By author AJ Hartley
As an undergraduate I read William Golding’s 1956 novel Pincher Martin, about a man trying to survive in the Atlantic after the ship he commanded was sunk by a Nazi torpedo. Martin, the protagonist, begins by kicking off his sea boots, then swims through the freezing ocean to a rock on which he manages to survive. Except that he doesn’t. Throughout his battle to stay fed, watered and sane, the reader experiences flashes of strangeness where the narrative seems to fracture, and when we see his body, washed ashore at the end of the book, he is still wearing his sea boots. The rock, the struggle to find shell fish to live on, the defiance of death, all turn out to have been a momentary fantasy of survival made by a man refusing to die.
I was fascinated by it, by the embedded clues, by the way the ending made you rethink everything which had gone before, by the sheer virtuosity of the narrative technique. It made me want to write something similar, but I didn’t want the story to feel gimmicky, a bait-and-switch where the reader wound up feeling cheated for the sake of the pay off. Not being able to find the right kind of story, I put the idea aside.It was more than thirty years before the ‘right’ story occurred to me, though I wrote it less because I wanted to and more because I had to.
The key issue with Pincher Martin, the thing which justified the extensive misdirection, was that it was finally about the egotism of the character, something revealed gradually in the story and confirmed by the end. My way into what became Impervious was not about the monstrosity of the protagonist but about a situation so appalling that the mind couldn’t process it.
I teach at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. On April 30th 2019, I was with a group of students and faculty for an end of semester celebration in our black box theatre, when a gunman opened fire in a neighboring building. We got word from fleeing people, and from the campus’ emergency communication system through our phones which sent three simple instructions:Run.Hide.Fight.We dared not run because we didn’t know where the shooter was, or if there was more than one. We took the second option, hoping we wouldn’t have to resort to the third, locking ourselves into the theatre’s dressing rooms and waiting, lights off, in silence. We studied our muted phones as the local news started filtering in what they knew or thought they knew, images of police cars converging just a few yards from where we were, taken from helicopters overhead, ambulances pulling up…We could hear nothing (theatre buildings are designed to be well sound-proofed) but after a couple of hours something like a complete picture was emerging, a picture which included six students shot, two of them fatally.
One of those, it would be later revealed, was Riley Howell, who was hit multiple times at increasingly close range, because he fought to subdue the shooter even after being shot. The people who survived the incident owe their lives, in part, to him. Impervious is a mirror of Riley’s heroism and sacrifice. I was OK. The students with me were OK. No one had hysterics, no one ran screaming from the building overwhelmed by dread and grief. We had seen this kind of thing too many times elsewhere to be phased by it. We stayed calm, though it was a strange calm, and it wasn’t until later—much later in some cases—that we realized we were less OK than we had thought. It took a couple of days for me–and some concerned conversations with my family—to realize that I was more than jumpy and uncharacteristically fragile, I was suffering from a kind of PTSD.
I didn’t believe that at first, since I hadn’t even heard the shots, but after a panic attack in the grocery store it was clear something had to be done.Different people handle trauma in different ways. For me, it meant writing that book I had always wanted to write, the one where the main narrative turns out to be a screen for something else, for something darker. So that was what I did, producing the first draft of Impervious in two breathless weeks. It’s a short novel about a high school girl turned fantasy hero, formerly clumsy, now suddenly, mystically gifted. She wields a sword to face down an ancient evil. Except, of course, that she doesn’t.
Impervious by AJ Hartley is published by UCLan on 2nd July 2020 and is available to purchase from all good booksellers.
Any thoughts or opinions expressed may not truly reflect those of the FCBG.