The power of moving mountains

© KV — Appenines in Abruzzo

If you live in a country with geological history so old that your mountains have long turned to hills, you know about the forces of nature from books, not first-hand experience. Perhaps that’s one reason I love mountains.

The Abruzzo region is dominated by the Appenines. Compared to the Alps (not to mention other, older or more weathered European mountain ranges like the Pyrenees or even the Ardennes), this geological area is very much alive. Italy still has active volcanoes, and frequent earthquakes.

© KV — Waterfall at Stiffe cave, seen from above

We witnessed the relative youth of the land in the Grotte de Stiffe, a modest cave that had nonetheless a charm of its own: it was in the middle of being sculpted by a little river running all along our path, and several waterfalls. You could witness nature carve out a space for itself in the rock right in front of your eyes. The sound of rushing water was everywhere. In the bigger, older caves I had visited in France or Belgium, the display of stalactites and stalagmites was magnificent, sometimes bordering on the dramatic, but the power of rivers was long gone, or a distant memory deep down some quiet chasm.

Perhaps visiting a cave in earthquake country was not the brightest of ideas, I mused as we were following our guide in the semi-darkness. But nothing out of the ordinary happened, and we went back out into the sunlight and the heat after no more than hour.

So why, in fact, did we choose to travel through this rather remote, non-touristy region in Italy in the first place? If I had wanted to see the results of the forces of nature combined with the majestic remains of ancient Roman culture, I could have easily gone to see the excavated city of Pompeï in the shadow of Italy’s most notorious volcano, Vesuvius. But apart from the fact that visiting a necropolis where the entire population was once entombed alive under layers of hot ash would have my hypersensitive senses and imagination go into alert mode, I had a good reason not to focus on the better-known sites of Italy, and dive into Abruzzo instead.

Coming from a writer — what other reason but a book?

© Jurgen Walschot — Seth variation (detail)

It’s been a while since I first mentioned The book of Seth. The text of this manuscript, rich with Egyptian and Gnostic Christian elements, was what struck the first real spark of creative soulmateship between illustrator Jurgen Walschot and myself, well before we embarked on our Sapling adventure. Although a long shot (a two-hundred page, fully illustrated, literary novel about the balance between good and evil, anyone?), the themes we found there and the images we both wanted to work with established the first fertile soil of trust and creative kinship that have so nourished us over the last year.

At the time when we decided to make this book together, the text had gone through more than ten years of gestation, and at least as many versions. As far as I was concerned, I had written the final draft. 
But from the moment Jurgen came on board for real, I felt it was crucial for him not slip into the naturally subordinate part of the illustrator who made images in service of an already existing text. If we wanted this collaboration to work, he should take his rightful place by my side as my equal and as a co-creator of the book.

That meant sharing my ‘baby’. I had to give Jurgen the freedom to bring in his own ideas and his personal approach, even if this might at some point challenge my original concept and end up changing the work substantially. I decided I was fine with this. I wanted a creative soulmate growing wings, not an acolyte doing my bidding.

One of the central characters, for whom The book of Seth is named, is a half-angel struggling with his origins and the powers that are his birthright. At one point, at a vulnerable age, he has a confrontation that will change his life, with the deity who calls himself JHWH, residing in what I had called ‘the cathedral in the capital’. Juggling with all the Egyptian, Judo-Christian and Gnostic elements in this book I had instinctively set my story in no location at all, just using very neutral, abstract and non-descript settings such as ‘the forest’, ‘the city’, ‘the desert’ or indeed, ‘the cathedral’.
When I read this scene, with the young man pitched up against this formidable opponent in a vast church, Jurgen told me, I saw images of Rome’s Saint-Peter’s basilica in my head.

© Jurgen Walschot — from The book of Seth (detail)

I immediately felt this was a brilliant idea. Where better to have a half-angel confront ancient Christian orthodoxy than in the world capital of Catholicism?
Let’s do this, I said. I knew it meant rewriting some plot elements, but nothing I couldn’t handle. And I was ready to embrace whatever Jurgen proposed if it meant an improvement to the book and a way for him to more fully connect to the project. On top of that, his suggestion came at a time when I had started to doubt whether the abstract settings actually worked or were just making things harder for the reader. I had been toying with the question of whether or not to anchor my story in some very specific locations instead. Introducing Rome definitely meant we were headed in that direction. And if I made that mental switch, the rest of the settings had to follow. So: more rewriting. Fine with me. I was starting to enjoy this trip.

Some locations were easy to pick, others were harder. I checked in with Jurgen to make some decisions — whatever we came up with he might end up having to work into some of his images. The toughest one: where did this half-angel grow up? I had scenes with his parents (human mother — angel father) that had mountains and snow as a décor, and I very much wanted to keep those. Belgium has no mountains, so I had to look further away. Would it be an option, I wondered, to have him grow up in Italy? I liked that idea, it would only make his struggle more consistent.
But was it realistic for a boy to grow up in Europe’s most Catholic country (not counting Poland) without ever entering a major church, let alone visiting the capital before he was an adolescent?

I needed a remote mountain village, probably quite a distance away from Rome, but nothing too touristy, definitely not an Alp ski station… I launched a question among my Facebook contacts. I have some author friends who have specialized in Ancient Roman history and who know Italy well, but they couldn’t help me. My newspaper editor-in-chief, however, shared my request and got an answer from a friend who had a friend who lived with her Italian partner in… Abruzzo. I got Hilde’s contact details and explained what I was looking for.

© KV — Appenine mountains in Abruzzo

Abruzzo is your place, she told me. Time has stood still here. There are villages where you will only read ten family names on the gravestones in the cemetery. Some of these places get cut off from civilization for weeks due to heavy snowfall in winter. It’s perfectly possible to live somewhere up a mountain here, a mere two hour drive away from Rome, and only visit the capital for the first time on a school excursion. That’s how it was for Gianni, and he is about the same age your character is supposed to have. You can ask him all about life here when he was a youth. We’ll have a look around here for the kind of village you can use as a background setting, and I’ll get you the name and coordinates.

One shouldn’t be surprised to meet angels when you’re writing about one, I guess.

Within days Hilde got me exactly what she promised, and I had the name of a village and some background information on the Aquila region. But very soon I got the feeling that I wanted to see the sites she described for myself. It is my experience that I write better if I know a place from firsthand experience. Even if it’s only ten lines of backdrop detail, I want to know what I’m feeding to my reader.
My husband was all for a semi-adventurous road trip with the two of us — no convincing needed on that point. So here we are, in Abruzzo.

There’s probably not many tourists who check out a residential village of absolutely no interest whatsoever, for the sole reason of documentary research. My husband was kind enough to do a lot of the driving, so I could take pictures from the car, or make a dash from the side of the road to get some better shots. I mainly needed to take in the atmosphere, but Jurgen would need the actual visuals.

The village Hilde and Gianni had picked for me was up on one of the higher hillsides overlooking the city of L’Aquila. Excellent, I thought. Seth’s mother will be looking out over the city where she works, and where she would like to live, but as village houses are way less valuable than city property, there’s no way she can ever escape the place she’s stuck in. I needed her depressed, you see, when I introduced her into the story and the circumstances needed to be believable.

(Yes, I’ll admit: writers can be cruel if they have to, but I assure you we do care about our characters, and about real people, too.)

Of course we needed to visit L’Aquila itself, too, as it’s the main city in the region, and I wanted to get an idea of where Seth’s mother would be going to make her money. I had heard about the earthquake that had struck it back in 2009, and cruising through the countryside we had seen houses that were supported by construction devices or in need of some restoration. But nothing had prepared me for what we found down there.

© KV — L’Aquila

The (typically ugly) suburbs were alive enough to mislead us, but eight full years after the 6.3 Richter scale earthquake, the historical center of L’Aquila is nothing less than a ghost town. Whole streets of houses held up by nothing but scaffolding and sheer willpower, utterly deserted, windows broken, doors barred. A high school with piles of papers still stacked on tables, doors half ajar. Stylish facades with plaster half gone, their pastel colors faded to a sad dust grey. The main historical monuments and other bigger buildings half destroyed, half covered in cloth and scaffolding.
There was a lot of construction noise, but for every site where a house was being restored, thirty others were grimly crumbling. Even on foot trying to cross the center from one side to the other was a challenge, since so many alleys were barred or looked inaccessible.

Here and there a building had been rebuilt or restored, but entering one such bar or shop felt like something out of a surrealistic movie: inside all was way too clean and normal, a parallel universe that disintegrated the moment you stepped out into the dusty ruined streets again. We passed by one or two bars where people were sitting outside, cheerful, busy, almost as if they were pretending that the destruction around them didn’t exist. It was one of the strangest experiences in my life so far.

I regret now not taking more or better pictures, or to trying to document the grotesque contrasts, but at the time of walking there, in the midday heat, despair for this once so beautiful place thudding in our throats, I simply couldn’t muster it. The sheer force of nature’s destruction felt overwhelming, and man’s attempts to clean up and rebuild were so feeble in comparison. On our way out from the city we noticed rows of cheap prefabs, undoubtedly emergency lodgings for some of the thousands of inhabitants who couldn’t go back to their homes anymore for fear of the roof collapsing over their head. In The book of Seth I will describe a city that no longer exists.
In a way this was much, much worse than visiting Pompeï could ever have been.

If, like I do, you live in a country with geological history so old that your mountains have longed turned to hills, you know about the forces of nature only from books. Witnessing the plight of people who had first-hand experience, humbles.

Writers have to be careful with the worlds they create.

© KV — Original bridge at Stiffe cave