de·us ex ma·chi·na
Noun \ˈdā-əs-ˌeks-ˈmä-ki-nə, -ˈma-, -ˌnä; -mə-ˈshē-nə\
1: a god introduced by means of a crane in ancient Greek and Roman drama to decide the final outcome
2: a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficultyI owe January Black to deus ex machina.
Explaining that requires going back to 1999. That was the year that I wrote Circle of the Butterfly, (280k words in ten months, pretty much by the seat of my pants,) and I had never heard the words deus ex machina. It was explained to me the following year as “the physical presence of the hand of god.” I understood that to mean any higher power that interferes with the plot, but as god likes to pop in on various characters throughout Circle, the word “god” in the definition made me feel a bit ill.
At the time, I was working on a contemporary novel for a writing course I was taking at Louisiana State University. The moment that I finished I took Circle out and started working on fixing the god problem. I wrote notes. I worked out characters, settings, and subplots out with friends. I wrote, and later cut, dozens of fleshed out scenes. I dropped it for months at a time, picked it back up when a fresh idea occurred to me. Finally, when I realized that I had committed the writing equivalent of whipping egg whites into the protein-clump-floating-in-water stage, I stopped. I took the original Circle out, read it through, and then I shelved the rewrite completely. I apologized to the friends who had done their best to help me through and told them I was quitting.
The problem, I saw at long last, was not deus ex machina. There are lots of problems with Circle, but the "hand of god" played the role I had meant it to, and so I had spent nine years trying to fix something that wasn’t broken. The real problem was less interesting. I tend to overwrite, so I spent two months ripping out 80k words. I am still not sure whether I should be more proud to have accomplished the edit or ashamed that it was necessary.
Quitting the rewrite left me with hundreds of pages of notes for a story that I no longer had any intention of completing. The scenes were good. The characters were rounded. The settings were rich. I was very sad to let every piece go. As NaNoWriMo creeped ever closer, I thought, “Why should I?” I had one undeveloped scene that I really loved…a snapshot of a pre-teen boy standing in an overgrown garden, looking up at the stars. I named him Matty Ducayn and built Columbia up around him.
That’s how you came to write January Black, you might say, but what is it?
As Matty discovers, it’s not one thing. It’s not the same for everyone. And it can change. For Matty, it is a means to an end that becomes an obsession and then a hiding place. For Iris, it’s a threat to the man she loves and their future together. For Hadrian, it’s a test to gauge the worthiness of a protege.
In September 2008, the US banking system suffered a crash as a result of risky mortgage derivative investments. We are still feeling the effects today. Our politics are polarized. Our citizenry is angry with unemployment growing ever higher and the government bailing out private industries deemed too big to fail. The question that I asked myself as I thought about the boy standing in the overgrown garden…what options do we really have? In the 16th century, Protestants were upset with the way things were in Europe, so they left. They came to America and started a new life. That experiment cannot be repeated. In four hundred years, the world has become a very small place. There are no unclaimed territories for the intrepid to tame. We can abandon where we are and adopt the rules of a new place. We can shed the trappings of our present lives and adopt those of new ones. We can change homes, wardrobes, churches, and jobs. But we cannot build a brand new society on virgin ground…not really.
For me, January Black began as an outlet for my own frustration with the economy. Over months, it became something my seventeen-year-old self would have liked to read.