My new novel, Sight Unseen, just hit the bookstores.
A bit of a miracle really. Two years ago, after ‘Ultra’ was published, I didn’t have a single idea for a follow-up book.
But then I got a phone call. From this woman, Rhonda-Marie Avery:
Rhonda-Marie had read Ultra and liked it. But that wasn’t why she was calling. She’d looked up my bio and discovered that I run ultra-marathons. And she was hoping I could help her out…
Have you heard of the Bruce Trail? It’s a 900-kilometer footpath from Tobermory to Niagara Falls. It runs along the lip of the Niagara Escarpment, which is essentially a 450-million year old coral reef. It’s incredibly rugged. Home to rattlesnakes, bears, wolves and 100-metre cliffs.
Perfect place for a blind woman, right?
Rhonda-Marie was born with a rare genetic eye disorder called Achromatopsia, which means she has no cones in her retina.
She has only 8% vision. And she decided to run the length of the Bruce Trail – all 900 kilometers of it – to show the world what blind athletes are capable of.
To help her out, she found 50 volunteers from the ultra-running community to ‘guide’ her. I was one of those 50. And it was a fascinating experience. For twelve straight hours, I ran 5 feet in front of Rhonda-Marie, and ‘narrated’ the trail for her. The guide runners had developed this whole language – to help Rhonda-Marie ‘see’ the trail in her mind.
This is what we sounded like:
“Rock right. Root left. Rock salad. Toe grabber right. Ankle-grabber. Okay, take three steps up! We’re running through some scalloped potatoes now, Watch out for the cheese grater to the right. Thread the needle! Dinosaur steps!”
The most important phrase of all was “death to the left!”
We were travelling north to south on the trail, so the life-ending cliffs were always to our left.
Anyway, after 20 days of straight running, and 30,000 feet of elevation gain (basically the equivalent of Mount Everest), Rhonda-Marie reached the end of the trail.
She ran 900 kilometers on one of the world’s gnarliest trails – with only 8% vision!
I was so inspired by this!
But here’s the thing… I shouldn’t have been.
For the past 21 years I’ve been close friends…best friends… with this guy. His name is Kai Black. He’s an executive producer at CBC Radio. He and I created three national radio shows together.
Back when Kai was 15, he was diagnosed with a rare eye condition called Stargardt disease. By the time he turned 18, he’d lost virtually all of his central vision.
Kai is one of the most heroic and inspiring guys I’ve ever known. If you met him on the street, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual about him. Stargardt disease affects the central vision, but it leaves the peripheral vision intact. That means Kai has full mobility, doesn’t use a cane, gets around with little trouble, and sometimes even rides a bike. My brother and I have gone downhill skiing with Kai – zigzagging down black diamond runs at Whistler. My brother simply wore a brightly-coloured ski jacket, which was easy for Kai to see against the snow.
Kai and I have run races together too. This picture was taken moments after we crossed the finish line at the Boston marathon a few years back.
Anyway, I don’t know when it clicked. When I suddenly realized that I had a great idea for a second novel staring me in the face!
Finally I blurted out what I’d been thinking. I told Kai that I had an idea for a new book… And that it was inspired by…uh…him.
“It’s about a kid who gets diagnosed with Stargardt disease,” I told him. “And he’s worried about the future, and he keeps riding his bike even though it’s dangerous, because his bike is his life, and he can’t bear to give it up, because that bike represents his independence.”
Kai thought about it for a minute, and then he nodded and said, “Okay… But it sounds kinda boring. You’ll need some other plot devices to ratchet up the tension.”
So I went looking for a second bit of inspiration.
Do you remember this book? ‘Oranges and UFO’s’ by Muriel Leeson? I bought it out of the Scholastic catalogue in 1975. It’s about a group of kids who get abducted by aliens, and go off to Mars where they have crazy adventures. But here’s the thing: when the kids are on Mars, time stands still! They stay there for months, and when they finally come home, their parents don’t even know they’ve been away.
I loved that! So I merged that idea with my earlier idea – about the kid with the visual impairment. Now I had a main character who was losing his eyesight – only, I had him discover a magical place where time stands still.
I was so excited about this idea. I mentioned it to my editor, Sandy Bogart Johnston. Sandy got quiet for a moment. And then she said, “Are you absolutely sure you want to write magic?”
It turns out writing magic isn’t easy. It’s like building a condo tower. You need architectural drawings, a solid foundation, lots of rebar that nobody ever sees but that holds everything together… Once you’ve got all that in place, then you can wave your magic wand and start having fun… But not before.
Lesson learned. We eventually got the time travel stuff figured out. And by we, I really mean my editor, Sandy.
And there’s the book! It’s in bookstores – and available online – now.
Of course, I never could’ve done it without my guides. Many thanks to Kai Black, Rhonda-Marie Avery, and especially my editor, Sandy Bogart Johnston.