A Brief History of “The Island”

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I am launching my new book in a matter of days. I thought this would be a good time to talk a little bit more about the book here.

The World Without Crows started life with the working title “The Island,” a title I wouldn’t give up for a long time. “The Island” began as the confluence of several ideas that had been bouncing around my head separately for a couple years. I’d always wanted to write a book in which there’s a lot of hiking. That’s not much of an idea, and that’s why it just flitted around my head, not landing anywhere, just flying from one place to another. Another desire was to write a book in which the protagonist played pen and paper RPG. A gamer, of the old fashioned type. The kind of kids I knew growing up who argued over the rules of the game more than they played it. I never thought these kids had seen justice in print or movies. They are always portrayed as incredibly socially awkward. Some of them were, it’s true, but they were also very intelligent, curious, and were all around decent people. Now they are professors and lawyers and judges. I have no doubt that hidden in the back of the closet of more than a few influential people is a ratty old copy of the AD&D Player’s Handbook. I wanted to tell THAT story. The third major idea was something apocalyptic. These ideas just trotted around my head independently for a long time, like horses in different fields, happily chomping away on the grass without being aware of each other’s existence. Until one day I woke up in the morning thinking that each idea was no good alone, but together, they might have something to say. For some reason, while I slept, the horses all gathered in the same field.

The island that is Eric’s goal in the book is a real island. I went there once with a good friend, or to the lake at least, seen from above. It’s a beautiful island. All of the places in the book are real places. Some I have been to, some I haven’t. I’m sure there is fault in some of the detail, but I sat down with a map as I imagined Eric would have, and I traced his path from one park or nature reserve to another, trying to avoid major cities. The result is a haphazard trail through the rural Northeast. This was also important to me. One of the things that I love about the United States is our love of natural spaces. And I wanted Eric to get back to that, away from the microwave popcorn and back into nature. Certainly Eric’s journey isn’t as pleasurable as Thoreau’s walking about Walden Pond, but I wanted a book in which rural spaces dominated. Cities are avoided. They are seen from a healthy distance. They are often burning. I wanted to write a book where San Francisco, New York, Chicago, or Miami didn’t feature at all. I wanted a book with trees and hills and lakes. More birds and less airplanes. For me some of the magic of the apocalypse as a genre is that despite all the horror, there is something beautiful about nature taking over again, about a world back to the basics of eating, observing, and human interaction. With that world, however, comes difficulty and brutality. I think the apocalypse genre exists squarely on top of this paradox of a beautiful but very dangerous world, and that is what I tried to capture in Eric’s journey across the rural Northeast.

Another important thing I have to say about “The Island” is that I wrote it differently than I usually write. I like to write quickly, or, I should say, that is how I write. I have absolutely no problem in producing page after page of prose. Sometimes the results are good, sometimes the results aren’t so good. But in writing “The Island”, I decided that I would do a few things that I hadn’t done before. One, I would plan out the book meticulously before I began. That meant maps and names and backgrounds all drawn out before the first words hit the page. And I decided that I would write in a prose as clean and uncluttered as I could manage. I would write slowly and carefully. And I would finish the book in under 200 pages because I do have a tendency to bloat my work. The result was a very, tight, simple prose style with a lot of breaks. “The Island” contains some prose that I’m very proud of writing, simple, hard prose, stark as the nature Eric must now call home. In fact, I am so happy with the outcome of the book, in terms of process, that I don’t think I will ever again sit down to write without first planning everything in detail first. (There’s another blog post kicking around there, I think.) “The Island” definitely changed me as a writer, and, I hope, for the better.

The last thing to talk about is how “The Island” became The World Without Crows. Well, I’m learning the value of titles. I liked “The Island” because it was simple and it seemed to reflect the simplicity of the prose. But no one who read the book liked the title. And if I told someone about the book, they were likely to make a little face of disgust at the title and say something like, “Kind of plain, isn’t it?” Well, yeah, it is, but I didn’t care. I was happy to put the book in a folder on my desktop and just let it sit there. A year later, I thought I might try to sell it, so I began the depressing work of writing agents to see if they would do me the honor of reading my book. None of them were interested, as I figured, so I just popped it back in the folder on my computer’s desktop, and was prepared to let it sit there for eternity, for all I cared. It’s not that I didn’t like the book, I did, but I have never cared too much about publication and marketing. I had written the book I wanted to write, and I had learned from it. So let it sit there. Who cares? Well, I had given it out to a couple people, just to see if they liked it. And they did, they liked it a lot, which is why I even bothered with an agent in the first place. Every few months, they would mention the book, and eventually, years later, I brought it out and read it again, and found that I liked it too. Eventually I decided to self-publish it, mainly because those friends continued to tell me the book was worth it. As part of self-publishing, I knew I had to change the title. I can talk all day in defense of “The Island”, but titles are meant to excite people and to be evocative. While I was editing the book, one of the several times I edited the book in preparation for publication, I came across the phrase and a bell went off. Of course, The World Without Crows was the title of the book. It seemed obvious. And now when I tell people the title, they raise an eyebrow. They’re willing to give it a try. And that’s what a title is supposed to do.

In short, that is how this book became what it is, how it went from “The Island” to The World Without Crows, and how it got itself from the laziness of my mind onto Kindles. It was quite a journey, not as dramatic and tragic as Eric’s, but certainly a journey in itself.

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