by Chris Goff
The Rogues are thrilled to welcome Heather Young. Heather earned her law degree from the University of Virginia, and practiced law in San Francisco before beginning her writing career. She received an MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars, a Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has studied at the Tin House Writers’ Workshop and the Squaw Valley Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Mill Valley, California. THE DISTANT DEAD is her second novel.
I have loved mysteries and thrillers ever since I got my hands on Harriet the Spy in second grade. Before I finished high school I’d torn through all the classics: Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, Nero Wolfe; John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, Robert B. Parker. So when I wrote my first novel, The Lost Girls, it seemed natural to hang the plot around a mysterious death.
But the mystery/thriller genre wasn’t my only literary passion. I also gorged on fantasy and sci-fi–The Lord of the Rings, Dune, anything by Ursula K. LeGuin or Neil Gaiman. I admire authors like Erika Swyler and Kate Atkinson who bring elements of this genre into their literary novels with deft assurance. I’d never thought I had the skill or imagination to do that, but while writing my second novel, The Distant Dead, I decided to try it.
It didn’t work. My early drafts had supernatural elements that I thought were really nifty but that my editor, gently and over several months, persuaded me to take out. Unlike the reincarnation premise of Atkinson’s Life After Life or the magical book in Swyler’s The Book of Speculation, they felt gimmicky. Worse—and this was what finally convinced me they had to go—I realized these elements were a crutch that kept me from doing the hard work of showing, rather than telling, what characters were thinking and feeling. (There were telepathic powers involved—talk about cheating!). So, despite my best efforts, The Distant Dead doesn’t have magic, or supernatural talents, or visits from the titular dead people. Well, okay, maybe it does have that last one, just a little bit.
But I did pay tribute to my love for speculative fiction in other ways.
One of my main characters is an eleven-year-old boy named Sal. Sal isn’t the mind-reader I originally imagined him to be, but he is deeply empathic; a quiet, watchful boy whose ability to read people is so acute that he thinks of it as an actual superpower. He’s also an imaginative child who loves graphic novels about angels and demons and monsters. He fills notebook after notebook with his own illustrated stories about two warring archangels, estranged brothers who lead the armies of Heaven and Hell. As Sal falls deeper under the spell of his favorite teacher, the man whose death drives the book’s mystery plot, these imaginary characters come to represent the moral weight of the secrets he is forced to carry, and their long-running contest becomes a battle over the true meaning of honor.
Sal also buys a copy of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book at his middle school book fair. For Sal, a fatherless boy whose mother has just died, this book speaks straight to his heart. It’s about a young orphan who finds shelter among the ghosts in an old cemetery, kindly spirits who protect him from the evil forces who killed his family. They also grant him the “powers of the graveyard,” which enable him to see the dead and move unnoticed among the living. Soon Sal imagines that he, too, might be able to talk to the dead if he tries hard enough. Like any kid who reads Harry Potter or The Once and Future King under the covers when they’re supposed to be sleeping, he longs to be the hero of his own story. But in Sal’s case, his vivid imagination, empathy, and desire to be a savior lead him to make a decision that has fatal consequences for the only person left on earth that he truly cares about.
While The Distant Dead wound up being a different book than the one I started, in that weird, alchemic way of most writing it turned out to be exactly the book I wanted it to be. It’s grounded not in fantasy but in the real world, with all its grit and odd moments of joy. It rests on characters whose motives are illuminated not by a superpower but by the complexity of their actions. The solution to its mystery is not magical but tragically human. And, above all else, it’s a bittersweet, heartfelt love letter to all those kids who smuggle flashlights into their bedrooms and imagine that they, too, could pull a sword from a stone or wave a magic wand. Kids like the one I once was.