Sometimes inspiration comes to you not just from what you visualize, but what you can't, or don't want to, see. It may also arrive because you're distracted... like, say, by a bad case of bronchitis after dental surgery. It may take over your life so powerfully that you wake up one day and find you're the author of something called The Southern Reach trilogy, the first book of which is out February 4 — Annihilation
, with the second and third out later this year. Narrated by an expedition biologist, Annihilation
details an expedition sent by the government into a strange pristine wilderness protected by an invisible border, where over 30 years before an unexplained Event caused the deaths of everyone inside. This is the 12th expedition, and to say the prior expeditions haven't gone well would be a colossal understatement. As the biologist finds out, however, the secrets Area X contains are matched by the secrets that the expeditions bring with them.
The core of Annihilation came to me in a dream, which isn't that unusual for writers. You start thinking about something that interests you — in this case, the 14-mile trail I've hiked here in North Florida for more than a decade — and out pops a story.
On the other hand, this was a pretty weird dream — and one of those dreams that's extremely detailed to the point of not realizing that you're in a dream at all. I can't lie — I was scared while dreaming this dream, frightened out of my mind. (If I hadn't gotten a story out of it, I suppose I'd be calling it a "nightmare" or, more accurately, a "nightfreakout.")
I woke up in the middle of the night, hazy and coughing, and scribbled down these notes:
- Walking down the steps of an underground tunnel but it's more like a submerged tower.
- Words on the wall composed of living letters. Keep walking down the steps. The letters are glowing. Getting fresher.
- There's a shadow around the next bend. Something is down there.
Which is when I woke up, which I'll always attribute to not wanting to know what happened next — not in the dream, at least. If I'd turned the corner in the dream, I know I wouldn't have written the story; I would have seen whatever was down there, jolted awake, had a sip of water, settled back to sleep, and probably started working the next day on a very stupid idea about the war between a man and the armadillos digging up his backyard. (Some of which, transformed, is actually in the third volume, Acceptance.)
Waking up meant my storytelling brain had to fill in the blanks — and that's what it did, with a vengeance, over the next five weeks. I was too weak to do anything other than wake up, type, and then fall asleep or watch TV in the afternoons, then repeat that process. I was writing and rewriting almost 5,000 words a day, in a kind of waking dream state, and when I wasn't writing I kept thinking about what the story meant, and what the wider arc might be. I can't tell you that I even remember much from those writing sessions, to be honest. It was a bit like sleeping and waking up to find magical finished pages on the printer, and then editing those pages.
At the end of the five weeks, I had a finished draft and a larger vision in my head — the events in Annihilation didn't just have an internal consistency and cohesion; they had causality, there was meaning and purpose behind them, which resonated forward into the next two books. Further, Annihilation is informed and enriched by my comfort level with the setting, which was, transformed, the hikes I'd been doing out in the pine forests, marshes, and swamps of North Florida. Like that ecosystem, the character storylines, the events and situations, grew organically, interlocking and unfolding outward: the blossoming of a strange, beautiful flower. The third book structurally even has the outline of a flower, with lines radiating out from a circular core.
But lest you think this was all some mystical process, it's important to recognize the ways in which the conscious and subconscious minds collude. The entire time I was writing Annihilation, my hazy afternoons were filled with hours of just thinking about the story, of examining the characters and situations from various angles, and as I sat down to write the second two novels, I already had scene fragments, character dialogue, and a couple of pages describing the entire scenario from a macro-level, looking down. So I had a framework within which to play, and then conscious thought and instinct combined to create something cohesive that moves, that hopefully surprises but also holds you there wanting to read more about the characters. I can't lie — I'm proud of this work — it's personal to me, and it feels natural and right.
You might think I've told you the strangest part of Annihilation's back story, but I haven't. There's one thing stranger still.
Do you want to know what it is?
The words on the wall were also in my head when I woke from that initial dream, and they not only made sense, but have been carried forward unchanged into the final printed book. They exist there faintly glowing, winking at me. You can follow them right into the narrative, if you like, right into Annihilation… Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead...