A lot of writers talk about Apprentice Novels: those books, embarrassing or not, they had to write to learn how to write books. Long before I held a copy of North Dark in my hands, I was hard at work toiling away on books that no one—Thank God—will ever get to read.
Those books all had a ton of problems, some minor (for most of my life I apparently have not understood how to spell the word “traveling”) others spectacular (an entire novel written in the single most horrendous sixteen year old voice ever committed to paper). But the common problem, the thing I’ve never really figured out, was how to be comfortable writing about a real place.
Here’s what I mean: I spend a lot of time on Google Earth inspecting the minute details of some street corner I’m writing about in Istanbul or wherever. I think I believe—incorrectly I’m sure—that it’s important to be perfectly accurate to the real place. As if someone in Istanbul is going to get to page 200 of my novel and think, “Bullshit, there’s no cracked sidewalk there,” and stop reading. This is a psychological deficiency of mine and I know it. But even so, it’ hass worked its way into all of my writing. I struggle when writing about somewhere as foreign as Antarctica or as familiar as Chicago, it doesn’t end.
There are authors who have made entire careers out of writing about places they’ve never been to, Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of Tarzan, is an example and people still read him. So WTF, I figure at a certain point you just have to let go! And so I did with North Dark.
I decided, quite deliberately, to write about a place that I’ve never been to, one that doesn’t even exist, and to just try really, really hard to be cool with it.
Does North Dark take place in an alternate timeline? The future? I don’t know. I think of it as just taking place “somewhere else.” Happily, readers from Alaska have said to me, “Clearly, this is Alaska.” And readers from Canada have said, “Clearly, this is Canada.” I love that— any answer or interpretation is totally valid.
The beautiful thing about writing about a fictitious place is that it’s as liberating as it gets. And what I mean by liberating is a minimum of research. When I embraced the mystery of this locale, this unknown world in which North Dark occurs, suddenly my work became an exercise in exploring rather than researching actual history or geography.
The onus is on the author to ask questions, to roam, to generate all of the material that would otherwise be his or her responsibility to seek out and document accurately, with all of the “required” cultural/historical/BS sensitivities in mind. But these are all invented stressors, the important part is this: reading fiction is collaborative. North Dark occurs in whichever world the reader envisions—and the reader’s vision is far more important than mine anyway.
So is it Canada? Alaska? Some different, more broken world? I don’t know, but I’d love to hear what you think.