Summer in Orcus started as a place to put things.
I don’t know how other writers do it, but I am constantly coming up with weird little tidbits that don’t fit in what I’m currently working on. Images, vignettes, chunks of mini-story that don’t fit any coherent narrative. Stuff like Regency birds in waistcoats, migrating houses, albatrosses going through the sun’s shadow. Sometimes all I have is a single phrase—Antelope women are not to be trusted has been beating around my head for a decade now, and I have been going around trying to shove that phrase into various keyholes, hoping I’ll find the story it unlocks.
These ideas pile up. Occasionally I’ll rummage around and find one that goes into a story, but there’s always so many more weird little tidbits than there is story to put them in. Eventually I started looking for a place to put a great many of them at once, and what with one things and another, that led me to Orcus.
It turned out, once I had Summer and a place to send her, that I had very strong opinions about portal fantasies. (I have always suspected this.) Narnia, mostly. I loved Narnia with a vast, hungry passion as a child and when I finally worked out that it was really about church, I felt betrayed as only small, grim, irreligious children can feel betrayed. (I would shortly afterward seize on Watership Down, which was exactly what it was and not an allegory for anything else.) When I went back as an adult and re-read the Narnia books, there were seams and holes and lumpy bits, and I began to pick at them and brood.
They were also so short! I had remembered them being so much longer. (Of course, now I sound like that apocryphal diner—“The food was terrible! And such small portions!”) Inn my head, when I was a child, I had filled in so much space between the pages.
I wanted to write a story about a child who I could identify with. And I knew, as I was writing it, that it would be nearly impossible to sell to a children’s book publisher because children are often impatient with slow meandering journeys, and very impatient with weakness.
“Why doesn’t she stab the spider-horses?” demands nine-year-old me in my head.
“Because stabbing things is hard,” I tell her wearily, from thirty years on, where I understand terror and freezing and that a knife is not a light-saber that cuts effortlessly through anything you point it at.
“I would have stabbed them,” she mutters, and sulks back into my subconscious where she lives.
What could I tell her? That realistically, Edmund would probably wake up screaming at night from the vision of the Christmas squirrels turned to stone by the White Witch? That the smell of sugar and rose-water from Turkish delight would leave him slumped against doorframes outside of candy shops, trying to breathe? That Eustace is the only one who acts remotely like I would really act, and Coriakin the star is a dangerous tyrant and Aravis can do about a thousand times better than Shasta?
I wanted to write a story where someone acted at least a little like I would. I knew that meant that the climax could not be a battle scene. Summer was not going to become a hardened warrior in a few weeks. And we’ve had plenty of literary battle scenes already and I didn’t feel the need to add another one. A scene where someone really listens and tries to reassure someone else…could I do that? Would that work? Would the readers feel cheated or baffled or lost?
It is in my nature to plow forward stubbornly while second-guessing myself at every turn. I plowed forward with Summer in Orcus, thinking that I would put it out as a serial and people could read for free and if they hated it, at least they wouldn’t be out any money. This meant I’d take a total bath on book sales in the second half of 2016, but I could live on the royalties on the latest Hamster Princess book for a couple months, no problem. And then my patrons on Patreon started to say “No, we will give you money,” and I said “But—“ and they said “TAKE THE MONEY” then money happened and I wrung my hands and said “But what if you hate it?” and more money happened and this made the entire thing far more feasible, even if it did nothing for my nerves.
The best thing about my patrons was that they wanted everyone else to read it too. They didn’t want a story just for them, they wanted to donate money to give a book to the world. And since the year that I am writing to you from was—well, let’s say it was a very bad year for the world—because it was a serial, I could put out extra chapters on the worst days so that my readers could get a few minutes away from the news.
It’s not often that you get a chance to help people with fiction in real-time. Even if it’s just five minutes of respite, even if it’s just a weird little story about hoopoes and wolves. So many of us right then felt like we were bailing the tide, like the world was breaking beyond any of our ability to fix. (I know many of you are reading this the day after I write it, but I hope that when some of you read this, we are in a far happier future.) That my patrons had helped me be at a place, right at that moment, where I could do even this little tiny thing…that was a gift that can’t be measured in dollar figures.
For them, and for you, I’m grateful.