Some fans of my earlier works have written to ask why I decided to write the book, and why I decided to title it Ashes of the Sky. These are my favorite questions to answer.
I wanted to tell the poignant and inspirational story of Cenizas del Cielo, because, though it is a work of fiction, it unfolds in a world that indeed does exist, or at least did exist during my own time there some thirty five years ago. There’s simply nothing like the splendid topography of the glorious region, with its bizarrely-shaped, jungle-carpeted mountain ranges. And, when I merely briefly passed through it, the area I describe in the book did engulf its real inhabitants in oppressive natural hardship.
So, like a real tour through the region, the book includes full truths in the descriptions I’ve offered of it, up to the point of the bus crash. This setting makes the story a particularly personal one for me. I could feel the stifling sense of hopelessness pulsing from the people there, and my anxiety about how my own visit could take too sharp a turn on those seemingly endless mountain miles of tight curves and narrow, wet, failing gradient, just as the characters in the book did encounter.
Further, I’ve been fortunate to remain fascinated with the unforgettable opportunity I had through my youth to live near enough to the lowest end of the economic spectrum. It has afforded me, I think, the especially rich perspective on daily life at that level, that is not otherwise possible to fully acquire.
And, I’ve most enjoyed writing characters who remind me of people who’ve made deep impressions on me, for better or worse. I’m especially literarily motivated by those who’ve most surprised me with great bravery or compassion, or powers of intellect that I’m aware they exhibited at some point when met with kinds of challenges that draw up such often-latent qualities.
Cenizas del Cielo is filled with such characters—especially the central characters, Nan, Sasha, Boris, and Carlos—reminiscent of kinds, and combinations of kinds, of people I’ve known in my own life. And, I suppose that my youth lived under the magnificent skyline of Antigua, with its three staggering green cones ominously looming overhead, never fade from memory.
On the contrary, there’s an odd and permanent sense of pressure that one perhaps carries for life, from knowing that even now, thousands of miles away, the people in my little hometown occupy the very space from which the former entire population fled enmass for safer ground. (Those migrants, of course, developed the eventually teeming, smog-choked metropolis of Guatemala City in a vast valley just beyond the range of the most extreme and immediate danger.
But, certainly, one can imagine that the sense of impending danger they had previously lived with made a lasting impression on them.) I think this is my syndrome as well. It’s clear enough to me that my sense of connection to people who are oppressed in non-obvious ways by their natural environment, in addition to their being challenged more directly by it in their daily efforts to survive, has informed and motivated much of my story-development work over the years. That is, again in this book, the case of the jungle-dwelling expats of Cenizas del Cielo—people mentally defeated by nature in the never-sunlit but ever-sweltering crevasse, finally forced by it to uproot, only to be then confronted by a another overwhelming adversary—modernity.
So, it would be too difficult for me to imagine another people or place that I would more love to involve in a story about anything, and especially in a story about the struggle between people, and between themselves and the natural world surrounding them. The scenarios that interest me most are those in which characters are engaged in the most fundamental and consumptive way, physically, psychologically, and philosophically, though not always in that order.
So, to pull my Antiguan experience together with my very brief passing through northern Guatemalan mud villages and current utterly primitive cave-dwelling hordes, it made sense to me that the characters in Cienza del Cielo would have the same anxieties about their experience of launching themselves into the jungle that my adolescent friends and I had when we dared our first grand adventure up one of the volcanic cone in the sky above us. And, the unlikely hero in the book reminds me much of a similar one I recall among our own young group of self-glorified overnight-trekkers.
As to why I wanted to write a story about those characters, stranded and among a remote cluster of civilly devolving humans, my answer is merely that it just seems to me not to be at all an unlikely scenario for someone like me to find myself in. After, once passing through that very area, not knowing at all what to expect, and being shocked to find myself in the midst of a human population truly forced to live a subhuman existence, it has ever since seemed that anything might have been possible there, and certainly in the depths of the jungle beyond. This is all notwithstanding the fact that the people that I encountered there, which were many, seemed gentle, innocent, polite, and earnest.
But, the story of Cenizas del Cielo is rooted in the reality that everywhere there are good as well as dangerous people, and the two traits may merge in a single mind, depending upon conditions. As both good and bad are naturally necessary to define and distinguish one from the other in the world, it follows that such should be the case among the people of the primitive Guatemalan border settlements. And, we can only speculate about what matters may be like some miles farther back in the jungle, where rules may not exist as they must do along the main road. Out there, normally no one ventures, except perhaps the most reclusive and independently bent groups (who may be, as are the expats in the book, unprepared in any sense for the lifestyle they seek)—and the random lost traveler.