I’ve hated turtles most of my life – no one was more surprised than I to find them emerge as a presence in my first novel.
When I was five, my father and I fished off a dock on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota. I had just caught a sunfish and strung it on the line of other fish we’d caught that day. I noticed they all looked dry and no longer flashy and lovely, so I dipped them in water to restore their shimmer. Through the murky water I saw a sudden movement. Assuming the fish might still be alive and trying to escape, I pulled up the line and heard a chilling sharp snap. The line got feather light – rather tiny bone light – that’s all that was left after a snapping turtle sucked all our fish down in one gulp leaving only a line of skeletons. (Click on snapping turtles if you want to see a very creepy snapping turtle video)
The next thing I remember is screaming when my parents tried to put me to bed that night. I refused to put my body under the blankets until they were able to prove no turtles lurked in my bed. Once under the covers, I couldn’t close my eyes afraid the turtles were swimming around me. I must have fallen asleep because I woke screaming even louder than before. My father moved to comfort me and I begged him not to walk toward me because the turtles were everywhere and would swallow him whole.
As I grew, I came to understand that turtles probably didn’t live under my blanket or swim around in the air around my bed. But I never warmed to reptiles in general – particularly turtles!
One year into writing Anna’s story I found myself stuck. I sat for hours at my laptop unable to find the thread of the novel. Late one Saturday night I remembered an exercise I’d done in a class taught by Mary Carroll Moore – she used collages to help us sneak into our hidden selves. I found myself at Half Priced Books gathering old magazines including a stack of National Geographics.
The first picture that caught my eye was of a massive Galapagos Island Tortoise – which I dismissed immediately. I sat on the floor surrounded by magazines consciously avoiding that picture. I studied Architectural Digest for inspiration and Sunset Magazine for a spark and my eyes drifted back to the picture of the tortoise. So I cut him out and placed him on the corner of the poster board, then lifted him and smeared his back with glue stick and attempted to place him back in the corner, but he pushed my hand until he hovered over the middle of the empty sheet and demanded to be placed there. So I did. Quickly other images jumped out at me and began to fill in the blank poster board.
No matter what images I placed on the collage, my eye locked on the big old turtle. And so I began to write about that turtle – the story I wrote that evening evolved into a dream sequence in chapter thirty-one of Turtle Season and opened the door to parts of Anna’s story that had been previously invisible to me.