word craft


Story Behind the Story #65:
School of the Dead

Great ExpectationsThere is a sto­ry about the great Eng­lish writer Charles Dick­ens that I’ve always cher­ished. At the time, he was edit­ing his lit­er­ary mag­a­zine, House­hold Words, which had as a sta­ple a seri­al­ized nov­el. It appears that the cur­rent nov­el was not work­ing, and the mag­a­zine was los­ing read­er­ship. In haste, Dick­ens stepped in, and wrote Great Expec­ta­tions, one of his best books. (It’s also a favorite of mine—so I came to know how it was writ­ten.) That Dick­ens wrote this fine nov­el for busi­ness reasons—i.e., money—while thor­ough­ly unro­man­tic, says some­thing about the writ­ing busi­ness. One is remind­ed of that remark by Samuel John­son, that, “No man but a block­head ever wrote except for money.”

I sus­pect the read­ing pub­lic would like to think writ­ers are pri­mar­i­ly moti­vat­ed by a love of writ­ing, the need to express some­thing that is burn­ing in their hearts and souls. No doubt this is true, and per­haps often is true. Long live it. Yet, as per Samuel John­son, writ­ers who sup­port them­selves by writ­ing are often pinched for cash, and when pinched hard enough, will write. And, let it be not­ed, as in the case of Great Expec­ta­tions, the result can be very fine indeed. It may also be sug­gest­ed that when writ­ing under duress, the writ­ing can be sharp­er, tighter … better.

School of the DeadNow I am not try­ing to sug­gest that I am in the same league with Dick­ens, or that what I did is in any way com­pa­ra­ble to Great Expec­ta­tions. I can say I (like him) found myself in dire finan­cial straits, and need­ed to do some­thing about it: What I did was write School of the Dead.

I was able to think up the sto­ry because a year before I had vis­it­ed a pri­vate school in San Fran­cis­co. An all-girls’ school—it had been estab­lished in an ele­gant pri­vate man­sion by a 19th Cen­tu­ry woman who believed in edu­ca­tion for girls. She gave her home for a school. The school build­ing there­fore is quite quirky, keep­ing as it does, many ele­ments of the old man­sion. I was giv­en a tour of the school and recall think­ing, this would be a good set­ting for a ghost story.

School of the Dead is not about that school I vis­it­ed. It is about the idea that the school sug­gest­ed to me.

That said, I have always enjoyed writ­ing ghost sto­ries. (Some­thing Upstairs, Seer of Shad­ows) As I have writ­ten else­where, “I do not believe in ghosts, but I believe in ghost stories.”

When I write this way, the great plea­sure is explor­ing, and exploit­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the unfold­ing tale—I am telling myself the sto­ry, dis­cov­er­ing my way. It is as Robert Frost once sug­gest­ed, “No sur­pris­es for the writer, no sur­pris­es for the reader.”

There are lots of sur­pris­es in School of the Dead. Ghost­ly ones.

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