When I was working on the dissertation, one of the early stories bubbled up in my mind from an image I had of papers being flung over a cliff. I suppose I was overwhelmed by the dissertation project and just wanted to toss everything. But then I decided to use the image as the basis of a story. That’s what we do: we start a story from an image, a vision, that presents itself as dreams do, a version of something in our lives that won’t let go.
If I were to make a story from that image, then, someone had to dump the papers over a cliff. And there had to be a reason. That’s what stories are about: actors and motivated action. So I let my mind pick from among the characters I’d already written, characters I was beginning to know well: Annie. Katie. Riva. How could that image fit into their lives, their stories?
As it turned out, the character who did the unceremonious dumping was a teenaged delinquent-poet, a kind of hitchhiker picked up by the story's protagonist—Katie’s aunt Suzanne, who had appeared in perhaps the very first of the stories to be written (“Pennyroyal, Cohosh, Rue”). This rather unsavory teenager recited verse to Suzanne, poetry he'd written about the Gadarene swine, the ones into whom Jesus sent the devils that had been in the tormented boy. Remember, they jumped over a cliff—an image something like my original vision of papers fluttering down, down, in a crowded white paperfall. The original image--of manuscript pages flapping end over end from the top of a cliff--does appear in the story. The young man is a vandal. But the image of the swine/pigs jumping over a cliff ("straddling the air") is also there, one he recites in some frustration because no one understands how strongly he relates to those swine. Both images are in the fifth story of the seven, which has the same title as the book.
That was also the title of my dissertation. Francois Camoin, my dissertation supervisor in those long-ago days, loved the line. (That's why I kept it--if somebody loved it so much it must have been worth keeping, right? Note to self: encourage the strangely successful in students’ work—they will take it to heart. More on this in another post.)
You are doubtless familiar with the popular saying: "Sure, that'll happen when pigs fly." In the book, all kinds of things happen that are out of the ordinary (the kind of thing that might happen if pigs could fly): Katie is saved from near-drowning by angels. Logan’s asthma is alleviated when Evalina does temple work for the Cat Woman. The delinquent teenager makes some terrible mistakes, but there is redemption, and Garrett—well, it would be a spoiler to tell you what happens to Garrett, but it’s another miracle. And all these miracles are related. That’s the great joy of writing a “novel,” even if it’s in seven episodes instead of a long linear prose unity—nothing is not related to everything else. Nothing is coincidence. The whole book asks you to consider what happens in a world where creatures can straddle the air.