There are no spoilers here that you couldn’t gain from the back of the book.
Flea in the Dark is a low urban fantasy/magical realism novel written by me. You can buy it here.
Flea in the Dark’s rough draft was written over the course of a single month in longhand and then revised over a number of years, but it is ostensibly set in the summer of 2014 during the grasshopper plague that spread over Albuquerque that year.
It follows a young girl (Teresa) whose half-sister (Felicia “Flea”) is taken by the legendary ghost La Llorona. While writing it I tended to think of it as “Labyrinth meets The Book of Life” though its inspirations are more broad than that. Knowing the legend of La Llorona is essential for understanding the book, so I outlined the story in two different versions throughout the book as well as presented the story of Medea which is probably La Llorona’s direct antecedent.
To get Flea back, Teresa figures out a way to travel to a “spirit world” version of Albuquerque populated by anthropomorphic animals in various roles. She picks up a kind of spirit guide Feste, a burrowing owl, and has to navigate the politics between competing interests of the various spirits.
➤It’s been fashionable-- probably since forever-- to use anthropomorphic animals to satirize current politics. It might be tempting therefore to view Flea in the Dark as some sort of commentary on Albuquerque politics. I’d urge the reader to resist such temptation as it is simply meant as an adventure story and if there is commentary on politics in it, it is more of the nature of an aside rather than a manifesto.
➤Time travel as presented in fiction is almost certainly impossible mostly because it is tied into how we perceive time, which is wrong. Humans view time as a linear progression of events and view time travel as inserting oneself back into that progression. Time however, is more akin to a direction one is moving, analogous to the outward direction of an expanding balloon mapped onto higher dimensions. You therefore move through time as if the future is a cone you can change direction in. I could ruminate under my own ken that to move into the past and arrive at an event would require tracing your own path back exactly, because moving back in the past in a straight line would land you at a point millions of miles off from where you wanted to be; time and space not being separate things. Further thought on this is beyond the scope of any novel and probably falls outside of physics as I’m likely wrong in these speculations, however it does lead into the next thought.
I wanted to present time travel as connected to location. Thus, the closer to the River the protagonist is, the close to the inciting incident she is in time. The farther away she is, the further in the past she is. This comes from the musings above and from a desire to do a time travel story that was centered on location.
➤New Mexico is interesting in that it is a place where a lot of traditions collide. The old Spanish and Native American legends mix in a way that’s hard to tease apart and this lends to a dramatic landscape perfect for an adventure that takes place across multiple time periods. The locations in the spirit version of Albuquerque tend to be more permanent the older and longer they’ve been around. Newer stuff fades in and out as if it has no real substance.
➤Animal motifs are common in the Southwest-- they’re common everywhere-- and the spirits that appear in Flea are described as “living spirits of the land” in the novel itself. This contrasts with “dead spirits” or ghosts. None of the creatures are meant to be depicted as evil based on what kind of animal they are. As much as I love the Redwall books, it always bothered me that the weasels were always evil seemingly by virtue of being weasels. The animals in Flea are meant to appear as evil in certain circumstances and good in others, but I try to keep a basic sympathy for all the characters heroes and villains alike.
➤Most authors will tell you that all their characters are a little bit of them, but when it comes to characters in the books Felicia (the titular character) is far more like me than the protagonist, Teresa. Felicia is a bundle of traits I remember having when I was young; the interest in entomology especially. She’s also very young and acts that way. Teresa’s personality comes from mainly utilitarian decisions that move the story along. She’s fierce and determined and always heads forward, often without stopping to consider the consequences. Since these are both strengths and weaknesses depending on the situation, I could create a character who would be interesting to read about as she goes from a person always charging into things, to a more thoughtful individual. The other characters, Teresa's mother and father, are built around the idea of what kind of parents a person like Teresa must have and what kind of conflicts she has with her sister. The core problem Teresa has with her sister needed to be a problem rooted in her parents' conflicts. Once you have a base like this, stories practically write themselves.
➤I’ve noticed with long stories that things happening in the news or that are otherwise on my mind tend to bleed into the story. In 2014, while the rough draft of Flea was being written, the Albuquerque Police were under review for the many unjustified shootings they had committed, so Teresa thinks of police in a hostile light. There are a few topical reference relating to that year as well: Teresa has a passing thought about somebody falling off the Sandias. It happens time to time, and it had happened that year.
Methods of Research
I’ve lived in Albuquerque for about 30 of my 33 years and you tend to pick up bits of local history. However, since Flea is extremely interested in the history of Albuquerque, I had to research a surprising amount of local history (mostly from records in Zimmerman Library). There is, for instance, only one book written about Navajo witchcraft and it’s hard to come by (the Clyde Kluckhohn book, if you’re interested). To read that book, I had to go into the restricted section of the library and read the book in a glass-walled room deep in Zimmerman’s interior. I wasn’t allowed to photocopy it, or take pictures; my notes are all in longhand.
Other information was easier to come by. The Centennial Library at the University of New Mexico has an excellent map collection dating back to the ancient Spanish settlement and so the shifting geography of the spirit world is very accurate to real-world Albuquerque throughout time.
The Medea story follows Euripides pretty closely, but in a much abbreviated form. I debated a long time over whether to present it as prose, verse, or as I have it finally: a play. Hopefully it works.
The book is written in Third Person Limited and pays particular attention to describing lucent effects to emphasize the surreal nature of the spirit world. This is all fairly standard stuff. No need to reinvent the wheel to tell a simple adventure story.
On the Witch
It is debatable on whether the Diné 'ánti'įhnii are properly witches in the European sense at all. The gist seems to be that when Europeans heard about these evil conjurers, they equated them to the thing that closest matched their own myths similar to how it is debatable that if Chinese and Japanese dragons (as well as the Feathered Mesoamerican serpents) are dragons at all. The witch in the book is likely a practitioner of the Witchy Way, that is to say, it is not a skinwalker, but rather a being that uses bones and pieces of corpses to fuel their magic.
On Juan Tabo
Nobody knows who the prominent Juan Tabo Boulevard is named after. The general legend is that he was a Taboso Indian who worked as a shepherd somewhere along where the street runs, but there are no credible sources to back this up. It seems that this person also has a road in Phoenix, Arizona named after him. Whoever he was, the name is all over eastern Albuquerque.
On the Burning of Zimmerman Library
Teresa’s memory is almost an exact match of my own. I happened to be over at a friend’s dorm late at night. We were watching Avatar: the Last Airbender, became hungry and decided to go out for a late snack. You could smell the building burning from across campus, and our path took us right by it. I know from research for Flea that this would have been on April 30th, 2006 which means I had to distort the actual timeline to get Teresa’s age right for the middle school choir competition she’s in so that she can be in the right area to witness the fire.
The library lost something like 30,000 volumes in the fire and while the fire stayed contained to the basement (adobe doesn’t burn that well) it put the library out of service until June 25 of the next year, and even then that was only the first floor. This did give the University an opportunity to renovate the building, and the basement is entirely new. It also spurred the library backup all of its remaining periodicals, theses, and newspaper archives to digital copies.
The cause of the fire was likely arson and because of the date it fell on, it was likely a person either stressed out about midterms, or perhaps willing to burn down a school building to get out of a research paper. Either way, the perpetrator was never caught.
On the Owl
Feste, the burrowing owl, has a rather vague nature that I’ve deliberately left obscure. She exists mainly to keep Teresa from talking to herself. We often don’t talk to ourselves as we wander alone, and so I made a companion for Teresa to bounce ideas off of.
The name “Feste” comes from the clown in Twelfth Night and she references lines from that play at least once. As to her true nature, she’s a powerful spirit of some kind and capable of changing her form at will-- something not many spirits in the book can do.
The Spanish La Llorona speaks is untranslated. This is deliberate as to give her an air of mystery. I had originally wanted to do all her lines in medieval Spanish but I couldn’t find a professor at the University who knew enough about it to help me. The Spanish department at UNM is excellent, and well it ought to be given its location, but it currently has nobody who specializes in old Castilian. That leaves either finding books in Spanish on the topic or trying to use Wikipedia’s article. The first one proved difficult, the second inadequate.
I settled on archaic phrasing or rather the appearance of archaic phrasing and left well enough alone with all the X’s and grammar changes. It’s a cheat, but hopefully a convincing one. La Llorona’s speech can be translated as thus: “Who are you to judge me? I who judge myself for the murder of my mornings? My boy and girl who are lost; they for whom pain has made me blind. God can give no sorrow worse than this for me. The Devil has no horrors greater than those of my own mind. No abject devil murdering in dark streets can pick censor harder than mine for me.”
Other Spanish is accurate to the area of New Mexico, though I am not skilled enough to turn a phrase of Spanish as well as I can a phrase in English. Algo es algo; menos es nada.
It’s very hard to boil four years of work into a few simple thoughts especially about something as complicated as a novel. I always like to think of it as an adventure story. The publisher put some stuff about Lovecraftian horror on the back of the book (there are ghosts and scary moments) but I don’t think it is particularly Lovecraftian. The story is interested in prejudice, but touches lightly on the subject.
If I want the book to succeed at any one thing, it is that I want it to portray Teresa and Flea’s relationship believably. I think it does. I have a younger sibling, and I think I can draw on that relationship for the verisimilitude I require.