I have a special guest today, Kathleen Rollins, telling us how she came to write a prehistoric novel. Take it away, Kathleen...
So how did you come to write a prehistoric adventure novel?
Hindsight is always fascinating for its clarity. We look back and see a logical series of steps that lead up to that decision to change our job or location or lover. But in the present moment, there’s no such clarity.
I’m fascinated by very ancient history, not just because it’s the beginning of my story, and yours. I wonder about those people – what they did and felt, how much of what mattered to them is exactly the same today and how much was so radically different that I couldn’t begin to understand it.
I suppose it began when a friend and I were hiking in Canyonlands National Park. We ran out of water, so we split up (a really stupid thing to do) to look for water in potholes. In my wandering I came across a series of handprints on a rock face, negative prints actually, since the color was blown out over each hand. They were shocking, not just because they were ancient but because they were timeless. I’d seen school banners full of prints just like these, left by people who pledged not to drink and drive on prom night or who supported the football team. So who had left their mark on this rock? No one lived in the area; the water table had dropped sixty feet hundreds of years before, leaving the land too dry to support much of anything. There weren’t even any mosquitoes. But people had once stood on the very spot I stood on. I put my hand on the rock under the prints and a thrill ran through me, right up to my scalp.
The moment was absorbed into the general impresssions of the trip until I saw petroglyphs in the area: combinations of recognizable figures (people and animals) and mysterious symbols, all carved into rock. I felt people were talking to me in a language I couldn’t understand, but they meant for me to understand. So I started studying rock art, then ancient peoples of the southwest, then ancient cultures all over the US, then south into Mexico, then farther south into Central America, then farther yet into South America. Along the way, I visited famous and not so famous sites in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. If you’re going to be hooked on something for several decades, you might as well do it up right.
I have to admit I was momentarily taken with the Eric von Danikken (Chariots of the Gods and other books) theories of extra-terrestrial influence in the great sites like the Nazca Lines and Machu Picchu. However, the more I learned, the more I came to see all of this as the work of humans. Brilliant, amazing humans who lived a long time ago.
What if our fundamental perception of civilization as a flight of stairs is incorrect? What if it’s actually a roller-coaster instead, with periods of great insight and invention followed by dips into anarchy and chaos? What if we’re not the folks at the top of the stairs, we’re only on a different hill of the coaster? This theory of expansion and calamity is common in creation stories worldwide, including the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Popul Vuh, which is sometimes called the Maya Bible. Jared Diamond discusses it at length in Collapse.
What if your history books’ version of Western Hemisphere history is incomplete? Many of us were taught that everyone got to the Americas by walking across the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, during the Ice Age. What if that was only one route of many? The oldest human remains in the Western Hemisphere have been found in South America. Did they walk all the way from Alaska to Chile and then die?
It’s far more likely that people came to the Western Hemisphere from many directions, just as they do today. If you have a globe handy, take a look at Alaska and then South America. It’s quite a hike to get from one to the other, especially with glaciers covering a lot of the northern section. And yet, West Africa is quite close. A young woman recently rowed (yes, rowed) from West Africa to South America in 47 days – solo. The prevailing winds helped. It’s possible that our ancient ancestors did too. They went across the sea to Australia at least 60,000 years ago.
Here’s another piece of the puzzle. The civilization generally recognized as the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, the Olmec, left massive basalt sculptures astounding in scale and craftsmanship. They were so big that later people were afraid of them and buried them when they couldn’t figure out how to destroy them. The one that is pictured on the left is from an Olmec site in southern Mexico. It’s about eight feet tall. The one on the right is somewhat smaller, but you can see the scale from the person next to it.
There are others, each one apparently the portrait of a different individual. You can find them easily by putting “Olmec heads” in your search engine.
If you put these pieces together, you have some sense of why I began my series of adventure novels about ancient explorers with a group coming across the ocean from West Africa to what is now southern Mexico. It’s called Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa.
I wanted the main characters to be complicated individuals, not the over-simplified heroes that history gives us. They are misfits, escapees from troubles in their past that prevent them from going home, so they head off into the unknown. They become heroes when they take up the challenges thrown down in front of them.
The story is set in 12,000 BC, which has caused several readers to question whether they could be talking and planning and otherwise acting like modern humans. My answer is absolutely yes.
As long as 80,000 years ago, people in northern and southern Africa were mixing red ochre compounds in abalone shells, working heated stone for better tools, hunting big game, decorating shells, burying their dead with jewelry and fine tools, and traveling great distances. In order to do these things, they needed a sophisticated language, a sense of cooperation for the common good, and a concept of an afterlife. We’ve grossly misrepresented these people as grunting fools.
So what’s next?
The second novel in the series, my WIP, concerns a group of explorers coming east across the Pacific from what is now Indonesia. The third follows a group from what is now Basque country in northern Spain. Eventually, they all meet (at least that’s the plan) with rather complicated results.
After spending over thirty years teaching composition and literature at a community college, as well as doing freelance work, I retired and devoted my energy to my own complicated, often frustrating projects. It’s been an amazing experience.
Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa is available from a few independent bookstores in Michigan, including Pages Bookstore in Flint and Horizon Books in Gaylord and Petoskey (Thank you, independent bookstores!) and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other vendors.
My blog <misfitsandheroes.wordpress.com> started out as a way to give readers additional material, but it has since morphed into a discussion of all things ancient and their echoes in the present. Stop by for information on hamsa charms, sandroings, Clovis points, a map of the heroes’ journey, San rock art, shamanistic half-death, decorated ostrich shells, and other interesting topics!
Thanks for this great, informative post, Kathleen. Anthropology, archeology and ancient history rank among my favorite topics.