My mother wanted to be a writer, and therefore she wanted me to be a writer. You might say that I became a writer despite this, and I was never the sort of writer my mother wanted to be. This baffled her. The ideas I liked best to play with bewildered her. “Are you never going to write something that doesn’t have a spaceship in it?” she asked plaintively–despite the fact that nothing I had published to that point had a spaceship in it. I think Mom thought I was thinking up this stuff just to be difficult, but honestly, the ideas, they just arrived.
My first published story, “The Boarder,” grew out of a conversation about how hard it is to write a truly alien character. Because, like it or not, we’re not aliens, we can only extrapolate so far from our own worldview, and then the alien becomes a screen on which we project our ideas. I started out with an alien that looked like an egg, required a life-support system in order to live on our planet, emitted a scent like almost-burnt toast, and could not communicate in any way a human being understood. Then I foisted it on an elderly woman who had been talking to her parakeet and her photographs and herself for years, and made it her roommate. And I waited to see what happened, and together the old woman and the alien showed me. My mother, reading the story, asked, “why would this even occur to you?”
My second published story, “Lioncel,” was written at Clarion. The initial impetus: take the dictionary, open it to a random page, use the first word as a story prompt. “Lioncel” was my word; it’s an heraldic term for one or more small lions appearing on a coat of arms. The lioncels became telepathic mini-lions created for humans to hunt. But the story was really about the loneliness of human beings, and the yearning some humans have to break through that isolation at any cost. Again, my mother: “Why would you write something like this?” And what could I say to that? That I’d been unnerved and frightened, at the age of ten, when I realized that there was no way to be utterly sure that my experience of the world was the same as anyone else’s, and this was my way of exploring it? She couldn’t get past the telepathic lions, I’m afraid.
My mother didn’t get a chance to read “Somewhere in Dreamland Tonight,” but the idea grew out of a story she told me about her father, an osteopath in Nebraska in the 1920s, who had a couple come to him wondering why they couldn’t conceive. From what Mom said her father had said, the way the couple were going about it they would never have had a child; it took him explaining the physiology of sex to them, which embarrassed him very much. This got me, a child of the more-information-than-you-can-possibly-use late ’60s, thinking about the cost of ignorance. And when I was asked to write a story about Coney Island, suddenly I had a naive young woman under the boardwalk, having what she thinks is sex (but isn’t). So I can say that that idea came, in a roundabout way, from my mother and her father.
Ideas come from everywhere; bits of conversation, observed behavior, a reaction to a book that really pissed you off, a story about your grandma. It’s not the ideas that are special so much as what they evoke in you, the writer. With or without spaceships.
Madeleine E. Robins posts here regularly on the 7th and 21st of the month, and elsewhere on her blog, Running Air. She is in the process of finishing yet another book, but she thinks her mother would like this one.