World Building


“Painting Globe” by MR LIGHTMAN. Photo courtesy of

Today my job is to turn away from a finished draft, a fully realized world and the music of its language still singing in my head, and turn to a new book, the nub of an idea with a world yet to be built. And I’m like a little kid again, reluctant to do my work. Because it’s hard. And yet I do want to do it, and so I have to remind myself that it’s time to think about a different place, a different time, not the one I just wrote about, that I’m still in love with and want to turn back to, where I know what the forest smells like, for example, and how the people talk, and . . . now stop that, I have to remind myself. Time to think about this dull, grey, unformed place, that isn’t yet. This egg of a world. So how to start? By giving it a little color. Lay down some streets, and a map of the city, maybe. What’s it like in there? And then some history. What story do the people tell themselves about the past, about their lives? And then the people. Who’s there? And what will happen to them? What troubles them, what troubles the whole place, and what can they do about it? That’s the beginning of it, maybe. Or tomorrow I might have a different answer.


I recently had an interesting discussion with some friends about parental censorship. I’m not talking about the book-burning nightmare or library-banning nonsense you see all over the place, but about parents choosing which books to offer their kids and which to keep away until they’re older. Instinctively, I abhor censorship, for all the reasons most writers would – who’s to say what ideas should be banned? But as a parent, I see the other side of the coin. Children are different. As parents we do have both a right and a responsibility to monitor what our kids are exposed to. So censorship for children is a tricky issue – what is too much? What should children be protected from?

For my own part, I have always seen a difference between images and text. Images are powerful in a different way than words. We can’t mediate them easily by talking about them, and they have the strength to scar. So images – especially TV and movies – were most definitely censored for my young children. Some things you just shouldn’t see until you’re old enough. But books are in a different category. For those, I kept graphic horror and sex out of the house, but didn’t keep my kids from much else. My attitude was that in the realm of ideas, and the stories that carry them, they could pretty much read whatever they wanted to. At the same time, I tried to be aware of what they were reading, so we could talk about it.

Stories in which there is great evil, for example, were always in our personal library. This includes stories in which there’s a fair amount of emotional darkness – adults who are cruel, even abusive. These ideas might be disturbing, but I believe that kids have a lot of darkness to deal with – both from within and without – and literature is a way to process those kinds of feelings and realities. Best of all, if you know what your kids are reading, is to talk about it with them. Talking about ideas, and wrestling with hard things in books is, to my way of thinking, the best way to prepare kids for life.

I notice that in many reader reviews of Zebra Forest, this idea comes up. Some people call it too dark, or talk about it as an adult book that’s too old for middle schoolers because of its themes. While I respect any parent’s knowledge of his or her own child (which is what I think you always need to make these decisions, because it’s not universal), I think of my own 12-year-old self, as an example, or of my own kids. There are plenty of difficult and painful family situations out there, and books help people think about them, and how to deal with them. Most important, books build empathy. Even the happiest child can use some of that.

The Thoughtful Story


Photo courtesy of, by Evgeni Dinev

Dara Horn, author of the beautiful novel The World to Come, wrote a fascinating article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review last week about Jewish fiction writers, and why there seem to be so many of them. Though I don’t write fiction about Jewish topics or for specifically Jewish audiences, I did find her essay intriguing, because in it she talked about Jewish culture’s fascination with memory, with reliving the past through ritual, and the Jewish tendency to live life soaked in the past, keenly aware of history. As this fascination with preserving memory and freezing life is also the novelist’s task, there tend to be quite a few Jewish fiction writers.

As Horn says:

“Writers and believers live their lives haunted by the same question: What happens to our days once they disappear? The objective fact is that each day that passes is lost forever, as forbidden to us as the dead. But prayer and fiction offer a different answer. Those lost days still live among us, written in each person’s hand, turned into stories.”

I was thinking along the same lines last week, when I wrote about Ursula LeGuin’s carrier-bag theory of storytelling. She describes the Hero of traditional stories as a look-at-me-as-I-kill-and-vanquish protagonist. He’s the one who always made her feel defective as a human being, unbent on murder. And yet thinking about what she said, it occurred to me that while that killer-hero story is very prominent in the classics – clearly the Greek myths come to mind – I have another heritage, that of the Jewish history story. Jewish history has its share of conquering heroes. But it also features a different kind of hero, especially post-exile, when the Jewish people found themselves in the Diaspora. This is the rabbi, the thinker, the teacher as hero. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, makes this point in some of his writing. Jewish history has a wide range of heroic figures – warriors, martyrs, thinkers, prophets, mystics, judges, even particularly tender or self-sacrificing parents and children, who people legends of survival amid persecution. These varied characters fit well into LeGuin’s carrier-bag, and maybe that’s why I like the theory so much. I like stories about thinkers, perhaps because my cultural story – the story of Jewish history – told me that thinkers are heroes as much as anyone. And they didn’t have to kill something to earn the title, either.

 To read Horn’s full essay:

Spears and Bags

women of vision cover

Recently I reread a favorite essay, Ursula LeGuin’s The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction. I have a copy of it in a compilation of essays by women science fiction writers, Women of Vision (1988, St. Martin’s Press, edited by Denise Dupont). In it, LeGuin argues that too many story writers labor under the impression that the story has one kind of “right” structure – a very male structure that resembles a spear. It’s the story of the Hero, his hunt, his quest, his adventure, and it zooms forward from conflict to climax and then it’s over. That story, and the human being it puts at its center, the male conqueror, for a long time made her feel like a very peripheral part of the human race, as she puts it, “extremely defective as a human being or not human at all.” Stories, after all, create the norm, and if we see ourselves as comfortable in the dominant story, we’re normal, and if we don’t, we’re not. Thinking about this, she proposed a different kind of story, in which story structure becomes, not a spear, but a carrier-bag, a basket where ideas and relationships and events get stored, and brought home, and searched for meaning:

A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.

A novel, then, can have conflict, but it will have it along with plenty of other things, including, she notes, harmony.

From the moment I read it, years ago, this essay struck me as a brilliant reimagining of not only story structure, but our cultural story as well. I’m a big fan of both kinds of stories – both the spear structure (who doesn’t like a good adventure?) and the carrier-bag structure. My favorite kinds of writing merge the two, because I like to see something happen in a book, some obstacle overcome, but I’m not a huge fan of the traditional hero, too uncomplicated, too single-focus to be real. I like thoughtful characters, who think their way through life. The best people I know do that in reality, why shouldn’t books mirror that kind of person? Action stars don’t much interest me, I’m always second guessing them in my head (would they really do that and not be considered psychotic in real life?) or wondering about their families, the people left at home. Or thinking, after the spectacular explosion that ends everything, about the people who were just walking by and got caught up in it, and what happened to their husband or wife, waiting at home for them to joke over supper, or take a walk in the park? And what happened to them all, not just tomorrow, when the medals get passed out, but ten years from now, when other things have claimed people’s attention. What’s life like, in other words, beyond the moment we see? Maybe this is why LeGuin’s essay resonated with me so, and still does.