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Every school child in Seattle knows of the Great Fire of 1889, and one of the most popular field trips for elementary students is the Seattle Underground Tour. When the fire destroyed most of Seattle’s business area, the city decided it was easier to rebuild the city on top of the ashes and remaining structures than to raze them. And so the new city was built at the old first story level, which meant the original first story of the city was below ground. Streets were raised 22 feet in some places. To cross the street meant taking a ladder or stairs up to the street level, crossing the street, and then climbing a ladder or stairs down to the storefronts below ground on the other side. The rumor is that every now and then someone would fall, or a horse or wagon would plunge off the road, and so these drops were covered, and eventually, these underground floors were closed off and forgotten. Now, old Seattle is a dank basement of storefronts, empty spaces and dust, a curiosity for school tours, tourists and ghosthunters.
But I have always been fascinated by Seattle’s underground, and by the fire that caused it. When my children were in elementary school, I went on those field trips as a parent volunteer at least three times, and each time my curiosity grew. I knew I had to write a story about the fire and its aftermath, especially when I discovered that the area burned contained most of the boardinghouses and hotels that were the residences of the working class—and not just the working class, but those dedicated to the business of “sin” and entertainment: actors, saloon owners, dancehall owners, and prostitutes. Their homes were gone, along with everything they owned. Banks were burned to the ground. Money turned to ash. Wharves were destroyed. Train tracks twisted beyond recognition. So what happened to these people who had nothing and nowhere to go? The question haunted me, even more so when I read that relief operations provided temporary shelter for men—but there was no mention of women at all.
So what happened to the women? To the whores and dancehall girls and actresses? This was the question that spurred the story of City of Ash.
At about the same time I was contemplating the Seattle fire, I was also watching Lost (my favorite TV show EVER) and the story had taken a sudden turn, where two men who had been enemies were suddenly dependent upon each other, and the words bloody alliance came into my head and wouldn’t go away. That was the inception of Ginny and Bea. I knew I needed two women in my story, and I knew I wanted them to dislike each other and to be thrown together in that “bloody alliance.” I knew that for the tale to work, they needed each to be the key to a different future for the other—one that had seemed impossible until they met.
I am endlessly interested in the contradiction between who we are and who we think we are, and that was the theme I wanted to explore in City of Ash. And the tangled plot was some of the most writing fun I’ve ever had–since the book was set in the theater during the height of the melodrama craze, I liked the idea of coming up with a story that was nearly as melodramatic and impossible as the melodramas the characters were acting in.
- Megan Chance
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