No stranger to fiction, but new to novel writing, local author Nathan Ballingrud‘s debut, The Strange, is about a lonely teenage girl living on Mars. The cast also includes ghosts, as well as robots which may or may not be gaining sentience. Oh, and the story takes place in 1931 — so its characters travel both in spaceships and on mule-drawn wagons.
Simply put, The Strange, published in March, covers a lot of territory.
Given his book’s broad range of influences, Ballingrud says it’s been called sci-fi, fantasy, a Western and horror by readers, reviewers and booksellers. Meanwhile, his publisher, Saga Press, promotes it as sci-fi, historical fiction and action.
The author disagrees with these categorizations. “What it really is is a coming-of-age story,” Ballingrud explains, acknowledging that much fiction, including this novel, “spills over across genres.”
The Strange’s protagonist, 14-year-old Annabelle Crisp, lives in the city of New Galveston on Mars, a colonized space frontier. Annabelle’s mother returned to Earth a year earlier, before all contact with their home planet ruptured during an event called the Silence. Complicating matters, Annabelle’s father is being held in a Martian jail after a skirmish at his business goes terribly wrong. The novel’s tension hinges on Annabelle’s quest to reunite her family while wrapping her head around the strange goings-on of her adopted planet.
Due to the robots and ghosts and the whole being-on-Mars thing, it’s not that simple a task.
The writing process
Before the novel’s release, Ballingrud was known within the literary community as a short-story writer. His previous works, 2013’s award-winning North American Lake Monsters: Stories and 2019’s Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell, explore dark and supernatural themes.
With his debut novel, which comes in at 303 pages, the author says he had more space to lean into character development. “Short stories tend to be focused on a particular moment, or a particular emotional kind of boiling point,” he explains. With a novel, he continues, there is a longer character arc. “You get to see how their perspective might shift and change, how they react to several scenarios.”
The idea for The Strange began percolating six years ago. “I’m a slow writer,” Ballingrud says, noting that in addition to being an author, he works at Downtown Books & News as well as Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. “Ideas gestate a long time before I start to actually work on them.”
Early in the process, he conceptualized the story as a podcast. Influenced by Garrison Keillor’s “The News from Lake Wobegon,” Ballingrud envisioned the series featuring several characters narrating the tale. But he had never produced a podcast and soon realized he had a single lead character — Annabelle — whom he could zero in on.
What made Ballingrud, a grown man, think he could get into a teenage girl’s mind?
“It’s a fair question,” the author answers. “I’ve asked myself that sometimes, too.”
Ballingrud notes that his daughter, Mia, was around the age of his book’s protagonist when he began developing the story’s concept, offering him a “front-row seat” to the teenage experience. Among other things, he also began contemplating what Mia’s life would be like if he were suddenly out of the picture and unable to help her navigate an ever-changing world.
However, he continues, Annabelle’s gender almost seems incidental to the plot, save for sexist remarks from some men in the book who bristle at a teenage girl refusing to stay in her ascribed place. “The real answer is that there are certain foundational experiences that are as true for men as they are for women,” Ballingrud says.
“What [Annabelle] was experiencing wasn’t so much specific to the fact that she was a young girl — it was specific to [the fact] she was a young person in a scary situation with her parents unavailable to her,” Ballingrud adds. “And I was like, ‘Well, I can draw that.’”
‘A world of imagination’
Ballingrud says that Timothy Egan’s 2006 book, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, informed his novel’s environmental bleakness. He also loves the work of sci-fi authors Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who have both written stories set on Mars.
“That all kind of cooked in a cauldron, and this came out,” he says of The Strange.
Any additional research into the physics and practicalities of life on Mars was minimal, the author reveals. “I hate doing it,” he says of the research process.
“They’re calling it science fiction,” he continues, referring to his publishers’ marketing. “But there’s no science in there at all. It’s a world of imagination. I made up whatever I needed.”
As an author, Ballingrud believes paying too much attention to realism could stymie his creative effort.
“I give myself permission, when I go into a story like this, to not pay any attention to the real world at all,” he explains. “As long as the logic is internal, as long as everything makes sense within the boundaries of the story, that’s all I care about.”