It's always fascinating to hear about the inspiration behind a book, whether the story was inspired by an author's personal past, a favorite book, a song they loved, or something spun out of their own imagination.
Today, author Claudia Zuluaga shares the inspiration behind her book Fort Starlight, and explains why she tends to write about characters who find themselves isolated, no matter if that isolation is physical or mental...
Fort Starlight / Engine Books, September 2013
“Broke and stranded in a half-finished tract house in a swamp, Ida Overdorff discovers the strange community around her—a millionaire living in a tree house, two feral child thieves. Ida clings to her dream of returning to New York while weathering storms both meteorological and emotional, and comes to understand that nobody’s luck—even hers—is all bad.”
Just before my sixteenth birthday, my parents moved, taking my younger sister and me from a suburb of New York to a town in South Florida. Our five older siblings were old enough that they didn’t need to live at home, so we left them behind. Years before, my parents had invested in a piece of land with some money they had somehow scraped together. The South Florida town was expanding into the wilderness, and though the land wasn’t worth much, it was enough that they’d been able to trade it toward the cost of a villa in a new development.
It wasn’t so much of a culture shock as a ‘no culture’ shock, as we moved in the middle of the summer to a community that only had a few inhabitants. It was a relief when school started, but it didn’t change the fact that everything was so spread apart. And quiet. I was afraid of the silence, of all that it made me feel. I wasn’t yet formed; I didn’t know who I was. The open sky and the silence, silence, silence didn’t help me to see who I could be. I was overwhelmed by the religiosity, the heat, the long stretches of emptiness that made me fear the worst about myself and my future, and there was nothing to distract or dilute. College wasn’t my family culture, so that never seemed an option. I plotted my escape to parts more populous, thinking I would start my life when that happened. And I did escape and did start a life.
The conviction that I had to leave in order to make a life for myself was based on an illusion, of course, because you can’t really get away from yourself. By leaving and choosing to be around lots of people, I wasn’t evolving any faster; I merely distracted myself with noise.
In Fort Starlight, Ida Overdorff is alone and isolated from other people, from civilized comforts, and from her own aspirations. She is hot and dirty and afraid, and the worst thoughts she has about herself seem to manifest as her only companions in the unfinished house where she manages to survive. She is flawed in what feel like particularly hopeless ways. She never knew how she might fit into the world, and when she arrives in Fort Starlight, the world, as she knows it, vanishes. It is just her and humidity and sun and wild animals. There isn’t even a mirror. In this isolation, she can either self-destruct or turn this predicament into an opportunity to finally define herself.
The intensity of her isolation, really being stuck with her rawest self, finally moves Ida from self-pity to more productive thoughts. And Ida soon discovers that, despite first appearances, she is not all alone in Fort Starlight. She is, in fact, part of a tiny community, and they are all connected through their individual struggles.
I always knew that I’d write about the town as I first saw it and felt it. It was so haunting: the scattered houses in various stages of construction, the specter of a place that does not yet exist. Of course, it is no longer that place. I wish I could see it again, just as it was, to experience the place as the mother/writer/teacher that I am now.
My fictional characters are always isolated, literally or figuratively. I believe so completely in the power of that moment when you have to face the very thing you want to avoid, and putting my people into those dangerous moments is probably why I write fiction in the first place.
Claudia Zuluaga was born in White Plains, NY, grew up both there and Port St. Lucie, Florida, and now lives in New Jersey. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine, JMWW, and Lost Magazine, and was included in Dzanc Books' Best of the Web series. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories. Claudia is a full time Lecturer in the English department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.