This essay may also be found in the back of Trace, my second published novel.
Trace is a dreadfully irrelevant title for this book.
It is, however, the one that stuck, perhaps an appropriate inheritance for a novel that started life in fan fiction, as a story called “Never Leave A Trace”. There’s a weird shame in admitting that, but then the term Extribulum itself comes from a fanfic, so I suppose I should be over it by now. I’m not sharing the URL, though; if you want it that badly you can Google for it. (It doesn’t have any more porn in it than this version does, FYI.)
It is difficult, and not entirely wise, to adapt a fanfic to original fiction. Fanfic often lacks any concrete worldbuilding, because the world exists already. Treat that lack with a cavalier attitude, and the story, ripped from its origins, will suffer. Back when I made the decision to do this, I read a brutal review of a novel adapted from a fanfic, and it was like looking down the sheer walls of the chasm I was about to try and leap across.
Fear is, on the other hand, a great motivator: fear of failure, fear of ridicule. Which is how Trace became an incredible learning experience, both in the technique of adaptation and in the study of this story’s genre. I was determined to do this right, but it was more than that: in rewriting Trace, in studying the genre I was adapting, I began to see that this was where my future could lie.
Magical realism is weird, irreverent, and not overly given to coddling the reader. In school I struggled with books like Bless Me, Ultima (required summer reading) not because I didn’t enjoy them but because they seemed to be set in the real world, and yet magic existed and was acknowledged – sometimes even celebrated. Nobody thought it was weird, nobody took exception or freaked out about it. What the hell was going on?
At the same time, I was forming a theory of literature which insisted that there was a surface story and an under-story, a hidden meaning or metaphor that could be extracted if I was just smart enough. Books like Animal Farm and The Grapes Of Wrath were clearly not just stories; they were keyholes through which one could see something greater. Those were the kinds of stories I wanted to write, stories that could be read on multiple levels. It’s a simplistic way to view literature, but I was fifteen.
These two ideas, really, are the same: ordinary literature uses symbolism to express ideas and evoke emotions, while magical realism uses fantastical things, magic and miracles and myth. It’s just a hint of fantasy thrown into the world, and I love fantasy; besides, I know enough about magic to make it dance a little for me, if I do it right.
Along with that pinch of fantasy, however, was a lot of harsh reality, not least of which was the fact that most of what I knew about prison I learned from the television show Oz. Perhaps the most fascinating part of writing this book was the research I did to fill that knowledge gap.
One of the more interesting things I learned was the power of food in prison: meals are one of the few pleasures inmates can indulge in, and bad food has sometimes been the cause of riots. Most prison food is, if perhaps not imaginative, at any rate good to eat, because it must be. Some states have even banned the spongy, soggy “Nutraloaf” served to inmates who have lost dining hall rights, believing the mixture of vegetables, dry dairy, and meat cooked together in a loaf to be cruel and unusual.
My research into prison riots, originating in riots over food, eventually led me to New Mexico, one of the many ghosts that haunt Trace. In 1980, the New Mexico State Penitentiary was the site of a horrific riot sparked by overcrowding, lack of adequate sanitation, and substandard food. For two days, inmates assaulted Correctional Officers and murdered each other with, among other things, axes and blow torches. At least thirty-three inmates were killed, most of them from the secure wing where protected informants and the mentally ill were held. Look it up on Wikipedia and you can see photographs of hatchet marks on the floor where an inmate was hacked to death.
New Mexico was not fantasy; it was what happens when a regimented society hits the breaking point. It was a product of our criminal justice system. I have not forgotten that prison, in the real world, is not a place of wonder.
Railburg Correctional Facility itself is loosely based on a place as far from wonder as can exist: Pelican Bay, a California state prison in which supermax solitary-confinement inmates spend twenty three hours a day in a single-man cell about the size of most peoples’ bathrooms.
Like Railburg, Pelican Bay owns the town that supports it. Crescent City provides the fifteen hundred staff members employed at the prison, and Pelican Bay provides the isolated town with the income it needs to survive.
Rumors of inmate abuse and interference with their rights are rampant. But Pelican Bay is also where the state sends inmates no other facility can handle: gang leaders, the intractably violent, the incurably sadistic. Donny Johnson, a supermax inmate at Pelican Bay, has become well-known for abstract paintings he creates using paintbrushes made from his hair and pigments made from M&Ms dissolved in water. His paintings are striking. It is not often brought up, like an uncomfortable fact we’d rather ignore, that he is in solitary confinement for a life-threatening assault on two Correctional Officers while serving time in another prison for murder. Before he improvised paintbrushes, Donny improvised a shiv.
The duality of Pelican Bay fascinates me. To suggest a solution or take a side – or even to define what the sides are – is to immediately enter into a debate about human nature, rehabilitation, recidivism, the purpose of the prison system, and the existence of the human soul. I don’t believe anyone should be subjected to some of the abuse proven or alleged to occur at Pelican Bay – but then I don’t know how much sympathy I should feel for the leader of a hate group, a rapist-murderer, or a killer of children. These are hard questions, ones that Trace has made me ask rather than answered for me.
This is new work for me. Trace is perhaps not all it could be if things were different, but I’m still pretty proud of it. My first novel Nameless was a way out of a dark place, and Charitable Getting was a celebration, but this book was attendance to my lessons: a step along the road to knowledge.
Trace is imperfect, and will always be, but perhaps that’s appropriate. After all, the story itself is about the imperfection of humanity, the oft-neglected duties of power, and the dark places that can’t be tidied away. I’m proud of it.