Friday, December 2, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: In Praise of Not Knowing

Our guest this week is Erin Van Rheenen, who lived in Costa Rica and has been traveling the country for well over a decade. She's been writing about it for almost as long, but up until now has never distilled what she's seen into fiction. Erin is the author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica and of the new iPhone app (and related web site), Costa Rica Trip Ideas.

Years back,while traveling in Costa Rica, I saw a small island just off the southern coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. It was rainy season, so the island was a tangle of green rising up from the blue sea. The sky was a sampler of all the shades of gray, from mourning dove to thundercloud.

A whitewashed archway marked where the island’s beach gave way to the green interior. Three or four people were making their way out there from the mainland. It looked as if they were walking on water.

What an image, I thought. What a setting for something odd and beautiful and inexplicable.

At the time I had no plans to write a mystery.

It took years for the book to take shape in my mind. All the while, the island stayed with me, insinuating itself into the very heart of the story.

Little by little I learned more. It was the only island in Costa Rica still used as a cemetery. A rock bridge emerged at low tide, allowing access. There were rumors of it having been a pre-Columbian burial site.

I had so many questions. How narrow was the window of opportunity to get out and back? What if you got stranded—would you have to hunker down amid the headstones until the tide turned? I wondered how the locals celebrated funerals, and whether or not resident foreigners were interred on the island alongside the locals. I wondered, especially, how such a beautiful place had escaped the fate of other covetable pieces of land in a country that often seems to go to the highest bidder.

The fact that the place was sometimes an island and sometimes not spoke to me of isolation and influence, of the complicated fate of an out-of-the-way nation that has become in some ways a victim of its own success. Costa Rica has worked hard to make foreigners fall in love with its land and people. Now it’s dealing with the fallout of that love.

This November, I decided to make a serious bid for a first draft of my book. And what better place to work than at ground zero, so to speak: in a rented house with a view of the cemetery island?

Upon arrival I got down to the business of churning out my 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo, the annual event where writers spend the month of November completing a large chunk of their books. And of course I wanted to know more about the island. Boy, did I get an earful.

For this writer, too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. For a setting, a character, or a theme to keep my interest piqued and my imagination firing, I need to know something about it…but not too much.

Toni Morrison said that all of her novels begin with a question. For Beloved, one of my favorites of her books, the question was, "What would cause a mother to kill her own child?” The quick answer, in this case, was "To save him or her from being enslaved," but there are worlds within that answer to be explored, which is what Morrison did to such haunting effect in her novel.

She kept the question fresh so that it would be a constant source of speculation and inspiration. She walked the thin line between finding answers and knowing that some things can never be fully explained.

So close to the initial source of my inspiration, I was having trouble walking that line. As the cemetery island loomed larger and larger, my own story was in danger of being swallowed by the incoming tide.

In fact, the island more than doubles in size at low tide, as rocks emerge and extend like dragon’s teeth in all directions. Many boats have wrecked here, not to mention the fleet of plastic bottles and other flotsam that wash in daily.

With just a thin layer of sand and dirt, many of the island’s graves are above ground, in rectangles of cement covered with what looks like bathroom tile or with patterns of seashells pressed into the wet cement. There are bright and dusty plastic flowers on graves, and buzzards flap heavily from tree to tree, as if carrying corpses on their wings.

I learn about small-town Costa Rican funerals. Embalming is expensive and it’s not the custom here, despite the heat. A wake is often held at the town’s thatch-roofed open air bar. The funeral party proceeds to do what its name suggests—party—taking time out between beers to peer into the little window on the lid of the coffin to see how their buddy is doing. Not too well, given that he or she is suffering the fate of all meat in the tropics. But the deceased are dressed to the nines, in clothes they probably wouldn’t have worn when alive.

The mourners carry the coffin over at low tide. If it’s dark they’ll carry candles, and whatever the time of day there are flowers: deep-red wild ginger, bird of paradise, fleshy bromeliads.

And yes, foreigners are buried here. Most are interred in their own separate section—segregated in death as they were in life. The foreigners’ gravestones are more individualistic and less religious. One man who loved his dirt bike has a tire tread in the cement of his grave. A pilot’s grave is marked by a propeller and a huge fist, which he made as a young man in art school. The fist is grasping something; I later learn that it is the wind. The pilot lived hard, so for a time, I guess he did catch a bit of wind. Now fellow hard-living expats go out to the island to snort cocaine off the fist.

What keeps me going with my story is to remember the living, breathing questions that prompted the book in the first place. What happens to an island that, although steeped in death, is also a living example of Costa Ricans keeping control of their own history, of their past, of the line back though grandmother and grandfather to the country’s roots? How does a country walk the line between being isolated and being so open it invites cultural and financial invasion? How does a place under a sort of touristic siege hold on to its soul?


  1. Marvelous ideas and questions, Erin. You've given us so much to think about and wonder in our own stories. And I grapple all the time with the same issue you discuss here: too much information or not enough. It's hard to find that delicate line where you have what you need to write your story before you get so enveloped in the incredible rich research and lose sight of your real goal, understanding your plot and your characters. The good thing is once you have those down, you also understand and can feel your themes the way the novel requires. It's all good. Thank you so much for sharing this unique setting with us ... I feel like I'm there.

    Did you complete your NaNoWriMo draft this week? How are you feeling here, on December 2? Tired? Invigorated? Anxious? And what next? Stick around the island as you revise or put in some geographic and psychic distance? Do tell.

  2. hello Supriya,
    ¡thank you so much for your comments. And yes, I did manage to write more than 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo, though what I have is by no means a full draft. I´m leaving the island behind, am in the capital city of San Jose, and will soon return to San Francisco, where I´ll have plenty of distance from my subject. Now if I can just not get too distracted by the habits of butterflies and howler monkeys and kinkajous (natural history is important in the novel, too).

  3. Thanks for sharing this vivid post with us, Erin. You have made this island come alive for me. All these questions and local history will make for a wonderfully layered novel when you're finished. I can't wait to read it! How do you plan on keeping it all fresh in your mind when you are working on the book far away from the setting? Do you have notes of all the stories and photos to bring back the feel of the place?

  4. Heidi, Thanks so much for your comment and for including me on this excellent blog. As for how I plan to keep the setting fresh while I continue to work on the novel: I have hundreds, if not thousands, of photos, and I took pretty copious notes. If I could have bottled the smells and tastes, I'd be set. But actually, I'm glad I'll have some distance on the place--that'll give me more room for invention.

  5. Wow Erin. What a rich and engaging piece. It carried me right back to Costa Rica but more than that, opened up such interesting and complex issues and questions that a writer faces. Thank you for including me in your process.

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