“How did you get your idea for writing this book?” This is a question often put to authors. Somewhat to my surprise, my answer to this question would be almost the same for both Lunatics, which I finished last year, and Big Ledge which I’m currently working on.
In both cases, the books were not born of inspirational moments. Rather they emerged more as a response to long nagging ghosts. The character of Wernher von Braun had haunted me for several years. Since the time I followed up a footnote about him while working on my play Gravity. Soon I was obsessed. I wrote an audio play about von Braun, then an unproduced stage play. Finally I realized only a novel provided a format big enough to deal with this larger-than-life character. The Lunatics story is about much more than just von Braun but its original impetus certainly owes much to the feeling I’d long had, that I just hadn’t finished with the man.
A similar tale might be told of Big Ledge whose central character is Robert E. Sproule, an American miner, hanged in 1886 for the murder of Thomas Hammill. This murder took place very close to where I live, near the present day village of Riondel on the east shore of Kootenay Lake. I pass by it at least a dozen times a year along the highway on the west shore. From there, sometimes from the comfort of the Ainsworth Hot Springs, I gaze across the four miles of cold water to the lead-laden promontory and marvel to think, even today, a hundred-and-twenty years later, the landscape hasn’t changed much. It would take little imagination to see a miner’s campfire burning in the distance, or to see the wake of a Flatbow canoe pulling in to shore, or hear the sounds of steel picks clanging against galena ore.
I look across at the site of the Bluebell Mine and remind myself that this is where it all happened, amid this now peaceful demi-paradise. The early years of the 1880’s marked the moment the first steamboats plied the lake, the first trains skirted its shores, the first log cabins and first towns made their appearance. It was the end of the Age of Innocence as English, Canadian and American interests all collided at once in this undeveloped land full of promise.
Sproule was hanged on circumstantial evidence, despite appeals and petitions from far and wide. He went to the gallows still professing his innocence. His voice still haunts me. That moment of history still haunts me: that crucial pivot in time when the future may diverge in a thousand different directions (as it does in the beginning of the writing process). I can’t rest till I feel I’ve let Sproule have his final say. And, to be fair, I want other characters have their say too.
Big Ledge is a tale of murder, greed, perjury, disappointment and even fantasy. In its retelling, I hope to finally exorcise some of its ghosts.