Danica and Leonora

Friendship interests me as a writer. It can be a mysterious thing.

Usually it grows over time, someone becomes a presence in our life and at some point we realize how much we value them – and often that comes when we grasp that they feel the same way about us. The sharing. We make friends as children and stay friends for life, or we make friends because our children play together. We get close to someone at work because we see them all the time and we learn to trust them there – say, as Alicia does with Kalinda in “The Good Wife” (leaving aside all the rumors of the real life actors and their dynamic – this is about the characters!)

Or, sometimes, it is different. When we are away from home, nowhere near our support group, family, on our own, we can form a bond with someone else because they are in the same ‘away’ space, and we both recognize it – and we need someone, and they do, too. It can happen fast then. It isn’t the same as falling in love, but it can still develop at speed, and sometimes last longer, too!

In my newest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, one of the themes I’m exploring is the status of women, their scope to take control of their own lives, in a setting that evokes the 15th century Renaissance. The book takes place in what some call my near-Europe, and others describe as history with ‘a quarter turn to the fantastic’. I like doing quarter turns, it gets interesting.

Early in the book the main female protagonists meet each other on board a ship. One is a passenger, the other is raiding it. Leonora is an aristocratic woman who has ‘shamed’ her family by falling in love and becoming pregnant. Her lover has been killed. She’s been exiled to a convent to bear the child – which is taken away at birth. She’s expected to stay there, behind the walls of that retreat, forever. Her father gave them enough money, after all. Leonora refuses to let that be her life, to let someone else decide what will be her future. She’s on the ship under false pretences. She’s accepted an offer to be a spy, posing as a doctor’s wife.

The other woman, Danica, is wildly different. She’s had a harder, rougher life. She can handle a bow and a boat and daggers. She has a big dog always at her side (even at sea!), and has dedicated her life to vengeance against those who raided her village when she was ten and destroyed her family.

Out of a violent shipboard encounter, an early scene, I felt – right away – a reality about friendship I wanted to work with. These two are hugely unlikely soulmates, and one has just attacked the ship the other is sailing on. But – and this was the key for me – through the consequences of that attack, both are suddenly, and absolutely, alone in a world – on the same day. I wrote and developed a first, important scene between them. (The dog is there.)

Here’s where it got interesting. When I delivered the novel, one of my earliest readers, an experienced man in the book trade, expressed doubts: ‘They connect awfully fast, don’t they?’ They do! That was my point. I asked the question specifically of my three other early readers – all women, equally experienced. And with instant, absolute conviction, all three said, ‘Two women? In that situation? I get it, completely.’

I went with my own feeling, and with their reassurance. ‘Speed’ in a friendship might be surprising when we are in our normal life, surrounded by other friends, our ‘network’. When we are cut off, isolated, our minds and emotions, choosing someone to trust when we need someone to trust can work very differently. The two women do that, in Children of Earth and Sky, recognizing the same need in the other, and I think it catches something about our own lives, even if less dramatic, which is what I am always trying to do in a book.

In extreme circumstances we can be thrown back onto our instincts – and relationships like the one between Danica and Leonora, can flower into something real and important very fast. In their case, during the course of a morning at sea, with the sun rising on a world that has utterly changed for both of them.

 There are many intense relationships in the book, I suppose count as a ‘character-driven’ novelist, but one that emerges first, and one of my own favorites is the unlikely bond between these two women.

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