Todd Fahnestock is the bestselling author of “The Wishing World,” “Fairmist,” and “Wildmane.” A true Gen Xer, Todd navigated his parents’ divorce and subsequent poverty when he was 14, leaping into a series of adventures that would shape him into a writer. When he’s not writing, he teaches Taekwondo, goes on morning runs with his daughter, wrestles with his son, and plays board games with his wife.
SunLit: In the first chapter of your book, you talk about wanting to find the magic in your life. Was your decision to hike the Colorado Trail with your teenage son done with that in mind, or did you figure out the connection later?
Todd Fahnestock: The connection only came later. Oftentimes I’ll do things because my intuition nudges me that direction, and that was the case with The Colorado Trail. I’d been wanting to do something physically challenging for a while, and this fit the bill. Also, the timing was perfect.
I knew I wouldn’t have many more opportunities to embark on this kind of a journey with my teenage son. As I mentioned in the book, I was feeling the time slipping away. My moments of being able to be a father to him were numbered. I only had a few short years (months?) before he would be seeking wisdom outside the parental unit.
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After we finished the trail, it was only when I decided to write the book that I began to see the connections between Dash’s coming-of-age moments and my own when I was 14. That’s when the marrying-up of my original search for magic and the magic I found in abundance on The Colorado Trail became clear.
SunLit: When did you realize the hiking trip might actually be material ripe for a book? And were you reluctant to attempt something so personal that’s so different from what you’ve done, to great success, with sci-fi and fantasy?
Fahnestock: I had been wanting to write something autobiographical for years. I still do, in fact. I had many interesting adventures in my youth, and for almost two decades I’d been searching for a way to bring it forward. That’s what my novel “Summer of the Fetch” was, I think. That story is about 25% autobiographical (and the rest pure fiction). “Summer of the Fetch” eased me into the notion of writing about my life directly. I think it paved the way for “Ordinary Magic.”
When Dash and I got off the trail, I had three or four story ideas already percolating in the back of my mind — all of them fiction centered around hiking in the Colorado wilderness. But when I got back, my friend Mark and his wife took me to a congratulatory dinner for finishing the trail. Over margaritas and enchiladas, Mark listened to my ideas for the fiction books involving the trail, but he expressed a high interest in hearing the real story, so much so that he suggested I write a fiction book or two… after I wrote the real account.
So I did.
I started chronicling the entire journey, and the story just flowed out. I had taken quite a few notes along the way, and I used them to reconstruct the timeline of the events in the story.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book and mapping out the narrative. I imagine you approached it differently from the way you might map out fiction – but was it easier or more difficult?
Fahnestock: I didn’t map out anything. I jumped in and started writing the account. It was still so fresh that most of the events leapt to mind immediately.
Compared to writing fiction, it was easier in that I didn’t have to imagine everything. I didn’t have to brainstorm for outlandish and/or interesting situations to put the characters through. I already had those moments, and of course the characters were Dash and me.
The difficulty came when I attempted to construct an entertaining narrative, rather than just a series of journal entries. For that, I let my intuition lead just as it had led me to committing to The Colorado Trail in the first place.
I connected my 14-year-old moments with Dash’s. That’s how things like the Two Rabbits chapter came to be. Those reminiscences tied to and complemented Dash’s journey, which ended up creating the theme of the story.
SunLit: Tell us how the story took shape. Were the narrative elements all there before you started writing, or did your approach change as you worked through the story?
Fahnestock: As I said above, I wove my way through the actual events naturally, writing them down with the color and verve with which they were embedded in my memory, trying to evoke for the reader how it felt to be on that ridge as the sun went down, shading the foothills, the higher hills, and the mighty mountains in various purple hues. And then I matched up the meaning of what we experienced to the storytelling structure, smoothing it, adjusting it a little, peppering foreshadowing of what was to come.
SunLit: Did you keep your writing to yourself until you finished, or was your son an ongoing resource for you? Did you share what you’d written with family as you went along?
Fahnestock: Actually, I did go to Dash from time to time about certain details, to clarify them or to see if there was anything I’d overlooked. You never know just how personal your own vision of the world is until you ask someone else to chime in about what they remember of a shared experience.
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By and large, though, we agreed on the details. The one difference: I remember being pretty damned stoic about my blistered feet. I mean, they hurt a LOT. So my memory is that I mentioned them very little compared to how much they hurt. He remembers me complaining about them every five minutes. “Dad, I finally had to tell you to stop talking about your feet!”
As to sharing it with the family, I probably shared some with Lara (my wife) from time to time. She’s hugely supportive, but she is also super busy. She loved that I hiked the trail with Dash. She made some big sacrifices so we could do it, but I think she was less interested in the process of the writing of the book. Though she did read the end result and loved it.
To my knowledge, neither Dash nor Elo has read the book. Yeah. It’s interesting when you’ve lived with people for a long time and you’re an artist. Nothing about the process is new to them, and probably even less is fascinating. My brother has a great story about one of his teenage idols, the lead singer of Slayer — a 1980s heavy metal band — that sums it up nicely. And the story is encapsulated in one picture and one sentence.
The picture shows the lead singer giving the universal heavy metal sign with one hand and roaring at the camera. Next to him stands his family, including his teenage daughter, who is looking at him with an expression that says, “Oh no. Dad, could you please just not…”
The caption was something like: You could be the lead singer for Slayer, and your teenage daughter will still think you’re lame.
The point I take away is what seems interesting to people outside looks normal (and sometimes boring) to the people on the inside.
SunLit: Even though you obviously lived the experience, were there revelations once you started thinking about your adventure in different, more literary, terms?
Fahnestock: Absolutely. I processed the trip for a long time after it ended. I’m still processing it. There are moments I point to and draw wisdom from in my everyday life. In fact, I think my son is sick of hearing me say, “Hey, this is just like that one time on the trail when…”
One thing that keeps coming up is “I can’t believe I actually did that.” I mean, I was there. I walked every (often painful) step. And walking it one step at a time seemed, most times, extremely possible. But looking at it from a distance, I’m still amazed that it all came together, from my 50-year-old body holding up and improving over the distance to Dash’s mental attitude holding out for that long. I mean, he was 14 at the time. When I was 14, going on a one-week trip was a monumental accomplishment, let alone five weeks in a row.
Literarily, I often think about the subtle wisdoms that crept into our lives when everything was so simple. As I mentioned in the book, Dash and I only had to pay attention to seven things while we were on the trail: water, food, footing near cliffs, the weather, wild animals, adequate clothing, and shelter at night. Of course, six of those can kill you if you don’t pay attention. So there is that.
But in the urban world, I’ll often be thinking about 82 things at any given time, and none of them (with the exception of driving on I-25) will kill you.
When life is simple, some things become clearer. Like what is most important. When all you have to do in a day is walk and look at nature, you can consider a multitude of things in the calm quiet. It’s easier to slip into a philosophical frame of mind, and I found myself trying to put together wisdoms to take home with me, like remembering that our lives are all so transient. Like reminding myself to appreciate every sunset, because not one of them is going to be like the last.
SunLit: Was your process for writing this book much different than your routine for writing your other books?
Fahnestock: Actually it was. The only other book I’d written that was even remotely autobiographical was “Summer of the Fetch,” and as I mentioned that was only 25% true to life. “Ordinary Magic” was 100% true to life, so writing down the words was pretty easy. I knew all the scenes and they were only a couple months in the rearview mirror when I started the book. Usually when I write fiction, I’m trying to seek interesting situations for my characters and invent original details to draw the reader in. This time, I didn’t have to make anything up, I just had to present it in an interesting fashion.
I reminisced and drew details from my memory rather than from my imagination. So in that respect, it was quite different. I was really more a director than a writer, picking and choosing which “scenes” to spread out and which ones to roll up and tuck back into my satchel of scrolls. The theme of teenage awakening (as well as a good bit of midlife awakening) just naturally floated to the surface, and I went with it. I won’t say it was the easiest book I ever wrote, but it was close. In the top 3.
SunLit: How did you feel when you’d typed the last sentence? Was it a different feeling completing a work so personal than finishing a work of fiction?
Fahnestock: I felt emotional. Remember that I was tired, footsore, and longing to sleep in a bed and eat a cheeseburger when we reached the end of that trail, but in those last two miles when I should have just been stumbling forward in a blind desperation to get to civilization, I slowed down. I spent moments looking at that river, barely recalling some half-remembered moment when I’d been there in high school or junior high.
And of course, when I wrote the story after, I wasn’t footsore or tired or longing for civilization. I was sitting comfortably in my chair sipping on a gin ‘n’ tonic and reminiscing. So my feels were, if anything, even more potent. I really sank into them, floating in the revelation that I’d lived a whole life since I was that 14 year old living in Durango, that I really had come full circle when I returned to those same stomping grounds and found them… different. Because I was different. It was a powerful moment then and it still is.
To answer the second question here, yes it was a different feeling completing a work that was autobiographical. I won’t say “more personal” because all of my books are very personal to me. But I will say that, at certain parts in the narrative, I felt horribly exposed. I went round and round about the rabbit story. I’ve felt horrible about that since I was a kid and I was scared that readers would hate me for revealing what I’d done. I mean, I think it shaped my personality in a positive way, but I felt horrible guilt for it. I still do.
I was also reluctant to talk about the “running from the lightning” episode. I mean, everything I did on the trail reflected on me as a father, and I kept thinking, “What are people going to think? I mean, what kind of father puts his son in danger like that?”
In the end, though, that’s the danger of being a writer. I feel like if I don’t strive to put personal aspects into every story, fiction and nonfiction alike, I’m settling for less, aren’t I? A more sterile version.
Anyway, that’s what compelled me to pull no punches. But yes, it was a different feeling. Riskier.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Fahnestock: Oh my goodness. I have four. I want to keep working on “Tower of the Four.” I have six episodes, but the story is barely half over.
I just republished “The Wishing World” and “The Wishing World: Loremaster.” I have the third book in the series, “The Wishing World: Spheres of Magic” roughed out, and I just need to go through it and finalize it.
Also, over the last two years, I’ve been working like a madman on the multi-author, shared-world, mega-epic fantasy experience “Eldros Legacy.” I’ve written three volumes so far: “Khyven the Unkillable,” “Lorelle of the Dark” and “Rhenn the Traveler.” The fourth installment, “Slayter and the Dragon,” is already started, and I’ll probably get that done this year, too.
And, despite my insistence that “Summer of the Fetch” is a one-off, an idea popped into my head three days ago about a possible sequel to that story. Not only that, but…
…it might actually tie into my time-travel story, “Charlie Fiction,” as well. That would be a tall order, and so I’m not sure if this is just a half-baked idea doomed to failure or if it’s a winner. I’ll keep you posted.