Hello everybody! We are delighted to welcome Fran Wilde back to the blog today to talk about the inspirations and influences behind her new – and first Middle Grade – novel Riverland.
The last time I did an inspirations and influences post here, I drew you a literary family tree for Updraft. It got a little out of hand. (Carmina Burana and a taxidermied weasel qualify as out of hand.)
This time, for Riverland, which is my first middle grade novel, I drew you a map.
Just like with a real map, this one contains locations that influenced me, as well as places I didn’t want to go (one in particular).
Riverland is a portal fantasy about two sisters who fall into a dream river. It’s also about surviving violence, learning to trust, making things look perfect, dreams, nightmares and the power of stories. There are real friends, there’s a pony (made of towels), and a heron (made of beach glass and driftwood and garden shears), a lighthouse, and some monsters. There’s also glass magic (and real science – which I wrote about over here), and some ecology. But most of all, Riverland is a story where the two main characters, Eleanor and Mike (Mary to her dad, but everyone else calls her Mike), find ways to escape and eventually overcome a very difficult household, even as the adults in their lives tell them to pretend everything’s all right.
The influences on Riverland range from the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay (Dishrag, the pony, is a Chesapeake Bay pony, there are crabs, you’ve met the heron, and more), to the very real magic of thermodynamics.
One big influence on Riverland (and the biggest item on the map) is the very long tradition of portal fantasies, including the books of Narnia, Peter Pan, Where the Wild Things Are, and A Monster Calls. I’m going to argue that Patrick Ness’ fantastic and wrenching A Monster Calls is a portal fantasy in reverse – the fantasy comes into the real, instead of vice versa. One feature of portal fantasies is, of course, talking, magical creatures that can be friend, foe, or a bit of both. They allow us to explore themes in less metaphorical terms, often with beautiful results.
Among the aspects of portal fantasy that I love best, the ability to shift between real and fantastical worlds, and carry the lessons learned between each, is possibly one of the most important. I love the liminality of the portal fantasy landscape for this — the sense of wonder from the fantastical realm gets carried back across the boundary so that everything feels a bit more magical.
The history of lighthouses, and especially that of the Fresnel Lens, used from the early 1800s to amplify light over dangerous shores, fascinated me and became a big part of the story. I spoke with a US Coast Guard lighthouse expert to learn as much as I could, and visited a lot of lighthouses. They are guardians and I love them so.
Myths and legends and fairy tales all had an influence on Riverland. Particularly that “Once upon a time” beginning.
From the book:
“Once upon a time . . .”
“Why do you always start like that? Why not someday,or tomorrow?”
“Because that’s how stories start, Mike.They’re already over when you tell them. They’re safer that way.”
“Fine. But make this one scary.”
Telling stories is one way the sisters’ take control of their own narrative — and they like scary stories for good reasons, until they find themselves caught in one.
Dreams are another big influence on Riverland. There’s a whole life-cycle of dreams and nightmares — did you know?
The Heron plucked the dream from the reed and lifted it to the sky. The dream—a soft blue puff this time—shook out wings made of tissue paper and flew.
Mike stared, her mouth an O. She whispered, “This is beautiful.”
So too, the life-cycle of broken and used things, which, by my lights, is somewhat related to the life-cycle of dreams.
But one thing that’s on the map is a non-influence. This was a place I wanted to steer far away from. And this paragraph comes with a bit of a trigger warning, for domestic violence and the way it’s often shown in the media. On television — especially in procedural shows like Law & Order in the United States — and in the movies, kids in abusive households are often portrayed in two ways: as victims who must be rescued by the protagonists, and as broken things themselves. More than that, the media’s shorthand for abuse is visual — for instance, broken limbs and bruises, the police and social services being called — when, quite often, that’s not what it looks like. The narrative’s a difficult one either way, but when kids in turbulent households only see that media version, they may feel like their own situation isn’t so bad, when it is, or that someone else has it worse. Worse, the way kids are portrayed takes away their own agency, and this is important. I wanted to write a story where another narrative is revealed, without being preachy about it, and where the main characters, ages twelve and seven, have agency, and can become the heroes of their own story.
And they do! It’s a scary journey, but with their real-life friends and their fantastic creatures, Eleanor and Mike absolutely emerge as heroes. And they emerge with a lot of tools to guide them forward as well. Kind of like a map.
Once again, so many thanks to Thea and Ana for inviting me to talk about influences for Riverland! Here’s to many more adventures.
About Fran Wilde: A former programmer, poet, teacher, and engineering/science writer, Fran Wilde’s novels and short stories have been finalists for three Nebula awards, two Hugo Awards, and a World Fantasy Award. They include her Andre Norton- and Compton Crook-winning debut novel, Updraft; its sequels, Cloudbound and Horizon and her debut middle-grade novel Riverland (Abrams in April 2019). Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, and Nature Magazine. Her nonfiction appears at The Washington Post, iO9, Paste, and GeekMom.com. She lives in Philadelphia with her family and one very LOUD bird. You can find her on Twitter , Instagram, Facebook, and at franwilde.net.
About Riverland: When things go bad at home, sisters Eleanor and Mike hide in a secret place under Eleanor’s bed, telling monster stories. Often, it seems those stories and their mother’s house magic are all that keep them safe from both busybodies and their dad’s temper. But when their father breaks a family heirloom, a glass witch ball, a river suddenly appears beneath the bed, and Eleanor and Mike fall into a world where dreams are born, nightmares struggle to break into the real world, and secrets have big consequences. Full of both adventure and heart, Riverland is a story about the bond between two sisters and how they must make their own magic to protect each other and save the ones they love.