I have dreamed in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind. —Emily Brontë
Emily Jane Brontë and I share a birthday today, though she was born in Thornton, England, in 1818, and I was born in Long Beach, California, 140 years later.
Using the pseudonym Ellis Bell, Emily published Wuthering Heights in 1847, which is considered one of the greatest love stories of all time, though she never had a lover. I’ve been working on a novel for—Lord help me—six years with more than one love story in it (between a teenager and the only town she’s ever known, primarily), and I have had my share of lovers. (Thank you all!)
I do not mean to compare myself to Emily or Charlotte or Anne, that trio of writing sisters, though I, too, wrote as a child and have concocted plenty of poetry as well as prose. But I do have an affinity for Emily, who had only one novel published in her lifetime. But what a novel! What a tragic love story of unresolved passion between Catherine and Heathcliff. How it ruins him and everyone he touches.
Emily said she dreamed much of the novel, something I find myself doing this week as I travel again in British Columbia where my novel is set. I dream about my characters, one sign that they’re “real,” thriving people, alive in my head, at least, which gives them a great chance of coming alive on the page. It is easier to dream my fictional people when I’m in their actual land. It is easier to write about their place when I have the smell of B.C. cedar in my nostrils; they are not the same as, say, Lake Tahoe pine trees.
So on my birthday I find myself halfway up Vancouver Island in the small town of Campbell River, here for a reunion of Dick’s siblings and the Rayer siblings, whose parents became friends during a lifeboat drill on a ferry between Washington state and B.C. in 1939. (Another good story!) Campbell River is a town that has learned in recent weeks that its paper mill, like the one in my novel, is about to be closed for good. This is the town, in fact, where many of the real-life people of Ocean Falls migrated to work in the mill here, the one that is now closing.
Fact and fiction lie a heartbeat apart. So much of what writers need to express is often more smoothly done as fiction; so much of what lies beneath the surface of fiction is fact. Yet I hate it when people ask fiction writers, “What really happened?” As if the telling of any story doesn’t make it real. As if “making it up” makes it any less true.
I doubt that Emily Brontë had any idea that Catherine and Heathcliff and their story would outlive her. I have no idea what will happen to my novel, but it doesn’t matter. I’m writing the book for me, most of all, because it’s been a fascinating process to research and write and craft it. If, like Emily, I’m lucky enough to have “Ocean Falls” published, and it turns out to be my only novel, great. I will have told a story I wanted to tell.
That’s what good stories do—alter the color of your mind—whether you’re writing or reading them.
Happy Birthday, Emily Jane, from Janis Linn, your younger writer sister by nearly a century and a half…