It’s not semantics

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Seattle, on a grey and stormy morning. The first mainstream review of Bedtime Story just popped into my google alerts, from the Victoria Times Colonist. Overall, I’m very pleased.
What pleases me most, though? (Well, not “most”, I suppose. What’s most germane to this blog, perhaps?) The word “coma” appears nowhere in the piece.
Ever since Xander heard about what Bedtime Story was about, he’s been giving me a hard time. “Aren’t you worried about people thinking you only know how to write about kids in comas?”
“Well, no. I wrote that book about the boy who disappears into the woods. And the next book…”
“Yes, but, your two novels are both about kids in comas.”
(By the way, I’m not making this dialogue up for effect. I’ve had this precise conversation with Xander dozens of times in the last year-and-a-half. When he decides to mock, however lovingly, he doesn’t tend to let it go. A bit like father, like son, that. It’s this next part, however, that sends him into paroxysms of mocking delight.)
“Well, no,” I would say. “In Before I Wake, Sherry was in a coma. In Bedtime Story, David is–”
He cuts me off at this point. “Catatonic,” he says unmercifully, in a slightly vicious sing-song voice that stretches the four syllables out to about nine. And he uses air-quotes for emphasis, as if he needed them.
The kid, in full mocking mode, isn’t much given to subtle distinctions.
Despite the good-natured ribbing, the point has been a concern of mine since I had the inspiration that would become Bedtime Story six or seven years ago. I didn’t want to get typecast as the “kids in coma” guy. I’m fine with the whole “children in peril” label — there’s some validity to that, and some great storytelling potential (and it got me on a great panel at the Writer’s Festival this week, about which more later). “Kids in coma”, though, is a shade more restrictive.
And not true.
It’s not just semantics.
I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that, partway into Bedtime Story, David, an 11-year-old boy, suffers from a seizure and is rushed to the hospital. That’s all right on the jacket flap, so no spoilers there. As the jacket flap says, “a mysterious seizure leaves him unconscious”.
Not a coma.
(And if you hit page 126, you get confirmation of the whole “not a coma” thing. From a medical professional, no less.)
This might be coming across as defensiveness (and God knows, I get defensive), but it’s actually pretty significant to the book, and to my books overall. Not because of strict medical definitions, but because of the stories I’m telling.
In Before I Wake, Sherry is in a coma. Full stop. And we know how she got there: she got hit by a truck. Her state of consciousness, her medical diagnosis, is medically verifiable, and supportable.
In Bedtime Story, David is not in a coma. He’s not even really catatonic, though that’s the term bounced around as doctors and his family try to explain, medically and scientifically, something that cannot be explained.
That’s one crucial difference: Before I Wake was rooted, deliberately, in the verifiable. I was writing about miracles, and I wanted there to be a strong scientific clarity to the events of the novel to support the later ventures into the Mystery. Capital M. Bedtime Story is rooted in something…other. Inexplicable seizures and undefinable states of consciousness? They’re just the tip of the iceberg.
In storytelling terms, though, the distinction is even more crucial, though not as readily apparent.
In Before I Wake, Sherry, in her comatose state, is the absent center of the novel. All of the book’s events revolve around her, but she is completely passive, utterly without agency. The coma, in a way, serves as an encapsulation of that role: silent, still, but with a presence that dominates everything around her.
The same cannot be said for David. In Bedtime Story, David is one of two main characters. His actions, his decisions, dominate half of the book, and, in many ways, set the terms for the remainder. His mysterious state of consciousness, again, serves as an encapsulation of his role in the book: beset by mysterious forces, active, but… And that’s about all I can say, without giving away more than you might want me to.
Like I said, it’s not just semantics. It actually goes to the heart of two novels, and to my approach to storytelling.

(Cori just pointed out, “You’ve just spent a whole blog entry justifying yourself to your eleven-year-old son.”
Well… yes. But, dammit, it’s my blog. So there.)

This entry was posted in Bedtime Story, Before I Wake, Blog, Life, Uncategorized, World More Full of Weeping, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to It’s not semantics

  1. Clare says:

    I have the feeling that your Xander is like my Mary. Unmerciful. It gets worse, especially once they hit first-year university and know everything. Enjoy!

  2. Zsuzsi Gartner says:

    Your 11-year-old son should meet my almost 11-year-old son, air-quotes and all! That conversation, tonally, sounds so familiar.

    Looking very forward to new (coma-less) novel.

  3. zsuzsi says:

    Your 11-year-old son sounds like my almost 11-year-old son, air-quotes and all. That conversation is tonally familiar to me. Are these kids practising for law school?

    I’m very much looking forward to the new (coma-less) novel.

  4. Kerry says:

    I am writing about your book, and trying to define David’s state. It strikes me that he’s neither conscious, nor unconscious, but almost “subconscious”. And now I’m really confused…

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