Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


Novelists as Tornadoes!

cyclone-2102397_1920Whenever I read another writer’s novel, I’m curious about what that person’s process was in composing the book. Writer’s approaches to their work are as individual as the various themes they write about. No two methods are the same.

For me, Curva Peligrosa first took hold of me back in 2000. Here is what I wrote in my writer’s journal on 7/16/00:

Was taken with the image of the tornado that swept into Pine Lake, a resort near Red Deer, Alberta, yesterday, and has killed several people, flattening trailers etc. It isn’t the destruction that interests me. It’s devastating and unimaginable. It’s the image of the tornado, so innocent in itself, flattening a community, bringing with it so much sorrow. The tornado has a magical, mythical quality, reminding me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. And it’s an image I can imagine using to start a book/story. There’s something in it for me, the way it gathers up so much in one swoop and then sets everything down in a new place, reconfigured. This is what interests me, and I don’t know quite what to do with it, but it has a compelling quality for me. It’s gripped my imagination. It’s odd how these things happen. The force they have. Novelists/writers are like tornados themselves in how they rearrange lives, facts, places.

I know that tornadoes and hurricanes are natural disasters that we shouldn’t take lightly. Yet they also have a symbolic resonance, and that’s what I was connecting with. I needed to imagine my way into this narrative by picturing what might happen in a fictional Alberta town that experienced such an upheaval. I wasn’t interested in focusing on the negative aspects of such a storm. I was more entranced with the storytelling possibilities of such an event. To illustrate, here is Curva Peligrosa’s opening:

They didn’t think much about it when the wind picked up without warning late one summer afternoon and a dark cloud hurtled towards them over the prairies. Alberta residents are used to nature’s unpredictability: snowstorms in summer; spring thaws during severe cold snaps; hail or thunderstorms appearing out of nowhere on a perfect summer day. At times, hot dry winds roar through like Satan’s breath, churning up the soil and sucking it into the air, turning the sky dark as ink. Months later, some people are still digging out from under the spewed dirt.

But this wasn’t just a windstorm. A tornado aimed directly at the town of Weed, it whipped itself into a frenzy. To the Weedites, it sounded like a freight train bearing down on them, giving off a high-pitched shriek the closer it got, like a stuck whistle. The noise drowned out everything else. Right before the tornado hit, a wall of silence descended, as if the cyclone and every living thing in the area had been struck dumb.

That scene provides the foundation, then, for the novel’s main character, Curva Peligrosa, to appear. And she does so in the most unusual way. She turns up when “a completely intact purple outhouse dropped into the center of town, a crescent-shaped moon carved into its door. It landed right next to the Odd Fellows Hall and behind the schoolhouse. Most people thought the privy had been spared because its owner—Curva Peligrosa, a mystery since her arrival two years earlier—had been using it at the time.”

The novels beginning immediately let me know that this work would be permeated by magical realism. When I did additional research on that genre, I came across the following (I neglected to record where this info came from): “In the New World, where the climate is often less temperate and the landscapes more dramatic than in Britain, magic realism does indeed often display a deep connectedness between character and place.…The interpenetration of the magic and the real is no longer metaphorical but literal; the landscape is no longer passive but active—invading, trapping, dragging away….”

This explanation made me realize how important the landscape would be (and is) in Curva. It became a character in itself. That idea was confirmed when I read Michael Ondaatje’s notes in an afterward to Howard O’Hagan’s Tay John. Ondaatje points out that in this and other prairie novels, “the landscape…is not a landscape that just sits back and damns the characters with droughts. It is quicksilver, changeable, human—and we are no longer part of the realistic novel, and no longer part of the European tradition.” These observations gave me the permission I needed to follow a similar path, and I wrote the following in my journal: “I want to build on this and use the tornado to start a novel.” And that’s how Curva was born.

In future posts, I’ll give more insight into my process for writing Curva and other novels. Stay tuned!



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