Making Sense of the Inexplicable: The Events that Inspired Chasing the Sun

32-p1For everything we know, there’s a lot more about it we don’t know.

From my own family history, I knew this much: when I was a child still living in my birthplace of Lima, Peru, my grandfather was kidnapped for ransom. I knew my father was the one tasked with waiting by the phone for the kidnappers to call, in hopes of negotiating with them. I knew my grandfather was released only after sixty long, unimaginable days.

What I didn’t know growing up is what this experience did to him. What his days and nights were like. How all that never knowing—both for my grandfather, who waited for his rescue, and my family, who waited for his safe return—changes a person. How such an invasive act can tear a family apart and hopefully bring them back together.

I knew nothing of this, but I often wondered. And it’s not that my family refused to talk about it; I just got the feeling it was better left in the past. Maybe it was too painful, too pointless. What good would it do to try and make sense of the inexplicable?

But when I started writing fiction in college, I realized that stories are a way to explore truths, especially when life can’t give us all the facts. My senior year, I decided to write about a family affected by a kidnapping: first, there was a child, learning about her mother’s capture. Then, there was a woman, caught in the dark in fear. Finally, I got to the husband, and I discovered my characters had been keeping a secret from me: they were having serious marital problems. The question of how far Andres would go to save Marabela became far more complex than I’d imagined.

I wrote and wrote and turned those linked short stories into a novella, and then I abandoned it for nearly five years. I told myself I wasn’t ready to tell the story yet. I was convinced I hadn’t lived enough, didn’t know enough about the complexities of marriage and parenthood and trauma.

It wasn’t until 2011 that I came back to this story. This time, I started with intense research on kidnappings for ransom, and the years of terror that swept through Peru in the late 80s and early 90s. I flipped through old family pictures in hopes of rekindling my memories, and wrote parts of the new draft completely blindfolded. I asked my family about the kidnapping, and learned about the moment my father found out his dad had been taken, about the day he was finally rescued several weeks later, about the way my mother remembered seeing my grandfather upon his return, thinner than she’d ever seen him in her life.

As I neared the end of the new draft, I had a chance to go back to Peru and experience my birthplace from a completely new perspective. I got to hear my grandfather describe his side of the story and how he’d finally made peace with it.

What I’ve realized only as I write this is that I abandoned the story because I was afraid to ask more questions. And eventually, that sense of safety I got from not knowing the answers grew into a void I couldn’t ignore. People say write what you know, but there are times when we have to leap into what we don’t know to tell a story.

That gap, that space between the known and the unknown where we often search for answers, is what inspired Chasing the Sun.

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Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at nataliasylvester.com

24 thoughts on “Making Sense of the Inexplicable: The Events that Inspired Chasing the Sun

  1. Wow, Natalia! I can’t even IMAGINE going through this. I’m really really looking forward to reading your novel.

    And I couldn’t agree more about writing what you DON’T know. That’s how my novel began…

    • Thanks, Heather. I don’t remember any of it so I relied on the recollections of family members…I’m in awe of their bravery through it all.

      I can’t wait to hear more about the inspiration behind your book!

    • The first time I tried it, it was because I wanted to place myself in a character’s shoes, but over time I ended up writing blindfolded because of how liberating it was for the creative process. Let me know if you ever try it!

    • Thanks, Amy. One of my creative writing mentors in college (my advisor during the first, first, first stages of this book) used to say “If you’re gonna go there, go there.” It’s not always easy but it’s so necessary.

    • Thanks so much, Lori! I’m excited to read all the Debs’ books this year…they all sound amazing.

  2. This is a beautiful post, and I have a feeling it’s a beautiful book, too. I couldn’t agree more with your message. I think delving into the unknown is the only way to learn about it. Good for you for doing so.

    • You’re so right—it’s scary but it’s worth it to learn something about the unknown, whether it be about ourselves, our family, or the world. Thanks so much for coming by here, Annie, and for your very kind words! They nourish my writer’s soul.

  3. Love the part about being too afraid to ask the questions. So well said! I was on the edge of my seat reading this and I already know what your novel is about. LOL. Excellent debut debutante post!

  4. There’s a right time to tell each story. Write it too soon, and it can be just gut reactions — not yet turned into art. Wait too long, and you can’t remember what it felt like (this is why I don’t write high school romance anymore 🙂 ). If it’s not he right time, put it away and wait. The work is never wasted.

    • So true. I was just reading a post the other day by a writer who compared this process to these beautiful, rusty gates she’d photographed. She said the rust took time, and sometimes these imperfections are worth the wait.

  5. I CANNOT wait to read Chasing the Sun. The fact that a ransom/abduction happened to your FAMILY is unimaginable. I can fully understand why you were hesitant to ask more; I find myself struggling with the same issues about a future story that would involve probing through some tough questions with my father – ones that I fear might hurt him even more. But, like you, I know I can supplement “his” story with research and my imagination and the emotional core of the story that already lives in my heart. Thanks for sharing this insight into your debut. So excited to see you here (and love the new look of the site).

    • Thank you, Melissa, I’m so excited to be here! I hope you’re able to ask the necessary questions and find the truths essential to your story, whether it’s by going directly to the source, researching, or a combination. It’s such a difficult but enlightening process, especially when we dig into our own family’s past, but hopefully it helps us understand each other in new ways.

    • Thank you so much, Susan! One of my favorite things about writing this book was getting to speak about the kidnapping with my aunts and uncles; I learned so many new, amazing things about them.

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