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FOR ANYBODY ELSE WHO HAPPENS TO FIND THIS PAGE: Damian Stevenson, the author of Solstice has graciously agreed to answer our questions about this book, his
writing, and anything else my students are curious about. Check back soon to see how this situation unfolds.
An excerpt from Solstice
Dana woke to the sound of a car scrunching over gravel. She looked through the window to see Reese’s police wagon pull up to the patio. Clive exited the house to greet her.
“Morning, Mister Cole,” said Reese. “Local FBI found a body, just outside Peperell. We need Dana to come identify — ” She trailed off, having spied Dana on the roof, having clearly heard everything.
The sun streaked down in shafts over the tangled undergrowth of Devil’s Canyon, a godforsaken patch of wilderness five miles south of Rockingham. Sprawling gorse bushes, towering clusters of prehistoric-looking vines and wild shrubs chock full of detritus choked the sunbaked basin. There was the usual sandy dust in the air and
everything looked wilted and thirsty. A dry riverbed sat at the bottom of the
gorge where yellow crime scene tape divided a section of brush.
FBI technicians worked slowly but meticulously within the fluorescent perimeter, sweeping for prints, photographing every possible angle, taking soil samples, scanning the ground for fibers and doing all that a full forensics team does. Sheriff Fisher was with state medical examiner Mitch Melton who looked out of place in his suit and tie.
Mitch scuffed his leather loafers on the rocky ground and scowled.
“How long’s he been here?” asked Fisher.
“Hard to say, Dan. A few years. Body’s badly decomposed.”
Fisher reacted. “Years?”
“And it’s not a he it’s a she.”
Mitch pulled tarp back to reveal a ghoulish, half-fleshed skeleton with long blonde hair.
A photographer leaned in and snapped shots of the body in situ.
Fisher squinted his eyes at something. “What’s that in her hair?”
Mitch donned a latex glove and carefully removed rotten, twisted flower stems interwoven in the corpse’s locks. “Looks like a garland of some sort.”
Fisher took it with tweezers and placed it in an evidence bag. “Bizarre. So she was at the bottom of the river bed? Did she drown?”
Mitch shook his head as he felt around the corpse without disturbing it too much. “Skull’s crushed, along with half the bones in her body.”
“No point in speculating.”
“What’s your gut tell you?”
“It looks like she fell from a great height. Now keep your questions for twelve more hours while I open her up.” He nodded to a pair of assistants who proceeded to carefully remove the skeleton. Techs filled the ground’s indentation with liquid cement. Fisher
looked up at the canyon ledge. “Fell or thrown and landed in the river bed. Which means the river was dry, so it would have to have been during the last
drought. Four years ago exactly.”
Twigs snapped as a tall, striking brunette woman in an FBI windbreaker marched toward them from beyond the tape, ducked and was suddenly right in their faces. Special Agent Karen Creel looked directly at Fisher and offered him her hand.
“Sheriff Fisher, I presume? Special Agent Creel. FBI local office in Denton.” Her handshake was strong, impersonal.
“Denton? Didn’t know the FBI had an office there.”
Creel ignored him and didn’t seem to notice Mitch.
“Hi, I’m Mitch. State medical examiner.”
“Thanks for inviting me here,” said Fisher. “I know it’s your crime scene.”
“I didn’t invite you. That was someone from the state attorney’s office,” said Creel. “But since you’re here.” A tight smile. “I’m going to need a list of persons reported missing in
Cimmaron County between 2008 and...”
A sudden commotion from beyond the yellow tape cut her off. The three turned to see the source of the distraction. Dana was arguing with an official, trying to get past as Deputy Reese and Zoe restrained her. Two feds came striding over with cadaver dogs.
“I’ll handle this,” Fisher said to Special Agent Creel.
“Be my guest.”
Fisher went to Dana. “This doesn’t concern you, Miss Barnes.”
“Let me pass, I want to see!”
They tussled. Dana was in a fully agitated, semi-hysterical state.
“You’re making a mistake, Miss.”
"Get off me! Let me go!”
He dragged her aside. “It’s not him. It’s someone else. A girl. We don’t know who yet.”
“We do now,” said Mitch.
Mitch and Creel were with one of the forensics men who was holding up the victim’s tattered dress where the name SARAH MARSH was visible in the collar.
Dana reacted. She’d heard that name before but couldn’t place it.
(end of excerpt)
Q & A with Damian Stevenson
What inspired you to write this novella?
I liked the idea of doing a missing person story without seeing the missing person and eventually coming to question if the person is in fact real. From this initial twist I built a story. So the idea inspired me.
How long did it take you to write this novella?
Off and on several years, but that was because it was once a movie script for a movie that never got made.
How many times did you go back and edit this chapter (or this whole novella)?
First, it was an outline, then a screenplay, then a short story and, eventually, a novella, so many, many times over several years. Frankly, it could do with another edit!
What advice can you give on how to handle switching perspectives? Say, seeing things from one character's eyes, then switching to another?
Be careful not to confuse the reader, first of all, and if you have asked them to invest time in one character, don’t be abrupt and ask them to care about someone new suddenly – it is asking a lot.
However, if the different POVs are well integrated, compelling and can somehow keep the rhythm alive without being disruptive (one POV makes for a smoother read), then go for it. When starting out as a writer, it’s probably best to stick with one POV. Then, once you have mastered this, branch out into stories with multiple viewpoints. Keep the POV switches to a minimum and maintain one consistent POV that anchors the reader and the story.
How do you deal with criticism to your writing?
There are different types of criticism, but generally I listen to it closely, discard what I consider unhelpful, and use the rest.
Often, there is something valuable. For example, more than one reviewer pointed out that I used plastics in a novel set in 1940. I deleted the anachronistic references in my
book and never received a bad review based on this point again.
The way I see it, for some bad reviews, I received some valuable free editing. Sometimes with negative reviews, there is no criticism, just a general rant about how much the book sucked – this is just meaningless blather and I have learned to ignore it and put it down to people just being people. I sound very Zen, but a lot of the time cruel criticism, of which there is plenty in the arts, can preoccupy my mind and upset me, feeding on my insecurities and making me question all the good reviews I have received.
But I can honestly say that as time goes on, I have become thicker-skinned and better at recognizing a genuine response to an engagement with something I have written vs. someone petty with an axe to grind.
The biggest sin is to dwell meaninglessly on criticism and, thus, waste time and let it creep into your soul and hamper your confidence. You need to feel confident when you write because it’s so hard and too easy to quit. If I ever get too down, I read the bad reviews of great books that I love and maybe peruse my oft perused good notices.
Is it difficult to write such depressing material?
Depressing material would be very hard for me, but I didn’t find anything depressing about the book. The story is dark, but it doesn’t make me sad because it’s ultimately the tale of a girl triumphing over her neuroses, throwing the anti-depressants away and finally getting on with her life. I think all stories should be positive on some level, and I certainly don’t set out to write something that might bring anyone down.
Do you relate to any of the characters in the story?
I relate to the main character. Every time she felt alone, afraid, elated and thrilled, I was putting my own emotions into the character. Also, I was once imprisoned by a cult and nearly sacrificed (joke).