Author Marta Randall shares some of the inspiration and craft behind her latest story “Sailing to Merinam,” available [in our March/April issue, on sale now!]
By Marta Randall
As with almost all of my stories, a single element came first: here it was a voice, a young, opinionated, irascible voice. I have learned to pay attention to these small, seemingly unconnected bits; many times they are story seeds. Of course, sometimes they are not and can either lie there, expiring on the keyboard, or lead me down a path that ends abruptly, leaving me feeling rather foolish. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, they turn into stories and take me along with them. This may sound like some form of auctorial folderol but the stories that please me most, the stories that keep me going, are the ones that take off and keep me guessing as they unfold themselves. Which is probably why I write so little these days. Inspiration is an increasingly rare and expensive commodity.
And I hasten to say that not all writers work this way. I know plenty of us who plan each story out in detail, writers who outline extensively; Kate Wilhelm, a splendid writer and splendid teacher, said she couldn’t even start until she knew a story down to the layout of the furniture in rooms that never even appeared in a story. I would never question her writing procedures, but me? I’d go nuts. A story tells itself to me as much as I tell it to you. I end up at the tips of a lot of perilous limbs that way and have to write my way back, but the best fruit grows out there. Trust me on this one.
“Sailing to Merinam” [in our current issue] is an offshoot of a larger world I’ve been playing with for a few decades now: What would a society, loosely based on Western culture, be like if it had developed without the strictures of an overarching religious establishment to dictate its development? Cherek, the country that is the main focus of Mapping Winter and The River South, has developed socially and politically without any major religions although it does support minor cults who worship the Mother, the Father, and Death. It is, taken all in all, a rational and tolerant culture, its guilds interested in expressing their rivalry through progress. A few decades before the time of this story, merchant ships encountered the country of Merinam and set up trade. Merinam’s religion is deeply engrained and colors all aspects of its culture. The shock on both sides is profound, but the last thing I wanted to write was a polemic. Besides, that young irritable voice wouldn’t let me. If I have failed here, it is in that my own lack of tolerance for the intolerant has leaked into my narrator. So be it.