Eddy Boudel Tan: Five Things I Learned Writing After Elias

When the airplane piloted by Elias Santos crashes one week before their wedding day, Coen Caraway loses the man he loves and the illusion of happiness he has worked so hard to create. The only thing Elias leaves behind is a recording of his final words, and even Coen is baffled by the cryptic message.

Numb with grief, he takes refuge on the Mexican island that was meant to host their wedding. But as fragments of the past come to the surface in the aftermath of the tragedy, Coen is forced to question everything he thought he knew about Elias and their life together. Beneath his flawed memory lies the truth about Elias—and himself.

From the damp concrete of Vancouver to the spoiled shores of Mexico, After Elias weaves the past with the present to tell a story of doubt, regret, and the fear of losing everything.

It isn’t easy being funny when everyone is grieving

My novel is about death. There’s more to it than that, of course, but death is its black heart. A pilot flies an airplane into the sea one week before his wedding day, and the story follows the fiancé as he tries to make sense of the aftermath. It’s tragic.

But this story isn’t entirely grim and gloomy. I decided early on that there would be an undercurrent of lightness—the tricky part was having this coexist with the novel’s darker themes without trivializing them. Some of the subject matter is serious, and it’s important to me to treat it with respect. Like life itself, this story has moments of joy and moments of pain, plus everything in between, and I want readers to feel the full range of these things.

My novel is not a dark comedy, but I do want readers to come up for air and laugh at times. I’m still not sure I pulled it off, but I’m encouraged by reviews that describe the humor as “hard-won” and “refreshing.” My favorite reviews are the ones from readers who found themselves laughing and crying at different points throughout the story. That’s the goal, really.

Mexico City stands on the ruins of an ancient Aztec capital

This story could only be set in Mexico. The Mexican people have such a deep reverence for death, and I’ve always admired the beautiful ways in which they honor those they’ve lost. These traditions, from both their Indigenous and colonial cultures, are prevalent throughout the novel. They lend meaning, sometimes in contradictory ways, to the protagonist’s journey as he struggles to make sense of his own tragedy.

Fragments of Aztec mythology and history make appearances, and I fell into a research rabbit hole learning about their fascinating beliefs and defeats. I discovered Tenochtitlan, the mighty island fortress that was once the Aztec capital in the middle of a valley lake. When Hernán Cortés and his Spanish conquistadors arrived with their weapons that shot thunder and foreign diseases, the Aztecs were overtaken and their city destroyed. The capital of New Spain was built on the ashes of Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City. The ruins of the pyramids can be seen today beside the crowded central square.

I took an impromptu trip to Mexico City when I was writing the novel, wanting to see and touch remnants of the Aztecs. These people live on through their genes and their heritage, and Mexico has been independent from Europe for nearly two centuries, but I can’t help but lament what could have been, had it not been for colonialism.

Point of view is key, but voice is a bolt cutter

The story is told through a first person point of view, primarily in the present tense. I knew it was a risky choice from the beginning. There are plenty of opinions out there against choosing such a foolhardy combination—it’s too intimate, too limiting, et cetera. I fought the decision for a while before realizing there was no other way to tell this story the way I wanted to tell it. I needed the intimacy, and I wanted to play off the limitations.

In the end, I learned that there is no right or wrong way. Some choices are safer than others, but do I aspire to be safe? Is that what I want my work to be known for? What’s most important is how it all comes together. That often involves a bit of magic, something hard to define, but one critical ingredient is voice. That’s what brings a story to life, arguably more so when it’s a first person point of view. People want to get lost in a story. Technical sins can be forgiven when the reader is captivated. I’ve loved plenty of books with generous heaps of head-hopping, telling (rather than showing), and all manner of things authors are told to avoid. I didn’t care or notice, because I was immersed, the characters felt real, and I bought it all.

Everything is subjective, of course. There are readers (not to mention editors and agents) who might judge a book more harshly based on its tense or point of view. A reader will either connect with the voice, or they won’t. But I learned to trust my instincts without overthinking them. I’d rather connect deeply with a smaller group of readers through a distinct voice than be considered safe enough by the masses.

Music is as close a friend as coffee

I become rather fixated when in the throes of writing a novel. I know the story won’t work unless I’m obsessed with it. Motivation to write isn’t usually a problem for me, but certain things help the words flow more freely. Music is one of these things.

I don’t usually listen to music while I’m writing—far too distracting!—but I curate a different soundtrack for the novels I write. These songs imprint themselves onto the DNA of the story, capturing its mood and atmosphere. I’ll listen to them before a writing session to help myself slip into the right mindset, or while I’m pondering the story’s intricate details or larger shape. There’s a symbiosis between music and literature that I find so valuable as a writer.

While I wrote my first novel, After Elias, I had two albums playing on repeat: Battle Born by The Killers, and Conscious by Broods. “Le lac” by Julien Doré and “Holy Ghost” by BØRNS are also songs that I associate closely with the story.

There’s no such thing as a British accent

One of the characters is a woman honeymooning alone on the Mexican island where the novel is set. She’s from London, and she spoke with a British accent until I realized that such an accent doesn’t exist. English-speaking North Americans, such as myself, tend to lump together all things British. There are so many different accents throughout Britain that even drawing distinctions between English, Scottish, and Welsh would be overly simplified, but at least it’s a start. Thus, my character now speaks with an English accent.

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Eddy Boudel Tan is the author of After Elias (Fall 2020) and The Rebellious Tide (Summer 2021). His work depicts a world much like our own—the heroes are flawed, truth is distorted, and there is as much hope as there is heartbreak. He’s currently writing his third novel at home in Vancouver.

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