When I first started mulling over the idea that became Ashes, Ashes, I was living in the Hudson Valley in New York, nestled in a mountain-ringed valley, surrounded by woods teeming with bears, deer and chipmunks. Turkey vultures roosted in our apple trees and raccoons tried to get into the kitchen. I was 90 miles from the city, straight up the Hudson River, on the left. In my mind’s eye I could look down that waterway to the jagged cityscape I knew so well, and I could also imagine sitting in a tree in Central Park and gazing northwards to where I was now living. Of course there are too many buildings and trees and buckles and swoops in the earth to be able to see as straight as the crow flies but I thought that perhaps, at night, my heroine would stare at the sky and dream about a calm, quiet place completely different from the stench and violence of her circumstance. North, the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains would take on an almost mystic quality.
When it came time to let Mother Nature destroy a city, I had experience based on living through the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. I remember riding my bike down to my old neighborhood in West Oakland where the Cypress Street freeway had collapsed, trapping people in their cars under the rubble. In my twenty years of living in California, I’d witnessed at least 4 earthquakes, and there was always a sense that the next one was just around the corner. The next BIG one.
It didn’t seem fair to the West Coast to heap more of that on them so I turned my sights eastward to my beloved NYC. NYC didn’t have earthquakes to speak of, or hurricanes, tornadoes, or cyclones. Perhaps a little heavy rain and a few blizzards.
The idea that an earthquake could topple NYC was ridiculous. The notion that streets could become canals, the Hudson River become a sea, and the Harlem River turn into a lake was preposterous.
I really felt that while I was writing the setting for Ashes, Ashes I had carte blanche to be as outrageous and ludicrous as I possible could. So I was.
I imagined the worst. A nightmare. I did also slide LA into the sea along with Portland, Naples and Japan, but my focus was on all the horrible things I could inflict on New York City.
Because when you think of NYC (or at least when I do) I think of steel-girded skyscrapers, and buildings rooted into the bedrock of the island, and business as usual, and always eventually being able to find a taxi (unless they think you look too scruffy). I think of the clocks never stopping, and I think of noise made by millions of people, not by thunderous wind or the rush of the rivers rising.
We are so helpless in the face of water, fire, sliding earth, wind. I wrote about my most primitive fears and I think they resonate because most people feel that way. In light of recent events (Hurricane Irene making landfall on Coney Island, the earthquake the week before that was felt in Manhattan, and Pennsylvania, the flooding), it’s scary to think that I couldn’t even imagine the worst. Not even when I tried with all my might.