The idea for The Canopy occurred to me long before I was able to write the book. I was reading the New York Times Sunday magazine and found an article about researchers who work on this huge trampoline-like thing that they lower to the top of trees in the rain forest canopy. Drug researchers, entomologists, perfumers–all of them have found valuable products from plant and animal life that exists only in the top of the rain forest canopy. It’s literally an entirely different world up there! So I knew I’d found a wonderful and unique place to set a novel.
Trouble was, I knew less than nothing about the rain forest and I really wanted to see it for myself. So I had to wait about two years before I could find the time to go . . . and find someone to go with me. Finally my friend Gaynel, who was 29, single, and could afford her own ticket, volunteered to go, so we boarded a plane in April 2001.
We spent eight days in Peru–one day each way in transit to and from our lodge deep in the jungle and accessible only by boat. There’s no way I can begin to tell you everything we did in this limited space, but highlights were fishing for pirhana and watching the sun rise over the top of the canopy. I also discovered that my high school Spanish wasn’t as deeply buried in my subconscious as I’d thought!
A novel has four basic ingredients, all of which you should have before you being writing: 1) a setting, 2) characters 3) a plot and 4) a theme. I had the setting, but the entire time I was in Peru, I kept looking for a plot. I didn’t find it in the jungle, but I did find it in my reading material when I returned home. I read about a disease–Fatal Familial Insomnia–which is a “cousin” to mad cow disease. They are both caused by prions (pronounced pree-ons). With FFI, basically one day you can’t sleep, 18 months or so later you slip into a coma and die. Even while you’re comatose, though, your brain continues to function. You’re awake, you just can’t move. Literally a prisoner in your own body.
Ah–now that was fascinating, and immediately suggested my characters: Alexandra, whose mother died from FFI (it’s hereditary), and who has a daughter who stands to inherit the same disease. Alex has gone into neurology because of her mother’s death, and she’s in the jungle to search for a cure for FFI. While she’s there, she begins to have trouble sleeping.
As to theme–I wanted to write an allegory and establish that sin is like a fatal disease–we are born with it, and it can only be defeated by faith. So I had Alexandra and company discover an Indian tribe who are born with a variety of prion disease, but who manage to overcome it. She goes out to find them and discover their cure.
As to the indigenous tribes–I’ve been accused in Amazon reviews of painting them simplistically, but I based their characterization on nonfiction books about real tribes that have had religious experiences. Amazing stuff. So I stand by my depictions and my theme.
And so I finally had all four ingredients, plus seven days of jungle experience. It was enough to get started.
Tomorrow: the research.