A 15-line poem inspired a short story that became a series.
The History of Deviations
Decades ago I read Joseph Payne Brennan's poem, "When Tigers Pass" (from his Sixty Selected Poems, The New Establishment Press, 1985. Copyright law prohibits me from reproducing that text here). In my journal on November 19, 1985, I described Brennan's work as, "...a statement about how the last tiger, because it is the last of its kind, will be deified," and added, "I'd read the poem on the Express Bus. By the time I reached my stop I was mentally outlining 'Vox Humana,' whose outline sits on my desk at home."
I finished drafting the short story before the year was out, though three days after I began that writing I suspected I was really looking at a longer piece. Various critiques agreed, citing my story as "excellently crafted," "fascinating," and "powerful," but raising questions that clearly indictated I needed to do more world-building.
Various other activities and life challenges kept me from fiction for more than a decade, but the story remained in the back of my mind during my years of multiple-shift work. I returned to "Vox" almost two decades after I had drafted it. I kept some of its material but sent the rest in a new direction that addressed the questions posed by readers and editors. The original title no longer applied, and "Vox Humana" became Deviations.
In the years following my initial draft, two additional source materials helped me develop the story further. The first was anthropologist Michael Harner's article, "The ecological basis for Aztec sacrifice" (American Ethnologist 4(1), February 1977). The second was Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, which became the source of Covenant's epigraph.
Another quote from The Songlines also dovetailed into the story: "In his Meditations on Hunting Ortega y Gasset makes the point that hunting (unlike violence) is never reciprocal: the hunter hunts and the hunted tries to escape….Most accounts of the hunters emphasize that the act of killing is a moment of compassion and reverence: of gratitude to the animal that consents to die." That "consent" drove the mythos of the Covenant, the religion forming the backbone of the first Deviations volume.
Keeping one's old story drafts and critiques pays off! I am very thankful for the workshop groups I attended in both Massachusetts and Florida, and for my partner Mary C. Russell's impeccable editing. Good and candid readers are invaluable.
Deviations: Covenant was released in trade paperback from Aisling Press in 2007. The second edition is now available as a free download, with more to come. Stay tuned for more information as the series continues to be unveiled.
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© 2007-2009, Elissa Malcohn Version 5, 2009-3-21
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