In today’s ORIGINS, Amber Sparks discusses her story “When the Weather Changes You,” which originally appeared in A capella Zoo, Spring ’10.
A few years ago I was on my way to the airport in a cab, listening to either NPR or the BBC, and there was this report about what would happen if Yellowstone erupted. These scientists were saying that if one of those geysers erupted, they’d all go up, and the effects of all that ash in the air would be essentially another LIttle Ice Age for North America. Colder winters, dark skies, more snow–not to mention all that ash in our lungs.
I thought about that report for a really long time. It got to me. I lived in Minnesota for six years, and I used to think I’d go mad every winter, with so much snow and cold and so little light. Winter never bothered me before that, but living in Minnesota made me hate winter like it was a villain out to get us. I hate it still. I hide from it. It’s the worst thing I can think of, to die of cold. So the thought of another Little Ice Age, it horrified me in the most oppressive way and that horror just kept pushing at the corners of my brain until I knew I had to let it all come in and then write about it.
But when I tried to write about this new frigid era, it just didn’t come out right. I couldn’t get the mood right, the tone right, the characters, anything. It just wasn’t working at all. And I went back to another story I was working on, this piece set in the gaslight era, and something just sort of clicked, and I thought, This story needs to be a gaslight era fable. Because we’re just too insulated from the weather now, and this needed to be about what the weather does to people. The specifics were Yellowstone, the cold, the ash, yes–but the real story here was the weather as catalyst, the way it gets inside the blood and changes you. The curse of winter, that sliver of mirror that gets stuck in the eyes and the heart, like little Kai, emotionally frozen in the Snow Queen’s lands. That was how I’d felt during Minnesota cold spells; that was why this report had affected me so deeply. That was what I needed to write about.
From there, other elements developed, and I have to admit I kind of fell in love with the idea of fat as the new sexy when temperatures drop. And this being a sort of fairy story about weather, diametrical opposites had to come into it: fire and ice, black hair and white skin, hunger and gorging, clinging and solitude, music and silence. And on and on. Making the story a fable gave me the freedom to experiment and exaggerate. And setting it when I did gave me the freedom to play around with some elements to develop the great-grandmother’s character: the suffragettes, the vaudeville troupe, the polar exploration craze, that kind of thing. I love writing about history, so it was fun to research and write about that time period.
But at its heart, the story is still mostly about how civilized we like to think we are, and how thin the veneer is that separates our civilization from the weather outside.