The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Guest Post: Ilsa J. Bick on the vision behind Ashes and Shadows!

As promised, we're happy to welcome Ilsa J Bick to The Mountains of Instead.  Ilsa is here to tell us about the creative vision behind the dark apocalyptic world of her books Ashes and Shadows.  It makes for fascinating reading and we'd like to thank Ilsa for taking the time to share her thoughts with us.  Additionally, the winner of our Ilsa giveaway is LOUISE!  Well done, Louise - an email is winging it's way to you today.

I’d read a couple of YA dystopian novels before I ever thought of writing ASHES, and while I enjoyed them, I always felt there was a little something missing.  Two things with which I always had trouble: the science (or lack thereof) and the process (that is, you never get to see how things go bad; they just are).  In some of these books, people were ridiculously well behaved and altruistic, which—if you’ve paid any attention to history—is the anomaly not the norm.  Now, I’m not knocking those books; there are some fine ones.  Just saying. 

So I guess that the first thing I didn’t want was to write another dystopian. The ASHES trilogy is apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction because I wanted to change things up, do something different: create a scenario in which a) civilization crashes in a big hurry and not because of a virus or some deadly plague; b) I could actually create a setting where you could see/watch the disaster unfolding afterward; and c) the events were credible enough to allow me to play around a bit with just how nasty people, in the aftermath of a disaster, can really be.

Basically, believability and verisimilitude were big for me.  I probably gravitate to this naturally because, you know, I’m a doctor.  I studied science.  I know a fair bit of physics and astronomy because I am an ├╝ber-geek and the fun of being a writer is learning new stuff.  Since I’m also a shrink . . . the brain is my thing, and so is human behavior. 

I think family history came into play, too.  See, my dad’s a Holocaust survivor.  Long story really short: he was a kid when the Nazis came to the door; spent a couple years in various French internment camps; and had the . . . well, good fortune of getting ill.  At that time, the French and the Nazis were really interested in keeping the Jews relatively healthy so they could be used as slave labor.  So my dad got shipped out of the camp—and he never saw his folks again.  He was still just a kid . . . what, nine years old?  Maybe younger.  (He doesn’t talk much about this.  Says he doesn’t remember, but I don’t believe him.  I think this is a part of his life he just doesn’t want to revisit that often—and I don’t blame him.)

Anyway, he eventually made his way to the U.S. (another long story).  But, a couple weeks after my dad left, the entire camp was dismantled and everyone was put on a train for Auschwitz.  His whole family got wiped out, except for his grandmother who somehow survived and made her way back to the town where his family came from originally.  Neither she nor my dad knew the other had survived, though, and the only reason he knows any of this now is because the town had some sort of memorial celebration a while back.  My dad was in his seventies before he knew anything about what happened to his grandmother.

Which gives you pause.

Now, I’ve said I feel no need or push to “witness” for the Holocaust.  It’s really not my story, but it is background music.  Knowing what I do about history and from my work as a shrink (including working in a women’s prison), I think I have a pretty good idea of how abominable people can be.  Throw in war or a catastrophic situation, like the end of civilization as we know it, and people will be a bazillion times worse. 

So you could say that both the psychology behind the trilogy and the science . . . I just know it because I know it.  There wasn’t a ton of research involved, unless you count, you know, my life and knowledge of history and about thirteen years of school (four years of college, four years of medical school, and then five years of a residency). It’s all that background that allowed me to think of the idea in the first place, and then know where to look to see if it was even feasible.

For example, sure, a massive sunspot cycle could decimate all the Earth’s electronics, and I knew that the EMPs from a-bombs are a big problem. Whether you could actually build and then deploy dedicated e-bombs was the research, and it didn’t take me all that long, although I am certain that I’m on Homeland Security’s radar.  Having been in the military, I know that people there and in government are worried about this kind of attack.  (Congress even held hearings.)  The huge irony is that the military has tried to harden its equipment, but if the scenario I paint is possible . . . no one’s going to be pumping and refining oil to turn into fuel.  So you can kiss manufacturing good-bye, and all those military toys aren’t really going anywhere fast.

As for what might happen to people in the event of a massive wave of EMPs—well, that’s the fiction.  You really can’t do these kinds of experiments (although having been in the military myself and, again, knowing history, I wouldn’t put it past the military to have studied this.  If you’re going to develop the weapons capabilities—and the military’s been experimenting with microwave e-bombs for some time—you can beat they’ll study the whole exposure angle.)  But I do know the brain pretty well, including what happens to the traumatized brain, what age groups are most at risk, and all that.  I know that the teenage brain is just this seething stew of chemicals and functions that are being reset, re-equilibrated, just as I know that the aging brain is much more like a wizened little raisin: not set in stone but in need of a good juice now and again.  So morphing my adolescents—whom most adults view as aliens anyway—wasn’t that big a stretch, nor was figuring out what might protect some of my teenage characters.  The task then was to make all the science and psychology work for the story instead of becoming the story.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure I had a real “vision” going into the ASHES trilogy, although I do know that I’m intensely interested in what people do when their choices are limited to choosing that lesser evil.  I mean, you talk to people, and they’re always so certain that they will never do x or y . . . but that’s baloney.  You never know what you’ll do in a disaster or emergency until you’re actually in it—and the same holds true for my characters.  Everyone’s struggling to survive in this trilogy, and everyone changes, too: most in ways they’d never dreamed. 

You can find out more about Ilsa and her books here and we'd like to thank both Ilsa and Quercus for facilitating such an interesting guest post!


Sandy said…
What a fantastic post! It's cool to see how tidbits of information from Ilsa's life combined with research could create the ASHES trilogy. That explains why the details in the story are so well-done :D

Thanks to the both of you for a truly fabulous post!
Donna (Bites) said…
This is why I love Ilsa; the effort and research that goes into her books really shows and not in the way of author exerting knowledge in the book. It really blends into the plot, revealing itself subtly and naturally. Plus, you know, it makes a really good book. :)
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