A pterodactyl mysteriously arrives at Vista View High School not to eat the school or terrorize anybody, but, rather, to enroll as the first inter-species transfer student. Where in the world did this idea come from? I would never have thought of the premise if it weren’t for Libba Bray, who gave a lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (where I teach) in January 2012 about the artistic ups and downs of her considerable writing career. She spoke without notes, with the verve and brilliance of a standup comedian. From time to time, she told the hundred or so writers in the audience to not go slavishly following the trends in our writing. But she didn’t say it that way, she said, “Don’t go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel.”
She said it three times in the space of an hour, and the phrase quietly exploded inside my head, setting off a constellation of ideas. Later, in the privacy of my room, the first chapter spilled into my notebook, my pen barely able to keep up. When I spoke with Libba afterwards, I asked her where the phrase hot pterodactyl boyfriend had come from. She said, “I don’t know. I just made it up!”
Me: “Well, I think I’m getting an idea.” (Gulp.)
Libba: “You should go for it, Alan. You should write that book.”
Why had that phrase resonated for me, and not for the other writers in the room? It had re-lit a fire from years before when a train I was riding in rounded a bend and the full, oceanic splendor of Lake Ontario came into view. On a rock by the shore a great blue heron pierced me with his gaze, and I was seized with the idea of a story, this time about an ancient heron who is able to wander into the big city and transform himself into a man for a time, almost as a sort of vacation. I scribbled down several pages, then stopped, realizing I needed to know much more about herons, for one, and who this being was, and what might happen in the city.
Over the years I wrote a number of full-length versions. I invented part of a great blue heron language and wrote the opening of an epic poem about a migration south. Along the way, I got interested in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which the main character, Gregor Samsa, famously wakes up transformed into a bug. I loved especially the dreamlike nature of Kafka’s sentences, his way of immersing readers in an off-kilter world. How could I incorporate dreams into my own great blue heron story?
In one version, the birdlike character shows up in a military town where local soldiers are dealing with the aftereffects of the Afghan war. In another, the main character is like Franz Kafka himself, ill-adapted to the world around him, wondering what it is to be human. These were all ideas that fascinated me, but as they were being worked out on the page, the stories themselves didn’t achieve lift-off. Something was missing… and then: “Don’t go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel.”
What if the heron were a pterodactyl? What if he came to high school?
Time and again, as I pushed the story past the crazy first chapter describing Pyke’s arrival, I returned to opening details to find clues about how the plot needed to develop. The great surprise of the first page was not just the sight of that fleck in the distant sky, the approaching pterodactyl, but the realization that the story belonged to Shiels Krane. Why did I choose the student body chair? In high school, I had nothing to do with student government, but I have held some elected positions in recent years, including chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada. I felt like I knew what it would be like inside the whirling brain of an A-type overachiever, an extraordinary planner for whom the universe is unfolding precisely as it should… until it doesn’t. Until something so bizarre happens it throws her completely off-balance.
So—I’m telling you a story of both instant inspiration, and years of hard work, not only in writing all those other manuscripts that didn’t quite come together, but also, for about two years, quietly constructing this bizarre story of a young woman slowly and unevenly coming to grips with a force of nature that infiltrates her subconscious most of all. Who is she? Why does she fall for Pyke?
Love makes fools of all of us. It’s terrible to go through, that realization as an infatuation dies down and the world looks “normal” again. What, I was in love with a pterodactyl? Me? Really? No, that was someone else. It was Shiels Krane, the Student Body Chair! Let me tell you the story…