I wrote The Thin Line over the space of a week, while in the middle of Promises to Keep. I wrote it immediately after a long weekend of visiting family, during which I was unable to do any writing at all, so I had some internal pressure built up when I returned home and was able to concentrate again.
The igniting spark for The Thin Line was a scene from Promises to Keep: Alex, during a quarrel, tells Anna about the episode in Emily’s kitchen. Like many of the emotionally fraught scenes in my books, I wrote it with no foreknowledge or planning, and it surprised me. It was my first intimation that Alexander Smith was a naturally, rather than circumstantially, violent person, and it confused me. I needed to figure out how that incident had happened.
I also, by that point in The Settlement trilogy, thought it would be interesting to observe one of my settlers living modern life: driving a car, taking a vacation, ordering takeout. I have, for many years, enjoying watching people while on vacation, and I had always thought that resorts, with their ignorant familiarity of other guests, idle observation, and whipped-up sexuality would make for good writing. And so I started The Thin Line at a resort.
The nicest resort I have stayed at is the Ritz-Carlton Saint Thomas. I wanted to send Alex and Emily to another Ritz, somewhere warm and sunny, and somewhere accessible from their native Glasgow. In the end I chose the Ritz-Carlton Penha Longa as their vacation spot. I looked over the website’s photographs, and wrote the beginning of the novella with them in mind. They must drive to the beach; they share a cigarette in that mosaic-covered courtyard; Alex works out in that gym overlooking the pool.
I had a rough outline of Alex’s life from the latter chapters of Dark and Deep. Much of the novella draws from these. I had other ideas about him, too, which I wanted to explore. Here are some small details you might have picked up on:
1. He likes the American aesthetic. He listens to flat-picked guitar music in Emily’s convertible. He listens to the end of a Western while he whittles. Something I have never come out and said is that he favors belts with large, Western-style buckles; also cowboy-style checked shirts, while in the Old World.
2. He is a hopeless romantic. Cora fed him a steady diet of adventure stories as a child, and they shaped him as an adult. He comes to the New World with a lot of silly ideas about adventure and being a hero. Cora is largely responsible. By the way, the first hint I inserted as to the story’s timeline is in his list of authors that Cora gave to him. He lists Rowling. To have read her as a child, and to have been 35 by the epilogue of the novella, it is not impossible–but likely–that the story is set in the future. Cora wouldn’t have been feeding him first editions of brand-new things, you know?
3. He is an oddball. The reader sees him smoking cigarettes and playing with his phone, and takes this as something normal… until Futurama sets in. At that point, the cigarettes and smartphone are painted as something eccentric. He is 2054’s equivalent of a Portland hipster with anchor tattoos and a waxed moustache, chipping rock sugar off a cone in order to mix an artisanal cocktail. He is weird. A bonafide square peg, as Anna would say.
Other than these observations, all I have to say about The Thin Line is that, in my opinion, it is my finest piece of storytelling to date. I don’t know if this is because of its small scale, its third-person narration, or sheer inspiration. In any case, I do recommend it, if you can appreciate a nearly-contemporary psychological study. It’s the only work of my own that I still enjoy re-reading. Try it.