Author D.D. Johnston tells us how his ideas for Disnaeland were really a reaction against various apocalypse media.
In apocalypse stories, humans are often presented as awful and savage. Without the boundaries and rules society sets for us, humans seem destined to destroy each other. In Disnaeland, Johnston takes a different perspective. He’s inspired by the likes of Emily Mendel’s Station Eleven. Also, notably, Colin McCarthy’s The Road, because it’s a book that says things about belief and faith that he wanted to demonstrate in Disnaeland. A difference from that book is that while The Road might suggest there’s only two good people left in the world. In contrast, Disnaeland begins paints a portrait of people who are all capable of goodness.
D.D. tells us that his creative journey with Disnaeland began in 2014, and was marred by writer’s block until the birth of his son in 2020. For this project, the symptoms of writer’s block were often external.
The idea of Disnaeland originally came from the early 2010s’ cultural fixation with the apocalypse and disaster fiction. The idea of writing an apocalypse that wasn’t so, well, apocalyptic was appealing to D.D. He wasn’t quite sure of how he’d execute it. He fixated on a paradox – we were so occupied with the apocalypse, yet we did not care to write fiction about stopping it, or creating something good from it.
And then, in 2020, the world had its own apocalypse of sorts. Mike tells us of a memory from February 2020. He was on a train, travelling through rain. Lands were flooding because of Storm Kiera and Storm Dennis, and people were all staring at their phones. The voice overhead told them all to report anything that looks suspicious. It occurred to D.D. that this scene would not be out of place in a dystopia novel. This reignited the spark for Disnaeland – it was not to be a book about building up to an apocalypse, it would be about surviving the one we’re already in.
His editor asked D.D. to write the book again, once it was done – something still wasn’t quite right. In the summer of 2020 his son was born, and that proved to be the final thing that shattered his writer’s block. There was a new urgency to Disnaeland, because the issues it explores wouldn’t only effect D.D., but also his son.
Ultimately, Mike’s journey to overcoming writer’s block was waiting for the right moment.
D.D. Johnston tells us about how he fleshed out his characters and gave them nuance in Disnaeland.
He admits that at first, his characters were mostly satirical. It was his editor that encouraged him to flesh them out. To create these characters, D.D. drew on aspects of himself – even the most heinous characters in Disnaeland are informed by parts of him.
He recalls that Gustave Flaubert, when asked who the eponymous character of Madame Bovary was based on, replied, ‘Madam Bovary is me!’ D.D. tells us it’s important to think sympathetically about unfortunate or unlikable characters.
There are several tools at an author’s disposal when it comes to creating characters. Using description and dialogue can convey personality. Having your characters engage dynamically with the world around them is another vital step. If all D.D.’s characters responded to the apocalypse in the same way, they wouldn’t be rounded or fleshed out.
Sarah Walton’s inspiration for The Silk Pavilion came from many sources: staying in an eerie villa during a thunderstorm in Mallorca; thoughts about the novel Rebecca under a modern lens; the concept of creating intrigue about serial killers and the history of the Spanish Civil War – these are but a few.
Sarah was staying at a house in Deià, not far from Robert Graves’ old home. Up late, she heard the horrible, sinister clanging of pipes from terrible plumbing. There was a storm that almost sounded like screaming. Sarah was terrified and her imagination began to spiral, thinking about serial killers. There was a knock at the door, but it was just a neighbour.
Sarah swam in the Cala at Deià, She knew it was a place where men were thrown off or forced to jump from the mirador during the war. The women would pick up what was left of them in the morning and bury what remained. She realised that she was swimming above a graveyard.
Beyond that, Sarah was very familiar with Spain. She was taken to Franco’s memorial outside of Madrid when she just fourteen. She’s studied Catalan and Castilian Spanish and went to Barcelona university. Ultimately, Sarah was steeped in Spanish culture, so aware of the rift between those speakers, and this too inspired the book.
Back in the villa, Sarah began to think about her relationships and her own trauma. She began to wonder what drove her to make the decisions she did. With Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in her mind, she began to think of trapped women, and examined her story with a modern lens. The Silk Pavilion was born.
Back in April, Barbican Press partnered with Paper-Works Books & Print to host an online event to launch Richard Zimler’s The Lost Gospel of Lazarus.
Here’s the full recording – Richard is interviewed by George Biggs about the book’s inspiration, his writing and research process and much more. It’s a non-spoiler deep dive into the most famous story in the world. Sit back and learn how to make historical fiction vital.
How do you take perhaps the best-known story of all time, the crucifixion of Jesus, and make it thrillingly new? Lazarus, in the wake of being brought back from the dead, offers us live, inside commentary as the authorities hunt down the new ‘messiah’.
Richard Zimler, a gay Jewish American writer long resident in Portugal, applies keen scholarship to unearth telling details.
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