Please welcome Elisabeth Elo, author of the novel North of Boston!
And don’t forge to enter to win a copy of the book below – open to US residents only.
by Elisabeth Elo
One of the most potentially gratifying or horrifying moments in the publishing process is the one when you first read the publisher’s marketing copy for your book. That is the two or three paragraphs that the marketing department has written to tell potential readers what your book is about. Sometimes it’s not what you expect.
One of the marketing pieces for North of Boston, for example, prominently describes the main character, Pirio Kasparov, as a “gutsy heroine [who] possesses the rare ability to endure Arctic-cold water.”
I remember wincing. The description made Pirio sound like a bionic woman rather than a real person. (She’s not a real person, of course, but you get the point.) I worried that a character with “special powers” would seem cartoonish, and that potential readers would discount the novel as not serious. I also didn’t think the description was particularly enticing. I don’t always know what I’m looking for in a fictional character, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the possession of rare abilities.
That left me in a quandary. I had to slow down and try to get my head around an important feature of my own book – one that, obviously, I should have been comfortable with long before the marketing copy was written. I had to ask myself what Pirio’s unusual talent meant – to her, to me, and in the novel.
The first answer was pretty straightforward. Pirio survives in the North Atlantic in September, when water temperatures are low, long enough for the Coast Guard to learn about the accident and rescue her. There had to be an explanation for that. At first, she doesn’t know the reason herself and finds it all a bit embarrassing when people make a big deal about her and start calling her “The Swimmer.” Then the Navy contacts her and asks her to participate in its research on human survival in extreme conditions, and things get even weirder for her. All this time, I’m just following the plot to the logical next step, so it feels as if Pirio and I are experiencing these things for the first time together.
Halfway through the testing, she goes AWOL. It’s not just because she has a very good excuse to return to Boston, or because she’s afraid of the tank experience that’s coming up – it’s also because she really doesn’t want to know too much about herself. She’d rather just be normal.
But the Naval officer in charge of the testing insists that she return. So she trudges back to Florida and submits to the ordeal they have in store for her (“what the Navy calls thermal exposure and I call freezing to near-death”) because she’s basically a good sport who wants to help her country. Then comes a critical moment. She’s told she has a rare physiological response to cold temperatures. The data doesn’t lie.
That’s when things got interesting for Pirio and for me, her humble clueless author.
The more I think about it now, the more I realize that there was actually a very important idea I was trying to get at in this sub-plot. A lot of us actually try to hide our talents, even from ourselves. It takes courage to admit them, bring them into the light, and cultivate them. It also takes hard work and discipline to make them really useful, and it takes confidence to endure the inevitable scrutiny and, yes, the envy of others.
Sometimes it’s safer to stay in the middle of the herd. But if we do that, we risk becoming bitter, empty people, and I think that in the deepest part of ourselves we always know that we’re hiding out, hoping in vain for an easier life.
Pirio doesn’t want the talent she has, but she’s got it, and in one way or another it will become at least part of her destiny. By the end of the book she’s accepted her rare ability and taken it for a test drive. That’s good, but it’s not the end. She still has to figure out how to do something useful in the world. And that, as they say, is another story!