Alexandria LaFaye shares the story behind her story …
Students often ask me, “Should I copyright my work so no one will steal it?” In response, my thoughts split and run in various directions—imagine the time, money, and postage authors waste each year clogging up the mail box of the copyright office; legal precedence tells us literary plagiarism is nearly impossible to prosecute; and most authors are thieves by nature—we eavesdrop shamelessly, borrow from the lives of people we know as well as complete strangers, and we’re all influenced by the books we read, the shows we watch, and the stories we critique in workshop. I confess, I too am an unconvicted idea thief.
My novel Water Steps came straight from a picture book submitted by one of my students at Plattsburgh State University. Well, I should say as straight as anything can travel through water. Because that old adage is true—there is no story that hasn’t been told. It’s all about the way you retell it. My student wrote about Champy—the distant cousin of the Loch Ness monster who resides in Lake Champlain. Her story got me to thinking: A. How would such a monster get in the lake to begin with? B. How could a monster of that size go undetected by scientists for so long? Now, keep in mind, I’m asking these questions for the purpose of credibility and the suspension of disbelief in reality based fantasy. In a picture book, you can have a monster in a lake or under a bed or in your closet or even eating your breakfast in the morning, if you’re not careful. But I’m a novelist, so I often mentally test out ideas I read in picture books as crossovers into the land of the novel. When I did that with this tale of Champy—Water Steps emerged a drop at a time.
First, I thought, well, Champy could easily be an immigrant—after all, stories of the creature probably came from the Irish and Scottish immigrants who relocated in the region with memories of the tales of the likes of Nessy. So, if the stories could migrate, why not the mythical creatures? In honor of credibility, I went for a slightly more believable mythical migration and had a pod of silkies travel to Canada for a bit of a vacation, a young lad in the pod got lost and traveled down the Richelieu River and ended up in Lake Champlain. His family sought him out and realized he’d found a pretty cool spot to resettle and that’s how the silkies came to Lake Champlain. At least, in my book.
With this backstory in mind, I set out to find the front story to go along with it. My mind swirled into a spiral of ideas—what if a girl nearly drowned in a boating accident that killed her family? She could be rescued by silkies who are known for such acts of kindness. If the rescuers were a childless couple, they might choose to adopt the parentless child, but she’d fear water. And they would be afraid to tell her who and what they really were because if the girl knew they were shape-shifting seals, she might reject them. Symbolic of the tug and pull between parent and child, I wanted this book to look at the trials and rewards of what happens when a children develops self-awareness of their own personality and discovers that their parents have a whole personal identity beyond their roles as parents.
From these ideas emerged the story of Kyna, who nearly drowns when a sudden squall sinks their family boat. She’s rescued by a couple from Ireland named Itha and Ronan who adopt her and try to help her overcome her deep-seated and often crippling fear of water one step at a time. The step they want her to take the summer the book takes place is to live by Lake Champlain. She’s not happy about that idea at all even when they try to sweeten the deal with rumors of mythical silkies living in the lake. As she struggles to face her fears, Kyna uncovers the truth about her adoptive parents’ own mythical past.
I’m a big fan of the magic emerging from the ordinary and the extraordinary rising out of the daily struggles of childhood—Water Steps was a great way to explore both of these thematic streams. I hope that Kyna’s journey is both magical and inspirational to kids as they face their fears, build new friendships, and develop a deeper understanding of those weirdos they call parents. And in honor of this journey, I also committed to contributing a portion of the sales for the book to Kids Peace, a wonderful non-profit organization that helps struggling kids get the mental and behavioral help they need when they need it most. If you’d like to know more about them, please visit their site. If you’d like to know more about me and my work, please check out my page at CLN and visit my website.
As for my thieving ways, my only defense is—Shakespeare did it! Seriously, in the Bard’s time, to be “original” meant that people could see the “origins” of your work in the work of those who came before you—literary “borrowing” was not only accepted, it was expected. We all borrow from time to time, it’s just important that when we do it, we make it truly our own. In that way, the story of Champy was a launching point for an idea of my own—an inspiration, as it were. So, my thanks to that student who introduced me to Champy and allowed me to take a step into literary waters of my own. Happy journeys to anyone to dives into Water Steps!
Learn more about Alexandria LaFaye
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