Life, death, memory, attachment

by | Feb 3, 2023

If you’ve read earlier books in the series, much of what you’ll encounter when you pick up City of the Dead will look familiar. For instance, you’ll already know that…

  • Bal’a’Blos, the legendary underground library, is a real place that is also: 1. Populated by some odd and mysterious people called the Qatfablos; 2. Supported by the nomadic Mullaqat, who consider them their cultural elders; 3. Protected by the psychic powers of Calpathian Clydes from the Gwynyrian Highlands; and; 4. Probably the last surviving expression of previous advanced civilizations that were forced to seek shelter below ground.
  • Some unspecified technological catastrophe associated with those advanced underground shelters failed spectacularly at a place called Al Ath, where it continues to infuse valuable, dense dhrae into the surrounding landscape while also attracting many of the continent’s “newly dead” to circle the site of the ancient calamity.
  • The ancients who occupied these underground complexes, bunkers and tunnels understood consciousness at a level that allowed it to be incorporated into useful technologies — including underground spheres used for psychic communication and learning. 
  • The setting for these stories — a portion of the planet called The Western World — is split between two rival empires who are turning their covert attentions toward the small, complicated continent of Darbas in search of strategic resources that might tip the balance of power.

But City of the Dead — the book I’ve been working on since I published Ta Nupa in April — is part of Trilogy Two, and every book in the Season of Spies trilogy must be written as a stand-alone novel for a first-time audience. That alone makes this trilogy a writing challenge: Each story must be accessible to new readers, but not so redundant that returning readers feel like they’re taking a remedial course in material they already know.. 

That’s not the biggest writing challenge I’ve faced with this manuscript, though. 

City of the Dead takes place on an unusual archaeological dig at the edge of the Al Ath circle, and the story is literally about death and its many related themes — including love, sex, attachment, loss, meaning and memory. All fertile ground for storytelling, sure. But the truth is, I knew before I began writing the actual manuscript that this story would challenge my beliefs about each of these topics. 

What is death, anyway? How we answer that question — whether in fervor or fear — tends to define our understanding of what our lives should be. A pursuit of virtue and wisdom, or of pleasure and experience? Do we run towards death, or from it? Should we fear it, or embrace it? 

Ultimately, are we just meat, or are we something more? And can a not-so-very intuitive, not-so-very spiritual, not-so-very psychic man like myself find a way to write about this greatest of all mysteries in a way that entertains readers without bullshitting them?

That’s the challenge, and it has repeatedly kicked my ass over the past eight months. No other novel has ever consumed so much of my time and reflection. I’ve veered from annoyance to inspiration to hopelessness more times that I care to admit. I love the story I’m trying to tell, but telling it the right way has been difficult from the beginning.

So is it somehow a coincidence that I’ve never lived through a period more focused on love, death, loss, mortality and memory than the one that began when I sat down to write this novel?

A friend in a nearby hospice who died last spring. A joyous wedding that brought our now-sprawling family together in the mountains outside Sylva, NC. My father’s sudden death in September. Multiple visits to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms as our elders continue their inevitable turn toward decline. 

And then, late last month, my mother’s time arrived. I was privileged to arrive just in time to say goodbye — which meant my experience of the event lacked the full emotional gut-punch felt by family members who had lived with her, off and on, since she and my stepfather put down roots in a remote rural community in the mid-1980s. 

In the context of my life, her death came at the end of a rare month with only one big disruption — a few days of helping a friend move. Otherwise, I logged twenty days of productive writing in the first 27 days of January. That’s a great tally for City of the Dead, which has been interrupted by an unprecedented variety of distractions — welcome and otherwise — since I got down to work on it last spring. 

And I’m nearing the end of the first draft, too. I’ve discarded at least 30k words so far, but I peaked at about 98k words early last week, before receding to just under 97k in my last session. Most of my novels clock in between about 90k to 110k, so once I finally got rolling again, I felt my optimism return. If you’ve ever been on a horse when it spies its barn ahead, you know what that’s like. 

The other night it occurred to me that being there with Joyce at the end had changed my evolving feelings about death yet again. Not in big ways, perhaps. But aren’t our subtle changes sometimes the most valuable?

So all that will be factored in as I work my way back into the manuscript again this weekend and begin what I hope will be my final push to the story’s climax. Joyce was a fan of this series, and now — however things turn out — she’s kinda baked into one of its central themes. 

In retrospect, I suppose I’m kinda weirdly grateful for this difficult, frustrating, stop-and-go writing experience. We’re all forced to confront our own mortality sooner or later. I just happened to confront the experience multiple times while writing a story that forced me to peer into that abyss for months on end. I’m not saying it prepared me or comforted me — just that I didn’t feel like I was trekking across a foreign landscape alone.

For what it’s worth, I suspect but cannot prove that whatever life and death mean in the big scheme of things, we’re all something more than meat. But it isn’t just our doomed mortal attachment to life that defines us — it’s the attachments we make with each other during our separate, brief journeys. And as my protagonist says at various points in the book, attachment brings suffering, some suffering is worth it, and every story is a tragedy if you tell it all the way to the end. 

I can see why some people might consider that a bleak, dreary outlook. I just think those people might be horribly wrong.