’t hard to imagine how frightening they might be if they somehow got as big as the biggest flying birds that ever lived—the South American teratorns of the Miocene that weighed 150 pounds and had wingspans of twenty feet.
What sort of research does one do for a story like this?
I did a lot of varied research for this story, and threw a lot of it away. It would have been easy to stuff this story full with all kinds of facts about the geography and wildlife of the American West, the lives of the French voyageurs and trappers, and the culture of the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest. Earlier, rougher versions of the manuscript included a lot of that.
Most of the research that stayed in were little things. What did the French call the Rocky Mountains in the 18th century? What do forests in the Pacific Northwest look like? How big can a flying bird plausibly get? What did the native people in the Pacific Northwest eat, and how did they hunt?
If possible, I always prefer to answer those kinds of questions with research. The world’s a big place, and there are lots of interesting things to learn about it. If I had to make up a name for the French to call the Rocky Mountains, my invention wouldn’t have been as wonderful as the real name in use at the time—Montagne de Pierre Brillante, or Mountains of the Shining Stone.
What’s next for you?
More short stories, for the most part. The next big thing will be the second volume of the Machine of Death series of anthologies, which I co-edit with Ryan North and David Malki. The new book is called This Is How You Die, and it’s coming out from Grand Central Publishing in July 2013. It’s got more words, more illustrations, and more variety of stories than the first volume. We challenged writers to take us to some new and exciting places, and they really delivered.
For more information about either of the books (and for a free PDF of the first one), visit http://www.machineofdeath.net.
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