Why DEAD MAN’S TUNNEL?
DEAD MAN’S TUNNEL will be on the shelves by the time you read this, and I can enjoy a brief moment of elation. The journey from idea to book is a long and perilous one. A single wrong turn, and I’m off into the wilderness, with the unsettling possibility of never being seen or heard from again.
But now there it sits on the shelf, that idea, that ephemeral, passing thought that somehow has been transformed into a real book, with a neat cover, glowing praise, and an ageless picture of me on the back. There it sits in all its glory and with a life all its own.
So it’s a moment of euphoria, perhaps even astonishment, for its having been completed at all. But in light of the mysterious workings of the mind, it’s also a moment of humility, because in all likelihood the next questions I’ll be asked will be the most difficult for me to answer, perhaps impossible to answer with authority: Where did the idea come from? Why this rather than that?
The only thing I can say with confidence is that good writing is about feelings, that without them, writing ceases to matter for much more than making grocery lists. This being true, it follows that emotional intensity is what I must seek if I want my books to matter. Setting, subject, character, and plot must somehow merge in an up swelling of feelings so powerful as to sweep the readers into a world more real, sometimes more terrifying, than the ones they occupy.
And this is what I found one day when reading an article about Johnson Canyon Tunnel, a railroad tunnel located in the Arizona desert, the only tunnel in the U.S. to have had a twenty-four hour military guard for the duration of WWII. Having been dug through solid basalt, the tunnel claimed a three percent grade, the steepest in the U.S. Steam engines, with brakes screeching, roared in over rickety trestles to hit a deadly curve mid-point in the tunnel.
Box cars scattered at the bottom of the canyon still testify to the dangers of the approach. The tunnel claimed many lives in its making and holds the distinction of having burned twice and exploded once. Abandoned for decades now, for a more sane route, it is little more than a passing curiosity for hikers and rail buffs.
But when I read about this tunnel, a tingle gathered at the base of my spine, a feeling I knew my readers could also experience, because who doesn’t know how voices echo in an iron-clad tunnel in the middle of a mountain, how the overburden presses down like an invisible weight, how it sucks away one’s breath in its stillness? Who doesn’t know how the dampness clings to the skin, or how creosote and fear smell in the darkness? Who doesn’t know how the gut twists at the sound of a train thundering into the portal and there’s nowhere to run?
These were the feelings I had, the kind that tests a person’s grit, even one like Hook Runyon.
So where did the idea for DEAD MAN’S TUNNEL come from? A place called Johnson Canyon Tunnel. And why did I choose to write about it? Because I had a feeling, one that wouldn’t go away.