New Voice: Dawn Metcalf on Luminous

Dawn Metcalf is the first-time author of Luminous (Dutton, 2011). From the promotional copy:

When sixteen-year old Consuela Chavez discovers that she can remove her skin, revealing a lustrous mother-of-pearl skeleton, she slips into a parallel world known as the Flow; a place inhabited by archetypal teens with extraordinary abilities.  

Crafting skins out of anything – air, water, feathers, fire – she is compelled to save ordinary people from dying before their time.

Yet now someone is murdering her new friends, one by one, and Consuela finds herself the focus of an intricate plot to end the Flow forever when all she really wants is to get back home, alive.

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

My friends and family joke that I’ve never been desensitized to violence like a normal person, and this is true. However, I was raised on an odd diet of innocence and bloody, psychological carnage (i.e. classic cartoon violence and very graphic graphic novels).

I love the dark, the beautiful, the tragic and the hopeful, and the books I liked best were those that reflected that weird recipe: Grimms’ fairy tales, old origin myths, and stories like The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde (David Nutt, 1888) were those that—if you cocked your head and squinted—could almost be real if you used your imagination.

The book on my parent’s coffee table, The Secret Book of Gnomes by Wil Huygen, illustrated by Rien Poortvliet (Harry N. Abrams, 1984), was the first to make me question what was real and what was make believe. (Perhaps this wasn’t the best book for a five year old to read.) That book in particular made me a huge fan of intricate world-building from J.R.R. Tolkien to J.K. Rowling.

by J.K. Rowling

I am a genre reader and writer, a lover of the “What If…?” especially how it could impact our world and vice versa (this was before the advent of YA literature and long before the term “Urban Fantasy”).

The best examples from my YA years were the Gandalara Series by Randall Garrett and Vicki Ann Heydron (Spectra, 1986), The Seventh Sword by Dave Duncan (Del Rey, 1988), The Architect of Sleep by Steven R. Boyett (Ace Books, 1986), the modern faery Bordertown books by Terri Windling, cult-classic cyberpunk novels by William Gibson, the nanotech/Turing Machine universe of Neal Stephenson, to most recently, the epic world of Harry Potter (Bloomsbury, 1997). The last of which is perhaps the best example of innocence and goodness in the face of bloody, psychological evil. I like that. However, it’s a lot harder to write!

I was raised by high school sweethearts who believed in World Peace, Love, and Togetherness, and I wanted to write dark, twisted fantasy books.

A friend of mine (who was incidentally the art director of my 3-D animated book trailer), is one of the happiest, most centered people I know and yet he creates the most delightfully disturbing art that is somehow also very real. He once told me that his art is where he “puts it all,” and that speaks to me.

Writing is where I can make sense out of all the things that make no sense, it’s where I process what could have been instead of accepting what (supposedly) “is”. It’s where I can tap into the “edgy” and “gritty” details that disturb even my more desensitized readers.

There were two scenes in particular that I remember struggling with so badly that I found myself doing anything else rather than sit down to write them; I did the dishes, folded the laundry, swept dead leaves off of the porch…when I realized that I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, I knew that I was desperately avoiding something or had finally succumbed to domestic insanity.

These scenes bothered me deeply, and yet I knew I had to write them, so I finally sat down, took a deep breath, and dived in. One scene remained in the book, and the other was edited out—I’m not sure if I was hurt or relieved at either decision.

But I learned a lot about myself and about writing taking those tough scenes head-on, and it taught me to respect that there is a giant separation between myself and my characters; I am not my characters, though I may love them and/or hate them, and they should not be limited by my own, personal ethics.

If I claim to believe that everyone is created equal, that means everyone—regardless of race, religion, gender, creed, politics or sexual orientation—has equal chance of being good, bad, innocent, guilty, a bully, victim, protagonist or antagonist, and what is most important isn’t the easy label, but the character of the character. That was something very hard and very worthwhile to discover: my own reluctance and inner P.C. that had to sit down and shut up.

As a paranormal writer, how did you go about building your world?

Check out Officially Twisted, Dawn’s LJ.

Like Lego blocks. Seriously.

My paranormal world, the Flow, is a jigsaw puzzle of all these different important places mish-mashed together, but I couldn’t make them all fit into a cohesive whole…so I didn’t. I simply plunked one piece next to another and said that was how it worked.

The Flow became sort of a virtual space, a lot like an interactive online game, where everything is co-created and each part is meaningful to the person who designed and inhabited it.

This shared world is continually adding, growing, changing, and being directly affected by whoever and whatever’s come next.

I like that evolutionary feeling, that co-dependence on one another in order to survive. Imagine asking a room full of people, “Where is your favorite place on Earth?” and everyone takes a different mental snapshot in their brain. Make a collage of all those snapshots, pin it in an amorphous cloud, and you have something resembling the Flow.

In addition to the Flow, there is the main character’s “dreamtime” where Consuela exists in a sort of world-between-worlds. This is based on the Mexican holiday the Day of the Dead where the veil between worlds is at its thinnest (as are holidays like Samhain, Halloween, etc.).

This is where all my fun research came into play so I could have a vibrant and fantastical place to explore separate from the reality-influenced world that takes up most of the book. The outer edge of the raw Flow and the warped, candlelit fiesta are my favorite places in the book.

It has head-bendy qualities as some of my favorite movies like “Inception” or “Labyrinth,” where places aren’t quite what they seem and mirror echoes of previous details, hinting at something deeper, darker, and potentially lost. I think that helps give a sense of clinging tightly to the person next to you despite the strangeness and differences that would otherwise keep you apart.

There is unsettling quality to the Flow, the dreams, and its people that make it possible for a skinless, pearlescent skeleton to seem not-so-strange and almost beautiful in comparison. The world had to start and end with Consuela and I hope I managed that.