Evolution of a Book
On October 1, 2015 the novel Becoming Darkness finally hit bookstores and online retailers. Released by Switch Press, Capstone’s YA imprint, it is the culmination of many years of hard work on my part, with invaluable contributions by others – most notably my friends and family, as well as my editor at Switch Press, Alison Deering. What follows is a brief description of some of the thought processes that went into making the novel and an explanation of some of the sources of inspiration that helped create a world.
The beginnings of the Becoming Darkness are rooted in a confluence of disparate events. The first occurred a few years ago when I was given an e-reader. Among the many e-books I downloaded were classic works of literature, one of which happened to be Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While reading the latter, I chanced upon a documentary about World War Two that briefly mentioned a British wartime information film that was designed to prepare the public for the possible successful invasion of the island by Hitler’s forces. A clip from this movie showed actors playing the role of German soldiers touring about London on a bus while city life continued unabated.
How it came to pass that these unconnected events triggered the thought processes that resulted in a novel is impossible to say. Who really knows how a brain evolves a thought? But at some point it occurred to me that it might make an interesting alternate history story if for some reason Hitler and his Nazi cohorts became vampires and as a consequence won the war. It’s no exaggeration to say that it was one of those eureka moments, and literally within moments of the idea coming to me, I had the essentials worked out in my head.
From the start, I knew I wanted the story to be less about the supernatural and more rooted in plausible science. This led to the idea of Gomorrah, a virus created by Nazi scientists and unwittingly unleashed upon the entire world. I contrived that the virus would wipe out most of the human population, leaving just over two hundred million survivors. The majority of these would be transformed by Gomorrah into a type of vampire, and this group would be largely centered in Europe, the location of the initial outbreak. They’d also be under Nazi control – as in this alternate reality the Third Reich would reign supreme over what remained of civilization.
A tiny subset of the survivors would be immune to the virus and live separate from the vampires. For these “Immunes” I created the fictional enclave of Haven, an ostensibly democratic republic situated on a remote archipelago located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. (I confess that I have a thing for tropical islands. Maybe it’s the fact that I live in a country where winter lasts far too long and summer is always much too short.)
The concept for Haven arose from reading an article about the relationship between Taiwan and mainland China. Here you have people of the same heritage living apart due to an ideological schism that occurred decades in the past. There remain strong cultural bonds and shared historical perspectives, but the two remain divided and somewhat antagonistic – one living beneath the brooding shadow of the other. Indeed, it was the dichotomy that exists between a tiny state and a much larger and more powerful one that inspired a great deal of the backdrop for Becoming Darkness and informed much of its characters attitudes and personas. I felt such a scenario made for an interesting dynamic – especially in a situation where the smaller state’s continued existence is largely subject to the whims of the larger. (It’s also something that as a Canadian I can relate to on some levels, given the close proximity of the behemoth of the United States. The mouse and the elephant, as we tend to think of it -- insofar as the elephant can roll over and crush the mouse without being conscious of having done so.)
In the case of Becoming Darkness, the imbalance of power between the two states posed the immediate question of why. Why would the wholly vampire Nazi Third Reich permit the continued existence of a tiny and independent democracy they could easily defeat? There would have to be a reason behind what would otherwise be quite illogical.
The search for the answer to that question is one of the major driving forces in Becoming Darkness. It’s what motivates the main character, seventeen year old Sophie Harkness, and propels her through a labyrinthine adventure that’s full of twists and turns and shocking revelations about herself and the world she inhabits – most particularly the Haven part of it.
Sophie and Val:
I’ve always been a very visually-oriented person, so when I write I am largely describing what is essentially a film playing in my head. Even before setting words to paper, I have a strong impression of what my characters and settings look like. Consequently, there was never any internal debate as to the gender of the protagonist. I never for a moment imagined the leading character as being anything other than a young woman; it always seemed the story was better suited to being told from a female perspective. Of course, the fact that most of the women I’ve known throughout my life have been strong and self-motivated individuals who have had to overcome a great many obstacles may have had something to do with it.
To better express the contrast between the Nazi vampire state and the human Immune one, I knew there had to be a conduit between the two, and this function was served by the character of Val (Valentine). Val belongs to a small group of vampires who live in Haven as part of the Third Reich’s diplomatic presence. Though they can technically roam at will throughout the islands, they generally confine themselves to the Embassy and are seldom seen by the residents of the islands – though their presence is certainly never far from the minds of the citizens of Haven. (Kind of how one imagines it might have felt like to have lived in an Eastern Bloc country during the height of the Soviet era, when the U.S.S.R’s Embassies must have been regarded as emblematic of Moscow’s long and powerful reach – and its tendency to quickly crush even a hint of dissent.)
The relationship between Val and Sophie is crucial to Becoming Darkness; without it, the story would be entirely different. Val is one of many examples in the story of how assumption can prejudice perception. For most Immunes the equation is simple: because of the bloody history between the two factions, vampires are evil and should be wiped from the face of the Earth. There are no exceptions as far as most Immunes are concerned. But for Sophie things aren’t quite so straightforward. Despite her upbringing and her awareness of what she risks by having a romantic entanglement with someone who is essentially considered one of the “enemy,” she cannot help herself. Her feelings for Val are too powerful – even though she herself eventually realizes they are costly and come at the expense of other relationships.
Jonathan and Havershaw:
I’ve always enjoyed the meditative detectives you find in dramas like Columbo, Midsomer, and Foyle’s War – the sort who go about their business in a somewhat unassuming and self-effacing manner. Both Sophie’s father and Inspector Havershaw are modeled on that kind of character. You get to know Sophie’s father largely through his notes from a crime that proves essential to the plot – if for no other reason than it is the point at which Sophie and Val first encounter one another and because it serves as the catalyst for a chain of events that leads Sophie to make drastic live-changing decisions. Havershaw, on the other hand, has a more concrete presence in the novel. He provides something of an anchor, his investigations a reminder of the realities of the world in which Sophie exists.
Grace and Camille:
The characters of Grace (Sophie’s grandmother) and Camille (Sophie’s best friend) are studies in contrast and are intended to illuminate the disparity between the generations that exist on the islands. Grace is one of the original founders of Haven and lived in a time when the world was full of humans and vampires were merely the fancy of writers. Camille is part of a young generation that’s far removed from that and chaffs at the confinement of Haven. She yearns for a world she never knew and resents the one to which she’s consigned.
It is through her journal that we come to appreciate Mary, Sophie’s mother, and are introduced to the ways in which she and her daughter are so remarkably alike – and yet in so many ways distinctly dissimilar. It is both their similarities and differences that shape Sophie’s perceptions of her mother and contribute heavily to the motivations that send her seeking answers to questions that might be better left forgotten and buried in the past.
The Old Ones:
From the onset of the novel the Old Ones cast a long shadow. Even when not seen, the specter of their existence overpowers all else and permeates the lives of the characters in Becoming Darkness. The Old Ones are individuals with a specific agenda, and they are not willing to let anyone or anything get in their way.
Haven, as I constructed it in the novel, assumes the mantle of a major character. With its tropical island setting, it carries about it the veneer of paradise. But scratch beneath the surface and you find there’s something far darker.
To some extent the people of Haven live in a state of perpetual siege, ever conscious of the fact that Hitler’s Third Reich could easily wipe them off the map. Their archipelago is a democratic republic whose citizens exist under a set of rules and obligations that are deemed essential to their survival but which at times border on totalitarian in nature. For people like Grace, these are a small price to pay for security and assurances there will be a future for humankind. But for the younger, post-war generation they are the bars of a prison from which there seems no escape.
Some of the atmosphere for Haven comes from my recollections of living abroad as a child. When I was nine my family moved to Sukkur, Pakistan and took up residence in the heart of the city on a small WAPDA (Water and Power Development Authority) colony. We were one of two expat families living in the compound, surrounded by a people and culture wholly foreign to us. The colony was walled in and had heavy iron gates, with guards posted twenty-four hours a day. Although we weren’t confined to the colony or under the restrictions or rationing regime the people of Haven endure, we were constrained in the respect that our lives no longer contained many of the things we had taken for granted back in Canada. There was no television, no library, or really much of anything in the way of entertainment. Nor were there grocery stores stocked with a plethora of foodstuffs. Often we would pine for the simplest comforts from home – peanut butter, familiar music, a chance (as kids) to watch Saturday morning cartoons while eating a bowl of Cheerios.
My own experience of exploring an entirely different country and being immersed in its culture is something that works its way into Becoming Darkness during the second half of the novel. For me it was important to have the reader see the contrasting societies that make up the world in which Sophie lives, otherwise it’s impossible to understand the dilemma she faces at the end. It was my goal to have the reader appreciate that while on the surface Sophie’s world may seem black and white, it is actually far more complicated.
There are a few homages in Becoming Darkness, the most evident being to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Crucial information for the reader is disseminated in the form of journal entries, letters, documents, recordings, and notes, all of which are allusions to the epistolary nature of the Dracula narrative. There is also a minor character called “Lucy,” a more critical character who is mad, and the fact that Gomorrah is known in scientific parlance as BSD1897 (“BSD” being the initials for “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” followed by the date of its first publication).
Becoming Darkness also gives passing reference to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, an exemplary example of alternate history (which I highly recommend you read). In my book, as in Dick’s, I use the trope of a fictional novel within a novel to make certain points. In Becoming Darkness the fictional work is No Haven for Darkness, and like Dick’s The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, it depicts a world in which the Nazis were defeated by the Allies in 1945. The author of this book is Philip Hawthorne (taking Dick’s first name and the first name of his fictional author, Hawthorne Abendsen). No Haven for Darkness has a minor but significant role in Becoming Darkness, but its importance should not be discounted and becomes much more apparent in the subsequent novels.
The observant will also note oblique references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Len Deighton's SS-GB and Thomas More's Utopia, as well as some other Easter eggs.
Of course there are aspects of Becoming Darkness that arise as a result of my own particular interests. Most notable of these is the presence of airships. I’ve had a passion for them since I was a kid, and during the writing of this novel I was afforded the opportunity to use them in a big way. They fit perfectly with the world I was creating, and it’s not giving away too much to say that a critical scene occurs in an airship.
There is also a reference to Alzheimer’s disease – not simply because it made sense in the context of the story, but also because it’s something with which I’m well acquainted. I watched my mother succumb to it not long before I started writing Becoming Darkness, and it was therefore quite easy to draw upon the powerful emotions that experience engendered. There is a scene in the book where I wanted to convey the devastation and sense of helpless one endures while watching a loved one become so utterly diminished by what is unquestionably one of the cruelest of afflictions.
Most readers will probably find a certain irony in the fact that Sophie’s world, as dystopian as it is, doesn’t suffer from the countless problems extant in ours. Although it takes place in the first decade of the 21st century, there are no ongoing conflicts, no rampant poverty, no climate change, or any of the economic turmoil we know only too well. And if you ignore the fact that in general Immunes despise vamps and vamps despise Immunes, there really is no racism. In Haven that sort of thing simply can’t be allowed to flourish when the population is so small and the social paradigm demands that everyone get along for the sake of humankind’s future.
Haven’s nirvana-like qualities may seem to extend beyond its tropical setting, but in reality they’re paper thin. While the use of electric vehicles and windmill- and hydro-generated power may seem an environmentalist’s dream, the truth is far more mundane on the islands and rooted in the fact that electric transportation and so-called “green” sources of power generation are practical necessities in a community where petroleum products are exceedingly scarce. For Havenites there is no alternative, and living in a society so dependent on so inadequate an output of power means accepting constant blackouts and their associated inconveniences. (When I lived in Pakistan in the late sixties and early seventies, power outages and fluctuations in power output were a frequent occurrence.)
In keeping with the limited resources to which Havenites have access, the electric cars in the republic are rudimentary and hardly the sort of thing we’d accept in our world. Likewise, the windmill generators that pepper the islands are primitive contraptions and partly responsible for the fact that electric power, like everything else in Haven, is strictly rationed. Again, this contributes to the overall impression of the islands as being under constant siege.
When you’ve lived in Third World countries, you come to appreciate the inventiveness of the less well-off segments of the population. When I lived in Sukkur it was amazing to see how empty tin cans were recycled into toys and old tires turned into sandals – to name but a few of the ingenious examples of repurposing. What we would have regarded as garbage, they transformed into useful products. My experiences with this were worked into the novel, insofar as there are references to the fact that a great deal of Haven is built upon machines and material scavenged from a few of the dead cities of the world.
The Joy of Writing and Travails of Getting Published:
If you spend as much time building a world as I did when creating Haven and its surroundings, you get to know every nuance of it. It’s difficult to convey to a reader what it feels like as the words on the page actualize the places in your imagination and it all becomes clear to you – to the point that you feel you almost inhabit it. When you achieve something like that as a writer, the experience is nothing short of extraordinary.
Of course the writing of a novel is only one part of a very lengthy process. Some would even argue it’s among the easiest parts.
After I completed the book, I had to find an agent -- since few publishers these days will accept unsolicited manuscripts. After I acquired representation, the book was sold to Capstone in late 2013 (for their YA imprint, Switch Press). There it fell to editor Alison Deering to work with me on rewrites that further strengthened the novel and made it something of which I can now say I am truly proud.
If as a reader you enjoy the book half as much as I enjoyed writing it, then I believe I can say without impunity that you will definitely have gotten your money’s worth.
And now on to the next book.
Lindsay Brambles, Ottawa, Canada.