ESSAY: A Land in Ruins by Dan Coxon
On writing ‘What We Burned in the Fire’
For me, the impetus to write a story has to come from multiple sources. It’s not enough to have a single idea, or character, or setting – I need a combination of all of these, and something more, a spark that drives not only the story but also my own enthusiasm for the project. From conception to publication, you have to live with a story for a long time.
There were three things that I set out to achieve with ‘What We Burned in the Fire’. Firstly, I wanted to continue the characters and situation that I wrote about in ‘Not the End of the World’ (published in The Portland Review, 2013). When that story was first published I knew that I wasn’t finished with these kids cast adrift after a low-key technological apocalypse. Their struggle to cope with a world bereft of mobile phones and games consoles mirrored the confusion I saw in my teenage siblings’ eyes when I talked about the pre-Internet era, or something as archaic as a manual typewriter. I wasn’t finished with exploring their world.
At the same time, I also wanted to relocate the action to England, the earlier story having been set in an unspecified American location. It was while on a walking holiday with my family (and one of the aforementioned teenagers) that we happened across the pig farm depicted in the story. The timeline is skewed a little, but that farm is a real place – right down to the gang of frantic, squealing piglets that greeted us when we first stepped beyond the fence. There was something about the scenery of the South Downs Way, combined with this unlikely porcine town perched on the hilltop, that fired my imagination. It already felt like a ghost from another era. In my new society – a society without modern technology, rapidly reverting back to a feudal state – it stood to reason that the farmers would become pivotal figures. We all need to eat, but beyond a trip to the supermarket shelves very few of us know how to provide for ourselves these days.
It was discovering this location that set the wheels in motion. In recent years there has been a growing interest in psychogeography, and it’s starting to bleed through into fiction. The opening section of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a fine example, exploring the river walks and landscapes of Kent through a fictional filter. The narrative is still there to propel us, but it’s easy to imagine Mitchell himself wandering those pathways, taking notes, exploring the landscape, then feeding his discoveries into his work. Reading it, I’m not reminded of other works of fiction. Instead, it feels closer to Gary Budden’s recent ‘landscape punk’ essay in Structo, ‘Hollowshores’ (issue 13, Spring & Summer 2015). Similarly, I wanted to do something different with my story: I wanted to explore this very British landscape, but through a fictional narrative rather than a psychogeographical essay. The world of the story is a few steps removed from our current existence, and it seemed important to put down some very real roots into the chalky soil of the Downs.
Finally, I also wanted to make the story part of a wider tradition of British post-apocalyptic fiction, specifically the novels I read as a boy. Peter Dickinson’s Changes Trilogy paints a subtler – and more interesting – version of the future than most contemporary post-apocalyptic novels, as do some of John Christopher’s books. The worlds of their protagonists are still anchored in the everyday, from the farming of crops to the social structures of power that emerge from the debris. There are no slavering zombies here, no battles to save humankind. Their stories are small, and low-key, and yet incredibly interesting. It’s little wonder that another of my childhood heroes, Alan Garner, made the interaction between history and setting one of the themes of his novel Thursbitch.
I’ll let you be the judge of whether I succeeded in stitching these disparate elements together. Hopefully ‘What We Burned in the Fire’ paints a believable picture of the South Downs in a light that you haven’t seen before, building a new society on those chalky slopes, thriving on fear and mistrust as it slides back into primitive ways. And who knows, maybe one day soon I’ll visit this world again, turning this story of two boys exploring our post-technological future into something even longer. I feel that they’re not quite finished with me yet.
‘What We Burned in the Fire’ is featured in Issue One of The Lonely Crowd, which is available to buy here.
Words and images: Copyright © Dan Coxon, 2015.
Dan Coxon is the editor of Litro magazine and the author of Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand, which was used as background research for the ITV documentary River Deep, Mountain High. His writing has previously appeared in Salon, The Portland Review, Neon, Gutter, 3:AM, The Nervous Breakdown, The Weeklings, and in the DadLit anthology Daddy Cool, amongst others.