Listening to “The Voices,” part 1
Writers love to talk about how certain ideas seize their attention and won’t let go, but in my case, almost invariably, the desire to write a story comes long before the initial idea, not the other way around. In other words, I start by deciding to write something, then look for something to write about. This peculiar urge, which seems to exist independently of any particular subject, can arise when I happen to have a few weeks free to work on a writing project; when I have the itch to see something of mine in print, and hopefully to get paid for it; or, most of all, when I miss the experience of starting with a blank page and empty mind and turning it into something with suspense, structure, and emotion. In particular, in July of last year, I found myself motivated by a number of such factors. I’d just finished the first draft of the novel that would eventually become City of Exiles, an exhausting experience that had left me feeling a little burnt out and anxious to try something fun. I wanted to take two weeks off before plunging into the rewrite. And I hadn’t written any short fiction in a long time.
With this in mind, I began looking around for an appropriate subject for a short story, which would eventually become my novelette “The Voices,” which finally appeared last month in the September issue of Analog. As I’ve said before, whenever I find myself stuck for ideas, I go to the library and start browsing, usually among the science magazines. I’m not looking for anything in particular, just something that will start a chain of associations or trigger the jolt of curiosity that I’ve long since come to associate with a promising project. More specifically, I’m looking for two or more articles that collide in interesting ways, since I’ve found that much of what we call creativity arises from unexpected combinations. I’ve explained in earlier posts how a similar process led to my stories “Kawataro,” “The Boneless One,” and “Ernesto,” and in this case, after a few hours of browsing at the Sulzer Regional branch of the Chicago Public Library, I found a couple of articles in back issues of Discover that seemed very promising: one by Adam Piore about the attempt to create a kind of synthetic telepathy that could read soldiers’ thoughts, and one by Karen Wright about the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation to treat symptoms of schizophrenia, including auditory hallucinations.
These two articles fell together very neatly, and almost at once, I began to envision a character who suffered from auditory hallucinations, like disembodied voices, and sought treatment from a therapy that could “read” the voices in her head. It was a good beginning, but like all stories, it needed something more, which in this case came from an unexpected source. At the time, I was reading the sprawling fantasy novel Little, Big by John Crowley, and although I had some reservations about its structure and pacing, I was, and remain, haunted by its atmosphere, which creates a genuine air of mystery and romance around a big rambling house in New England and the spirits of nature nearby. On a more sinister note, this is also Lovecraft country, a place where the woods have many secrets, which made it the perfect location for the story I had in mind. When we’re presented with a woman who hears voices, we might reasonably conclude that she’s suffering from schizophrenia, but if she’s from a certain part of the New England countryside, with its rumors of elves and fairies—well, we might slowly start to wonder, if we aren’t sure what kind of story we’re reading, whether the voices might in fact be real.
What that, I had my story. If Joan of Arc were alive today, I reasoned, she might well end up in psychiatric treatment, even as she continued to wonder if the messages she was receiving were coming from somewhere outside her own mind. My main character would be a sort of Joan figure—I ended up calling her January, for reasons I’ll explain later—who was smart, skeptical of the voices she was hearing in the woods, and willing to do whatever it took to discover if they were real or not. I’d stay in her head for the entire story, presenting everything from her point of view, including the voices, which would speak to her as reasonably as any other character, with no sense that they might be imaginary. The resulting story would skirt the edges of fantasy, while remaining firmly grounded in science fiction, although the reader wouldn’t necessarily know this. Indeed, if I did my job correctly, I could keep readers in a state of suspense over how much of the narrative to believe, to the point where they might even forget that the main character, by definition, was far from a reliable narrator. And as I’ll explain tomorrow, in the finished story, it may have worked a little too well.