On November 26, 2018, I launched my third published novel, and my fourth published book. This Wasted Land is not your typical teenage-love story. No, it’s more like:
Boy meets Girl
Evil Witch takes Boy
Girl goes to get Boy back
Though TWL just came out this year, its genesis was in 1988, when I was a senior in college, majoring in English Lit. My initial concept for the story was that a young college student (Alex) had recently been in a motorcycle accident that had crippled him and killed his fiancée Rose, another student.
Months after her death, Alex sees someone he believes is Rose walking through the snowy woods near their school, and follows her onto a train that takes him to a gray, desolate netherworld. He soon learns that the person he saw was not actually Rose, but a silver-eyed, shapeshifting witch. Her master, the ruler of the wasteland, is Ōth, a being of great sorcerous power, exiled from his people, and….
…and that’s about as far as I got with the story, despite filling spiral bound books with research notes, ideas, and exhaustive attempts to get the narrative going. I dropped the project after a few months, started it back up, painstakingly wrote several pages, dropped it again for a few more months, started again, revised what I had written and squeezed out a few more pages, etc.
I kept on like this for a few years, never making any significant progress, until I gave up beating my head against this wall, and went on to other write other books (Dragontamer’s Daughters, published in 2012 and reissued in 2015; Lost Dogs, published in 2014; and Our Wild Place, published in 2015).
Back to the Wasted Land
After I wrapped up whittling DTD into one volume (I had originally released it in two), I believed I finally had the experience and the skills to tackle my long-dormant story. With over 10 years having passed since I had last attempted to do anything with it, I saw that while it had some good elements, it needed some major work.
Firstly, it needed a substantial plot, rather than the noodlings I had attempted. As I had for Lost Dogs, I set up an Excel spreadsheet and outlined each chapter, with a line or two for each scene, as well as where and when the action happened.
Plots are not my strongest suit, so I am not at all ashamed to say that I cribbed the overall story from The Ramayana, an ancient Hindu poem about the young hero Rama, whose beloved wife Sita is abducted by the demon-king Ravana. Aided by his brother Lakshmana and the magical monkey-human vanara Hanuman, Rama sets out to battle Ravana and his army of evil raskshasas.
Simultaneously, I did some serious rethinking of the characters. “Alex” and “Rose” had a whole lot of backstory, but not much more than that. Seeing as how I now wrote young adult fiction, I made the two leads teenagers; seeing as how I live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I put them in the same high school my kids went to. But what else could I do with them?
It occurred to me that gender-swapping The Ramayana so that the “princess” rescues the “hero” would be interesting, but the characters would need to be just right to pull that off. He couldn’t be a wimp, or no one would like him; she had to be brave and tough without being another tiresome grrrl.
Alyx and Sam and Mike
Though the “Alex” of my original drafts never had much personality, “Alyx,” the younger, female protagonist and narrator of what became TWL, is so well-developed that an earlier reviewer said of her:
Alyx is… yeah, she’s kinda terrifying. I probably still would’ve had a crush on her, though. She’s like glass: bright and sharp and strong, but brittle. We’ve all known people like that. I think that’s why I like her so much as a character, because she’s believable and relatable and flawed. And omg, Alyx is so tsundere.
Alyx is a misfit, an angry, anti-social, blue-eyed Korean-American girl. Her abusive father abandoned her and her mother several years before the story opens, so she’s grown up rootless and in poverty. Alyx has come to Kent Island to live with her father’s older brother, because her mother, with whom she doesn’t get along, is moving back to Korea for work.
Alyx is an indifferent student who only excels at art. Her emotions often get the better of her, to the point where she is on medication and regularly sees a counselor. Alyx is fond of Vanilla Coke, riding her motorcycle, and Eighties hard rock, the last of which introduces her to Sam.
Sam, Alyx’s boyfriend is an extremely intelligent, devoutly religious, level-headed young man born with mild cerebral palsy, which affects his left arm and leg. In addition to carrying a very vigorous course load, he plays the trombone, is on the tech crew in school theater productions, and works part-time at a vinyl record store, where he meets Alyx.
Sam is a gamer (Magic: The Gathering is his favorite, and he gives Alyx the card below). He’s an ardent Baltimore Ravens fan; his family has season tickets, and they go to every home game. His parents are divorced. Sam rarely sees his father, who lives in Chicago, but he is close to his mother and his older sister, Cynthia.
Bored with living in the same place all his life and knowing the same people, Sam is captivated by how different and brash Alyx is, yet he easily sees through to her vulnerability. He is the yin to Alyx’s yang, her emotional anchor and a voice of reason. He’s come to terms with his disability, and recognizing hers draws him to her. Or as he tells her:
“You’re not a freak on the outside, like I am. You’re a freak on the inside.”
When Sam is abducted by the silver-eyed, shapeshifting witch Freydis, Alyx pursues them into another world, a cold, gray wasteland prowled by monsters. There, she encounters Mike, a thirty-something year old man hunting Freydis for reasons he refuses to share.
Eventually, they travel together, and though he serves the same role as Rama’s steadfast brother Lakshmana, Mike is dismissive of Alyx, frequently disparaging her and Sam, initially only allowing her to stick around for self-serving reasons. Early on in their relationship, she asks Mike:
“Why are you helping me find him?”
“I’m not. I’m letting you tag along so that when the next monster tries to eat me, I can push you in front of it and run like hell the other way.”
“What makes you think I’m joking?”
“You wouldn’t really do that.”
“Yeah, I would.”
“Then why did you tell me? Now I know what your plan is.”
“I told you so that you’d think I wouldn’t do it, because I told you I would.”
“You are the most obnoxious person I have ever met in my life.”
“You need to get out more, meet some people.”
There’s also a character, Paddoch, who is reminiscent of Hanuman, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more about him. He’s…complicated.
What Led Me to This Wasted Land
In addition to The Ramayana, I was inspired by a number of other works. Throughout the story, I make several allusions to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a long and challenging poem, which happens to be my favorite. If you’ve read Eliot’s masterpiece, you’ll spot the references, such as when a monster addresses Alyx as, “hyacinth girl.” More importantly, Eliot’s poem incorporates the Fisher King archetype from Arthurian Legend, and TWL goes there, too.
Another influence was the band Led Zeppelin, especially their later music, which I call their “epic” phase. Where does the witch Freydis get her silver eyes? From a line in the song “Sick Again.” It’s another line, from “Kashmir,” that provides the title of the book. And the theme and tone of the haunting “In the Evening” resonates through the novel.
Norse mythology is a passion of mine: I studied it in college, have read the Prose– and Poetic Eddas, and hell yes, I’m a huge fan of the Thor movies from Marvel (and Walt Simonson’s run with the comics back in the ’80’s).
One beta reader was surprised when TWL took what they saw as a sudden bend toward Norse myths, but it was always baked in to the novel, even when I first started it in 1988.
Hand-in-hand with that are elements of Viking history and culture that appear in the story, particularly the North American settlements made by Leif Erikson about 1000 years ago. If you speak Icelandic (which, of course you do), you’ll be able to follow along with what a gruesome monster says when it shows up.
It’s All Connected
I’ve told readers of my other books to keep their eyes peeled while going through TWL, because if they do, they’ll recognize several characters from Lost Dogs, and some items from Dragontamer’s Daughters.
There are also crossovers to stories I have yet to write, but are in the concept phase. Here’s an example:
Just outside the phone booth, a little black cat, not much more than a kitten. Thin, its tail a bit too long for its body, huge yellow eyes, round irises. It sees me, opens its mouth, but nothing more than a squeak comes out.
I sit up, reach out, steady myself on the cold, damp glass sides. Takes me a minute—everything aches—but I stand. Slide open the door. The cat freezes.
“It’s okay, kitty. I won’t hurt you.” Slip back down to the floor. Unzip my backpack. Nothing for a starving cat in there. Unless….
This Wasted Land is Not For Everyone
Whenever I’m discussing the book with someone who’s interested, I warn them that it plays rough. If it were a movie, I’d rate it “PG-15,” not quite deserving an “R,” but not family-friendly enough for a “PG-13.”
I’ve flat-out told some people I know, “Don’t read this: you will not like it.” I’ve also told some parents looking for gifts, “This book is totally inappropriate for kids as young as yours.” Why?
Because TWL is dark, terrifying, violent, and gory. It’s riddled with profanity (Alyx has a potty mouth), and Mike makes numerous comments that are socially unacceptable in this day and age. But by far, the most potentially troubling aspect of the books is its theme: S-E-X.
Sex can be unsettling, even scary for teenagers, and TWL reflects that. There are scenes, dialogues, references, and allusions to and about:
- Dating and sexual tension (when will “it” happen?)
- Monogamy and infidelity
- Homosexuality and transgenderism
- Rape and sexual assault
- Pregnancy and childbirth
- Abortion and infanticide
Not everyone is up for the book, and that’s okay. I’m glad to have finally, after 30 years, made the journey through This Wasted Land, and those folks who have told me about their own trip have liked it.
And if you do go, be careful when you get to the bathroom at the train station. Just a heads-up.
Kenton Kilgore writes kickass SF/F for young adults and adults who are still young. In addition to This Wasted Land, he is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of the end of the world as seen, heard–and smelled–by a dog.
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