Impossible, Backstory

The writing of Impossible is rooted in several different places. One of these roots is in romantic fiction, which I read a good deal of as a teenager and young woman, and which I’ve always loved, though I’ve never before felt drawn to write it.

As a reader and observer, though, I’ve been particularly interested during the last few years in the strength of paranormal romance fiction, the most popular of which is vampire fiction. What do women and girls find so compelling in these fictions, and why? It’s easy to answer: it’s that powerful and dangerous Alpha male hero. Okay, so he wants to basically drain the heroine dry. Somehow, she finds that attractive.

She really does.

I’ve had the impulse to take teenage fangirls aside and say, “Fantasy is good, sure. But you do realize, don’t you, that the relationships in these books are not models to use when selecting an actual mate?”

Of course I don’t do this. I remember the romantic young woman reader in myself too well to try it. I know it’s useless.

The bad boy as erotic love object has a long and compelling literary history. Just for a smattering of it: Lord Byron caused a sensation with “The Corsair.” Emily Brontë and Charlotte Brontë gave us Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester. Today’s vampire and other unearthly fictional male beings are the latest manifestations in a long and (it must be admitted) delightful tradition.

I fully appreciate the existence in fiction of the bad boy hero; I have been since the age of twelve a huge Jane Eyre fan. But in maturity, I see how easily Rochester might have destroyed Jane. The last section of the novel, in which Jane risks her life to escape Rochester, was absolutely necessary. As the writer Jean Rhys recognized in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester is a kind of vampire and possibly not entirely blameless for his first wife’s madness. (It’s also interesting to note that Brontë disempowered Rochester physically, and empowered Jane financially, before allowing Jane to choose him as her husband.)

As a teenage reader, though, I didn’t understand why Brontë found this necessary; I had neither the experience nor the emotional tools. I understood only Rochester’s erotic power and believed Jane should stay with him even after the revelation of his lies, manipulations, and the “for her own good” concealment and imprisonment of his first wife. He loved Jane truly, after all. I accepted that — and the whole concept of “true love” — at face value.

Reflecting back on the vampire-fiction as the reading of choice for teen girls today, then, I can’t shake a disapproving finger. It would be presumptuous and condescending (and again, so very useless).

But at the same time, I feel strongly that popular culture, which includes contemporary literature, is not neatly cordoned off emotionally into the realm of fantasy. Our choice of beloved and of entertaining reading matters; it affects us; it can change who we are. What we steep ourselves in and dream about affects the choices we make.

Art matters.

These musings tumbled around in my head, but for me, fiction doesn’t usually come from a cerebral place. Nor, I believe, should it be didactic, though I do like a novel to raise psychological and ethical questions (they are questions I am puzzling over myself while I write, not presenting to a reader from some podium).

But still, in 2005, while thinking about vampire fiction, I found myself wondering: would it be even possible to create a “good boy” romantic hero who would be just as compelling, desirable, and fictionally effective as a bad boy hero — while being entirely realistic and human? Can good-boy romantic fiction be compelling and thrilling, big and satisfying, page-turning, pulse-thumping, have emotional depth and power, and be thoughtful, sensitive and well-written to boot?

Quite the challenge.

Meanwhile, quite a different novel had begun taking shape for me sometime in the mid-1990s. I had been thinking about the ballad Scarborough Fair, as recorded by Simon and Garfunkel. As a teenager, I found the song beautiful and sad and oh-so-romantic.

Listening to the lyrics as an adult, though (you will detect a common theme), I was taken aback. The man demands one impossible task after another from the woman, and if she doesn’t deliver, then she’s no “true love” of his. I thought: There’s no way that woman can prove herself to that man; he’s already made up his mind. Did she do him wrong? What’s the story?

I considered the particulars of the lyrics: the impossible tasks. It occurred to me that probably you could make a shirt “without no seams nor needlework.” Couldn’t you just whip up a shirt in a chemical vat nowadays, somehow?

Could I construct a puzzle-type novel around the lyrics? Suppose, for some unknown reason, a girl has to prove her love by actually performing the three tasks. I’d use a modern setting, I planned, and I’d have her figure it out using technology. Surprise him. He’s wrong, it turns out. She does understand true love. She can prove it.

Over ten years ago, I felt that this was the germ of something, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make a novel. I’d have to figure out the technological puzzle beforehand, and I was initially stumped. Another problem was that I couldn’t imagine the situation under which the puzzle-solving would occur. The characters, the plot, the impetus, the urgency? Love was clearly involved, somehow, but I just didn’t know enough.

I set it aside . . . until I started thinking, in 2005, about bad boys. The two elements came together. Was the man who was demanding the impossible tasks a bad boy, rather than an unfairly wronged and innocent lover? Idly, I googled Scarborough Fair—not possible a decade previously—and found this:

“This ballad first appeared as ‘. . . A Discourse betwixt a young Woman and the Elphin Knight.’ This was a black-letter ballad (broadside) that was printed circa 1670. In later variants the elfin knight is replaced by the devil.” Learn more.

I saw the word devil and several major pieces snapped into place.

There would be a “true love” curse maliciously inflicted upon a family-line of women by an unearthly being; a bad boy. He would fit the English/Scottish definition of an elf: a full-size, glamorous, cruel, magical, and immortal creature that uses humans as playthings. He could be defeated—but only by the reality of true human love.

True human love. My “good boy.”