Author Talk: March 7, 2014
Isla Morley is the author of the award-winning novel COME SUNDAY. Her latest book, ABOVE, is the haunting story of teenager Blythe Hallowell, who is abducted and locked away in an abandoned missile silo. Blythe has to deal with crushing loneliness, the terrifying madness of her captor, and the persistent temptation to give up. Nothing, however, prepares her for the burden of having to raise a child in confinement. In this interview, Morley talks about her decision to add the challenge of raising a child in captivity to Blythe’s already harrowing situation, taking scenes out of her book that she felt were too disturbing, and why forgiveness is so important --- even in the face of the greatest wrong done. Post-apocalyptic fiction is all the rage these days, and she also offers up an explanation as to why readers seem to be so fascinated by it.
Question: The combination of the story of Blythe’s captivity and her struggle to survive once she escapes with Adam is one of the things that makes ABOVE so unique. Where did you come up with the idea to combine these two stories? Did you always think of them as one continuous tale?
Isla Morley: Initially, I envisioned a story that only explored the harrowing ordeal of being a captive, and the added challenge of raising a child in captivity. As the mother of a young daughter, I was aware that part of my role was narrating the world for my child rather than always explaining it, so I wondered what a mother who is kept hostage, whose child is kept hostage, would edit from the narrative in such dire circumstances. Would she have Below remain the dungeon it had always been for her or would she somehow make it a place of safekeeping for her son? Would she portray the outside world as an idyllic place and have her son long for it when he might never experience it, or would it be better for him if she depicted it as a place of ruin? Fable, as we all know, is sometimes kinder than fact. Almost two years into writing the book, I suddenly wondered what would happen if fable turned out to be fact. ABOVE quickly went from being a story about a woman’s survival and self-sacrifice to one about the resiliency of the human spirit --- the resiliency, in fact, of all life. Having Blythe and her son explore the post-apocalyptic world allowed for healing and creativity and more daring than ever. It called for greater courage: the audacity to love again.
Q: ABOVE is such a departure, in terms of subject matter, from your previous book. What was most challenging about the writing process of ABOVE? What was new to you, and what was the same?
IM: Writing ABOVE required a lot more research than COME SUNDAY, which relied greatly on my personal experiences of growing up in South Africa and also of being a mother. For ABOVE, I read many true-life accounts of people who had lived in isolation; for example, survivors of the Holocaust who lived for years in caves to avoid detection, and people living under New York City in the subway tunnels. I read philosophical essays and psychological books like Viktor Frankl’s book, MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING. I also spent many months researching everything having to do with Cold War-era missile silos, survivalists and the New World Order, and I now know what weapons are best to include in an arsenal in the event of TEOTWAKI (The End of the World as We Know It). Even the setting of ABOVE was something I had to research, and involved a couple of trips back to my husband’s hometown of Eudora, Kansas. But even though the subject matter is quite different, both novels were driven by complex female characters whose trajectories take them from tragedy to redemption.
Q: The trauma that Blythe goes through at the hands of Dobbs is incredibly difficult to read about. Was it hard to write? How did you deal with such dark material?
IM: It wasn’t hard to write dark scenes. For me, it is harder to write about everyday life, about the small, almost invisible shifts that happen in relationships and to a person’s soul over time. A catastrophic event, however, happens with an immediacy that lends itself to storytelling. Characters are forced to take risks and to make difficult choices, often right away. The kind of ennui that happens as people insulate themselves from any kind of risk, the kind of wearing down of the human spirit millimeter by millimeter --- that must surely be harder to capture on the page. Still, there were scenes I edited out of the final manuscript because I found them too disturbing to read.
Q: Blythe’s character is such a strong resilient person --- but she’s also very realistically portrayed, with her own weaknesses and struggles. Is she based on someone from your life?
IM: In order for any character to be believable, there has to a mix of good and bad in her makeup. The most interesting heroes are always flawed, and the best villains are the ones who surprise us with a capacity for kindness. Blythe wasn’t based on a person I know, but Adam was inspired in part by a boy I knew and loved.
Q: Blythe’s realization of the positive things that Dobbs did, and her eventual forgiveness of him, was one of the most shocking parts of the book. How did you see Blythe’s forgiveness of him? Did you see that coming all along, or were you even surprised by it?
IM: Forgiveness is often surprising. We expect justice to solve everything. When I wrote the scene where Blythe defeats Dobbs I thought that would be the end of her torment, but following her further, I realized that Dobbs had taken up residence in her head. The only way she was going to be free of him was to forgive him. Blythe realizes that to withhold forgiveness is to remain shackled to the wrong-done and the wrong-doer.
Q: Seeing the world outside of the silo through Adam's and Blythe’s eyes makes for such an exciting, bewildering reader experience. What made you decide to hold back the story behind that world for the reader?
IM: I wanted the reader to experience what Blythe was experiencing --- that initial sense of wonder quickly complicated by disorientation, uncertainty and then alarm. Instead of having an explanation ready, I wanted readers to imagine for themselves what had happened to the world.
Q: The post-apocalyptic environment is so realistically and compellingly portrayed. Was that something you were interested in before? What are some of your favorite examples of post-apocalyptic literature or fiction?
IM: I’ve read very few post-apocalyptic novels. I loved McCarthy’s THE ROAD and Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE. Much of what I’ve read or seen in movies involves desolate landscapes, scorched places that are scrubbed of life. I wanted something different for Blythe’s world. For this, I read articles on Pripyat, the town most acutely affected by the disaster of Chernobyl. Although highly controversial, some studies indicated that after 25 years, the area had become a wildlife haven. This inspired the landscape of post-apocalyptic Kansas. Much more influential to me than apocalyptic literature are those stories that have explored the capacity for hope in the midst of suffering.
Q: Why do you think post-apocalyptic fiction is so popular in contemporary writing? What interested you in dealing with that kind of environment?
IM: Whether it’s a personal apocalypse such as being stolen from the world and kept a captive for years, or an environmental apocalypse, stories like this appeal to us in part because they play to our greatest fears and because we want to imagine how we might survive. In our everyday lives, most of us provide for our families, are hospitable to our neighbors and are charitable to those in need --- we know this about are ourselves. But are we capable of being generous and selfless when we are in peril, when our loved ones are in peril? Are we capable of forgiving when the ultimate wrong has been done to us? Are there limits to our goodness, and even our belief in goodness? Of course, the apocalyptic scenario taps into our secret worry that the crazies might be right, but at its deepest level, only stories that confront the fathoms of despair can help us explore the extent of our capacity for goodness.
Q: One of the strongest themes that emerges in ABOVE is the idea of home --- both as something that’s made and something that can’t be taken away (i.e. Blythe’s idea of her home in Eudora as always being her home). What does home mean for you?
IM: Home for me can no longer be located with coordinates. The home of my youth exists only in my memory. I can go back to the country, to the street, to the same exact house, but it is not home. A part of my home lies on the bottom of the Indian Ocean where my parents’ scattered ashes came to rest. I hear something of my home whenever I lay my head on my husband’s chest or hear him sing. I am at home when my daughter holds my hand, and even when she doesn’t because she is a big girl now. And when my best friend laughs at my stupid jokes and says, “Oh, Isla,” when she says my name just so, then I am home, too.
Q: What can your readers look forward to next? Are you working on something that deals with similar themes as ABOVE, or something completely new?
IM: I wrote my first book in a closet, which is probably a fitting metaphor to describe my writing life. Always there is the faint dread that my efforts will amount to a series of false starts, so cloistered, I will disappoint no one except myself. I can say my current story is going to be very different than either of my other books, and rather than jumping ahead in time, it goes back in time.