The Same Place But Different

I got the idea for The Same Place But Different while I was reading a book called Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katherine Briggs, a British folklore expert. The book is just what the title says—an alphabetical listing of all the many different kinds of magical beings that exist in the folklore of the British Isles. I found all these creatures fascinating, especially because so many of them were so upsetting and dangerous–nothing at all like the cute and harmless little fairies you get to see on icky-poo birthday cards and in sentimental Disney movies. And I began to wonder about what would happen if, instead of existing just safely between the covers of a book or safely in the past of a country across an ocean and on another continent, they suddenly started appearing right now, right here–in my own neighbourhood.

As soon as I started imagining these creatures walking by my own house or showing up in my own living room, I began to hear Johnny Nesbit’s voice in my head. It was as if I couldn’t think of something so horrible (because they really are horrible, those Strangers) without imagining somebody brave enough to be able to cope with the horror and make it less frightening.

Someone once asked me if any of the things that happen to Johnny Nesbit have ever happened to me–if I’ve ever really met any Strangers or other weird creatures. I’m glad to say that the answer is no. I am a coward. A big coward. Mosquitoes terrify me, and even the occasional robin or sparrow. If a Cowalker or a Sky Yelper ever came anywhere near me, I’d probably just shrivel up and die, right on the spot. If one of my own brothers had ever got replaced by a changeling when they were babies, I’d have a changeling for a brother still today. Come to think of it, maybe I do. They are kind of weird, those guys. I guess I’ll have to try that boiling-water-in-an-eggshell thing on them.

And the thing is, it was the horror of all the creatures that fascinated me. I wanted to describe them in all their glorious horror, horribly invading my own space and being very, very frightening while they were doing it. And once I heard Johnny talking in his calm, certain way, I knew I could do it, and do it fairly safely. If he could take it, so could I.

In fact, that’s what I myself like best about the book: the contrast between the horror of the Strangers and Johnny’s cool refusal to be upset by them. They’re so fantastical and old-fashioned and weird, and he’s so down-to-earth and contemporary and, well, weird, too, I guess, but in a completely different way. Two weirdnesses at war with each other–I love it.

The fact that the story takes place in my own neighbourhood here in Winnipeg is also important to me. Winnipeg’s not the kind of place that seems exotic or even very interesting to a lot of the people who live here. For them, it’s a flat boring city in the middle of a flat, boring prairie, far away from where they imagine that the real action is happening: New York, maybe, or even Toronto. But they’re wrong: it is exotic and interesting. Anywhere and everywhere can be interesting and seem exotic; it all depends on how you look at it. And what seems boring to any of us because it’s the place we’ve always known might well seem strangely and delightfully exotic to someone from somewhere else. Recently, a friend from Australia came to visit me in Winnipeg and stood in the middle of a very flat and very empty field just outside of town and said,”I can’t believe it! I’m actually standing on the Canadian plains! It’s like being in a movie!”

One reason people in Winnipeg see their place as boring is that so few of the stories in novels or movies or TV shows ever take place here. For Winnipeggers, then, adventure and excitement are things that happen somewhere else: in New York or L.A. or outer space, or even in Toronto; anywhere but here. I wanted to show Winnipeggers and others that it could happen here too; that this, too, might be a different sort of place.

In order to do that, I had to describe the place accurately, make it recognizably the same old place we Winnipeggers know and love so that the outrageously different things happening in the book would seem really different. So it’s the same place, but different: get it? The park, Churchill High, the sewer outlet in the riverbank under the pumphouse, Safeway, Sev, all these places really do exist in the real Winnipeg, just as the appear in the book. So does the University of Winnipeg. I myself am a professor there, just like Mr. Rhymer, and Mr. Rhymer’s office is in the same hallway as my own office. You can come to my neighbourhood, Riverview, and follow the routes Johnny took and go to the same place he went to. I can’t promise you’ll see Strangers there, but who knows, right?

Johnny Nesbit’s Neighbourhood