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Sourcebooks Fire Week: How to Eat an Elephant or Write About Books Based on The News, by Helene Dunbar

For our final post for Sourcebooks Fire week, we are excited to share this post with you by author Helene Dunbar. Dunbar discusses her books including her upcoming book, Prelude for Lost Souls.

Anti-apartheid and human rights activist Desmond Tutu once wisely said “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” Not much different from writing a book, really. Letters become words become sentences become paragraphs become pages become chapters, and so on.

It’s all too easy though, to focus on the whole elephant rather than those smaller pieces, when plotting a story. Unintentionally, all my books have themes connected to news stories. My first, These Gentle Wounds developed out of a freelance story I wrote about matricide and a desire to explore childhood PTSD, What Remains played with the idea of cellular memory (and whether organ recipients retained any traits of their donors), and Boomerang flipped the story of kidnapped teenagers upside down.

In working to capture the early days of the AIDS crisis for my most recent book, We are Lost and Found, I truly faced a “how do you eat an elephant?” question. Did I focus on someone who was sick? Did I focus on someone with an older relative who was sick? Did I focus on the child of someone affected? The friend? And how, I asked myself, do I do this through a YA lens?

I found my answers by focusing on the questions that I and my friends – teenagers ourselves – faced in 1983: How do you risk falling in love when you’re afraid it could kill you? How do you handle that type of fear when growing up can already be a pretty frightening thing? Is this the end of the world?

Having found the “bites” I then needed to create characters to tell those stories. My main character Michael is trying to simultaneously fall in love and save his fractured family. His older brother, Connor, has already been kicked out of the house for being gay and Michael doesn’t want the same to happen to him. He and his best friends James and Becky are already navigating some pretty stormy waters even without the growing storm of the AIDS crisis.

Because I wanted to tell a story about fear, I had to look at the various types of fear that needed to be represented. I gave Michael and Connor a homophobic father who is afraid of everything he doesn’t understand. Their mother is afraid of rocking the boat. Connor is afraid of being alone and of missing out on the full life he’d given up everything for. James is terrified of getting sick and not leaving meaningful art in the world. Becky is afraid she can’t save her friends. And when Michael does meet someone he could fall in love with, he’s afraid that Gabriel is keeping the sort of secrets that could prove fatal.

I knew I wanted New York City to be more than a setting, it needed to be a character in the book. I wanted the news of the day to drive the timeline. I wanted the music to mean to the characters what it meant to me at the time, a lifeline, a soundtrack to everything I was feeling. Each of these was a bite-sized piece of the elephant.

My next book, Prelude from Lost Souls, began when I heard about Lily Dale, New York, a town of Spiritualists and mediums, where everyone talks to the dead. I studied the town, spiritualism and ghosts. I reacquainted myself with my tarot cards and rune stones. And then I started to ask: What sort of people live in a town where everyone talks to the dead? What does that sort of life do to you? What if you could talk to any ghosts except the ones you really wanted to talk to? I was nibbling around the outside of the elephant.

Surely, I figured, some teens don’t want to live in my fictional town of St. Hilaire. And so, Dec Hampton, the only son of talented mediums who, after the death of his parents would rather do anything other than kowtow to the town leaders, came into being. And his friend, Russ Griffin whose mother, a medium in denial, abandoned him and his father when Russ decided to spend his life in St. Hilaire and has high aspirations to rise to the top of the town’s government. And Annie, a piano prodigy who wanders into town by coincidence, if there is such a thing, and can view the town as a sort of outsider. And Ian Mackenzie, a talented young medium, now ghost, who…well, you’d have to read the book to find out.

I realize Desmond Tutu probably had things other than writing on his mind when he talked about eating an elephant in bites. But in viewing large and often uncomfortable topics, I’ve found that seeking out the bite-sized piece that represents the heartfelt experience of an individual, can make a large meal, much more easily digestible.

About PRELUDE FOR LOST SOULS

For readers of Nova Ren Suma, Maggie Steifvater, and Maureen Johnson comes a spellbinding tale about choosing your own path, the families we create for ourselves, and facing the ghosts of your past.

In the town of St. Hilaire, most make their living by talking to the dead. In the summer, the town gates open to tourists seeking answers while all activity is controlled by The Guild, a sinister ruling body that sees everything.

Dec Hampton has lived there his entire life, but ever since his parents died, he’s been done with it. He knows he has to leave before anyone has a chance to stop him.

His best friend Russ won’t be surprised when Dec leaves—but he will be heartbroken. Russ is a good medium, maybe even a great one. He’s made sacrifices for his gift and will do whatever he can to gain entry to The Guild, even embracing dark forces and contacting the most elusive ghost in town.

But when the train of Annie Krylova, the piano prodigy whose music has been Dec’s main source of solace, breaks down outside of town, it sets off an unexpected chain of events. And in St. Hilaire, there are no such things as coincidences.

Meet the Author

Called the “queen of heartbreaking prose” by Paste Magazine, Helene Dunbar is the author of WE ARE LOST AND FOUND, which has been optioned for film by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s production company, Ill Kippers, and PRELUDE FOR LOST SOULS (Sourcebooks Fire, August a, 2020) as well as BOOMERANG, THESE GENTLE WOUNDS, and WHAT REMAINS. Over the years, she’s worked as a drama critic, journalist, and marketing manager, and has written on topics as diverse as traditional Irish music, court cases, and theater. She lives in Nashville with her husband and daughter.

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