I’m often asked where the ideas for my novels come from. Typically, they are inspired by existing stories: those I teach and those I’ve enjoyed. My most recent effort, Island No. 6, can best be described as a Patchwork Pastiche of some of those stories. In literature, a pastiche is a text that celebrates another work through imitation. If you’ve read Island No. 6, you may recognize how each of the following stories intertwine to help form my own.
The original work being riffed on in Island No. 6 is the 17th century quasi-novel A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, which provided me with the name of my main character (Danny Foe) and the notion of telling the story in a journalistic style. Defoe’s narrative is set in the time of England’s King Charles II (island mayor, Charles King II, in my story), who reigned during the devastating plague outbreak of 1666.
The second major source is Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. This 1969 techno-thriller sparked my longtime and ongoing love affair with plague stories. In Crichton’s novel, a comet crashes into the earth and unleashes a literal alien virus that spawns a devastating pandemic. A similar but true-to-life story is told in the grippingly terrifying, Richard Preston medical-thriller The Hot Zone, which tells the story of an Ebola outbreak in Africa in the early nineties that came frightfully close to being loosed on the American public.
Since I was a child, when some un-remembered babysitter unadvisedly allowed me to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s horror movie, The Birds, based on the short story of the same name by Daphne de Maurier (Americanized as Daphne Moyer in my story), I’ve kept a wary eye on the sky, phone lines, and trees, while half-expecting a crow to divebomb me and to peck away at my eyes. This association led me to choose the bird flu as my source of viral contagion.
My all-time favorite movie, which might surprise some folks, is the Spielberg classic, Jaws, based on the Peter Benchley novel of the same name. Like the movie, my novel is set on an island that is a tourist hotspot. In both cases, those on the island are under siege while being led by a triad of heroes, including an island chief of police (Brody/Sarter) and an off-island scientist (Hooper/Bentham), who fight desperately to save them. The islanders’ terroristic enemy in one is a giant, man-eating shark. In the other, a microscopic virus, along with the federal government, serves as their home invader.
The majority of us were made to read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies at some point in high school. If not, I’d be so bold as to say you were shortchanged in your literary education. Another story set on an island, LofF imagines a group of teenagers forced to return to a “state-of-nature,” a hypothetical condition imagined by many philosophers, in which people exist in a pre-social contract state and are driven by their most primal motives and modes of operation. Two of the most famous of these philosophers are Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau, both of whom appear in my novel as Tom Hobbs, the owner of the island’s general store, and Captain Russo, who operates a ferry line. I’ll return to this allegorical level of the novel in a forthcoming blog post.
Finally, one of my favorite recent novels is Max Brooks’s World War Z as I am a total sucker for a good zombie narrative. When a victim of the bird flu virus that strikes Island No. 6 reaches the final stages of their affliction, they fall under a compulsion to walk, perhaps as a last ditch, futile attempt to escape Death. As a result, in their zombiefied condition, they become a horrific danger to any still-healthy person they approach.
If Benjamin Franklin was correct and “Originality is the art of concealing your sources,” I have just grievously betrayed my lack of it. However, Shakespeare is said to have only written a single completely original play. Although, I claim no company with Shakespeare, like him, I never met a character, setting, plot, or theme that I was unwilling to borrow, and I’m pretty sure I’ve missed a few.
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