(The estimated reading time for this is 5 minutes)
“The Inception of Ancient Enemy” © 2014 by Michael McBride. All rights reserved.
I started Ancient Enemy in March 2013 with the intention of writing a novella about some artifact unearthed in a newly discovered ancient ruin. At that point, I wasn’t sure exactly where I wanted to go with the story; all I knew was that I wanted it to be set in southwestern Colorado and I wanted to take a stab at one of the greatest unsolved mysteries ever: Why did the Anasazi suddenly vanish nearly a thousand years ago? I felt good about what I had done with Snowblind and hoped to recreate its sinister vibe and breakneck pace, only I had to be careful to use it as an inspiration and not as a blueprint. (Once you read the book you’ll realize how funny some of these statements are and how the author is more of a slave to the creative process than it is to him.)
When I first begin to write any story, I always have several aborted starts. It’s a maddening experience, really. I generally write the opening sequence about three times. In this case, the first attempt involved a forest ranger tracking bighorn sheep and coming upon what turned out to be the entrance to a kiva, at the bottom of which he found the long-dead remains of a man clutching a video camera. I liked the premise, but didn’t really want to write a found-footage story, so I turned the forest ranger into a whitewater rafter and moved the kiva closer to the Dolores River. That storyline rapidly went nowhere, so I took a step back and evaluated why I wanted to write another book that revolved around Native American legends (see Innocents Lost and The Coyote). It turned out what I enjoyed most about those two books wasn’t necessarily the incorporation of the mythology as much as the relationship of the characters to it.
I remembered reading during the early phases of my research about the contentious relationship between the Navajo and the Ute and the proximity of their respective reservations. I thought that tension would make for an interesting backdrop and create some potentially cool dynamics between characters. And how much fun it would be for the main character to be a crossbreed of the two, the alienated offspring of two ostracized tribes, essentially on his own in the middle of nowhere? It was important not to make him a stereotype; he needed to be smart, self-sufficient, and self-aware. I wanted him to be a champion of his circumstances, not a victim, and it was important for him to be a kid forced to grow up too quickly. Resentful, yet hopeful. Strong, yet afraid. In other words, human.
He needed a family like any other. One that had its own problems, but one in which there was enough love to keep a kid going through some tough times. Initially, his mother was going to be an abusive drunk and his grandfather kind of an Indian version of Yoda. I ended up moderating the mother’s character substantially and somehow came up with the idea of making the grandfather unable to verbally communicate. (I don’t know how these things happen, only that it’s best not to question them when they do.) Throw them together in a trailer home where they weren’t overly welcome on either res and, voila, we had our cast. With one notable exception…
I needed a threat.
Something savage and murderous, but something I could keep at the fringes of the story until the ultimate reveal. Something that could kill without being seen, yet something that wouldn’t pose an immediate threat to our cast. At least not until the stakes were raised. So I started with the livestock and a pattern of escalation that only my protagonist could stop. He needed to be in a position to take responsibility for what really mattered in his life. And I was just about to pit them against each other when everything changed.
My own grandpa died.
After that I just couldn’t seem to get back into a story where I had the grandfather character lying in his deathbed, so I stepped away and wrote Sunblind, which was an altogether different kind of book. Once it was finished, I returned to Ancient Enemy in the hope that it could be salvaged. I mean, I had twenty-some thousand words of a thirty thousand-word story already written. It would physically pain me to throw it away. What I found when I returned was something I never could have anticipated. I had a vehicle that allowed me to work through my feelings.
My biological grandfather died near Versailles in World War II. My grandpa met my grandma after the war and adopted my mom. You never would have known they didn’t share any blood. My grandpa treated her like one of his own and my sister and me like we were the most important people in the world. It was a special relationship, one that transcended blood. And here I had a story sitting on my laptop about a boy whose very bloodline was at the heart of the conflict.
The book took on a life of its own from there. Twenty-some thousand words turned to forty and forty blew up to sixty. And at the center of it all was the relationship between this boy and his grandfather, which I used to express how I felt about the man who helped shape the course of my life, when he was really under no obligation to do so.
Knowing this background, I think you’ll be able to better appreciate the journey of discovery young Sani Natonaba takes and perhaps get a glimpse into the mind of the author while he wrote it.
That’s not to say the book is likely to be turned into a Hallmark Channel movie or anything. There’s still plenty of blood and killing and overall nastiness, plus what I hope is a pretty cool twist you won’t see coming (but one that will totally make sense given what you now know).
I hope you take a chance on Ancient Enemy and thoroughly enjoy what turned out to be one of the most personal pieces I’ve ever written.
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