I think the first time I drove out west was the summer I was five. I, obviously, was not driving, but plunked in the back seat with my little sisters and a colouring book and some old physiology exams to draw on. My family went camping in the summers, and that year we were heading for the Rockies.
I seem to have spent quite a lot of my childhood sitting in the back of the car watching the shoulder of the Trans-Canada Highway unroll. I’m a connoisseur of styles of overpass and underpass and road-cuttings and roadside weeds and scrub. (Compulsive reader who got carsick if I read much on the road. Anyway, you can’t take enough books with you to last all the way across the continent. Ereaders were still thirty years in the future.) (Also, on that trip I couldn’t read for myself yet.)
Three vivid memories of that particular trip have stayed with me, and they’re all landscapes. One is eating our sandwiches by the roadside. The dry wind blowing. Foxtail grass growing on the gravelly shoulder. It was scratchy. And knapweed, with its purple flowers. Also scratchy on little bare legs and sandalled feet. The wind was cold, and it seemed to be blowing across an unending sea of dry grass. I did not like the prairies, I decided at that point. They were cold and windy, gritty and prickly, and aside from Drumheller, which had badlands and dinosaur bones, boring. But the land and sky both seemed to go forever and the horizon was so distant as to be unreal.
A second memory of that landscape is a river in national or provincial park in Alberta. (I don’t know which one.) What I remember is a tangle of interlacing streams, broad and shallow, flowing over rounded pebbles bigger than my fist. The water was rippling, restless, and I thought it was so shallow I could probably wade right across and into the forest beyond. A slightly older self would have tried it.
The third, which comes chronologically before the above river, is looking ahead out the windshield — I must have been in the middle of the back seat — and seeing mountains beginning to rise over the horizon. They were low, and sharp, and purple, almost translucent, nearly lost in the sky. I remember this not so much as the actual landscape I saw, but because it so struck me I tried to draw it. Purple was the right colour for the mountains, which really seemed strange — mountains are stone and stone is supposed to be grey, when colouring and for the first time I really saw, and tried to draw what was there rather than some accepted iconography of how things are “supposed” to be. The mountains were a dim and hazy purple. And so low. But they climbed higher as we drove. Oddly, I don’t remember them as anything more impressive later. It was that first sight that stuck with me.
The landscapes I feel most at home in are places of hills and woodlands and brooks where the soil is a skin worn lightly and the bones of the land thrust through. But vast, far horizons and mountains continue to fascinate me, so when I came to write Blackdog, and it drew to it the landscape it did, that old sense of wonder at the endless sky and the sea of grass and the mountains slowly climbing into view came into it.
So where did the landscape of Holla-Sayan’s world actually come from? A number of years before I ever started writing Blackdog, I’d watched the documentary series, and then bought and read the book Realms of the Russian Bear, by John Sparks. It was a natural history of the Soviet Union, except that the USSR disintegrated around that time, so that wasn’t what it was called. As soon as I started writing Blackdog, the story of a possessed caravan-guard, that documentary and book wrapped around Holla-Sayan like a second skin that had been his all along. This was his world, from the northern forests, through mountains, steppes, winter-cold deserts . . . a tiny bit of the Kamchatka Peninsula (look for the giant fennel). I haven’t worked the Volga delta into anything you’ve seen, but I can tell you exactly where the Volga delta-esque landscape is. (I’m not going to, though. I might want to use it someday and it’s good to have surprises.)
What ties all those landscapes together?
The silk road did, more or less, if you count all the tributaries feeding it, rivières to its fleuve. That’s not a good metaphor, I know, since a river only flows one way and the current of a road flows both. Nonetheless, there it is. Holla-Sayan’s road runs from the kingdoms of the north to Nabban in the east, with threads running off to the fallen empire in the west, to the winter-dark forests of Baisirbsk, carrying goods — and stories, and people — to and from ships that sail between the Five Cities and the ports of Nabban, the continent to the south that you haven’t seen yet, and Pirakul in the farther east.
The silk road brought me right back to Holla-Sayan and his caravan, following the road through desert and grass, with mountains edging their horizons. Must have been what I intended all along.