Comet Fever

(c) Deborah Feingold

Bestselling author Kim Edwards looks for the truth in fiction

In 1986, when Halley’s Comet made its cyclical appearance after a 76 year absence, I got out my binoculars and went out into a field with friends to try to see it.  It was Iowa, we were students, and though the skies were wide and clear, the comet was a disappointment, no more than a faint smear on the horizon.  We tried again, another night.  After all, it was a once in a lifetime chance.  By the time the comet circled back again, we’d all be very, very old, at best.  That night, though, we were young.  We laughed and drank wine and star-gazed until we got too cold, then pushed our way out of the damp weeds and went home.

Around that time, the next week or the next month, I had the idea that the comet would be an intriguing way to tie an intergenerational novel together.

Was I already beginning to think of The Lake of Dreams? Probably, though it would be many years and a couple of discarded drafts before I finally reached the heart of this novel. The Lake of Dreams is the story of Lucy Jarrett, who is at a crossroads in her life. A scientist, she’s been traveling the world in the ten years since she left for college the summer after her father drowned. As the novel opens, she’s living in Japan, unemployed, uncertain where her current relationship is going.  When her mother suffers a minor injury in a car accident, Lucy heads back to the rambling lakeside family home, where she soon comes across some old papers and letters that suggest a different family history than the one she grew up knowing. Her curiosity sends her on a quest for the truth, and she discovers a compelling and courageous ancestor whose story began on the night of Halley’s comet in 1910, and will ultimately alter Lucy’s understanding of her family and herself.

My memory of Halley’s comet reveals something about my creative process, the way certain things in the world catch my attention, and stay with me, and accrue, until eventually they attain enough critical mass that they start to form a story, something altogether new.

Similarly, I like to use places I know well as settings for my stories and novels because I find this frees me to turn my imagination fully to my characters. The Lake of Dreams is set in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate NY, where I grew up. These lakes were formed when the glaciers retreated, digging out ancient river beds. They are between 16 and 48 miles long, one to three miles wide, and 300 to 600 feet deep; from the air it looks like a giant hand was pressed into the earth to form them. Though the town in the novel is fictional, I drew extensively on my experiences in this beautiful region as I was writing The Lake of Dreams. Like Lucy, I’ve always loved swimming in that clear, cold water. I also had the pleasure of seeing familiar places in a new way as my research took me deep into the history of the struggle for women’s suffrage, as well as into glass- blowing studios and the rich and ancient art of stained glass windows.

In truth Lucy Jarrett and I are quite different, but in creating her character I did give her one experience of my own. During the first summer I spent in Japan an island was forming off the coast, and as a consequence the earth was always trembling. Sometimes the earthquakes were larger, jolting books off the shelves or dishes from the counter. It made for a very uneasy season. As Lucy’s character was beginning to take shape, I thought the earthquakes would be an effective metaphor for her unsettled state of mind. They also gave me a way to contrast Lucy’s reactions with those of her boyfriend, Yoshi, and to highlight the growing tensions between them.

So, my stories are fictional and my characters are imagined. Yet woven into every chapter are moments, facts, objects, and perceptions I’ve gathered into the narrative over years. That’s why, when people ask what in a particular story is true, I’m always at a loss to answer.

In a way, everything.

And in a way, nothing at all.

Editor’s Note: Kim Edwards is the much loved author of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Her new novel, The Lake of Dreams, is now in paperback.

3 comments so far.

  1. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Good fiction is integrating local color and facts to draw readers in. Shared experiences help readers relate to the characters. If the characters or settings are too outlandish or too perfect the text won’t hold my attention for long. The bridge in good fiction is helping our minds believe the story to keep us reading.

  2. avatar Lila says:

    Interesting! I am always curious about how different fiction writers find their inspirations.

    Halley’s was a disappointment for me, too. But in… I think it was early 1997… we were out in the field in Germany and had a great opportunity to see the Hale-Bopp comet, which was pretty spectacular. It just seemed to hang in the sky. And… night vision goggles really enhance the view!

  3. avatar susan says:

    I’ve always felt that some of the most creative fiction writers are also notice the most self-aware and aware of their surroundings. I also remember the Hale-Bopp comet, but it didn’t impress much of a memory for me.