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Story Behind the Story #65:
School of the Dead

Great ExpectationsThere is a story about the great English writer Charles Dickens that I’ve always cherished. At the time, he was editing his literary magazine, Household Words, which had as a staple a serialized novel. It appears that the current novel was not working, and the magazine was losing readership. In haste, Dickens stepped in, and wrote Great Expectations, one of his best books. (It’s also a favorite of mine—so I came to know how it was written.) That Dickens wrote this fine novel for business reasons—i.e., money—while thoroughly unromantic, says something about the writing business. One is reminded of that remark by Samuel Johnson, that, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

I suspect the reading public would like to think writers are primarily motivated by a love of writing, the need to express something that is burning in their hearts and souls. No doubt this is true, and perhaps often is true. Long live it. Yet, as per Samuel Johnson, writers who support themselves by writing are often pinched for cash, and when pinched hard enough, will write. And, let it be noted, as in the case of Great Expectations, the result can be very fine indeed. It may also be suggested that when writing under duress, the writing can be sharper, tighter … better.

School of the DeadNow I am not trying to suggest that I am in the same league with Dickens, or that what I did is in any way comparable to Great Expectations. I can say I (like him) found myself in dire financial straits, and needed to do something about it: What I did was write School of the Dead.

I was able to think up the story because a year before I had visited a private school in San Francisco. An all-girls’ school—it had been established in an elegant private mansion by a 19th Century woman who believed in education for girls. She gave her home for a school. The school building therefore is quite quirky, keeping as it does, many elements of the old mansion. I was given a tour of the school and recall thinking, this would be a good setting for a ghost story.

School of the Dead is not about that school I visited. It is about the idea that the school suggested to me.

That said, I have always enjoyed writing ghost stories. (Something Upstairs, Seer of Shadows) As I have written elsewhere, “I do not believe in ghosts, but I believe in ghost stories.”

When I write this way, the great pleasure is exploring, and exploiting the possibilities of the unfolding tale—I am telling myself the story, discovering my way. It is as Robert Frost once suggested, “No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader.”

There are lots of surprises in School of the Dead. Ghostly ones.

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