Forty Acres started out as a science fiction story. A time travel story to be exact.An African American astronaut gets caught in some sort of space time anomaly. Crash lands on earth and finds himself in the antebellum south. Borrowing from one of my all time favorite sci-fi films, Planet of the Apes, the astronaut has an injury that prevents him from speaking. He’s captured by slavers and thrown onto a plantation where he gets to experience what his ancestors endured first hand. All the while he’s trying to find a way to get back to the future, of course.
I loved this story. The problem was none of the people who work to sell my fantasies to Hollywood loved it. They told me it was an uncomfortable mix of the serious and the fantastic. I agreed with them, but I still loved the idea of writing something commercial that involved American Slavery. So, I went back to the drawing board.
The second version of Forty Acres, although it wasn’t called Forty Acres at the time, involved the idea that slavery was still going strong, but in secret. Blacks, along with other minorities, and poor people, were being snatched from mall parking lots and thrown into forced labor. But in 2014 slaves don’t pick cotton, they work an assembly line in secret underground factories, at gunpoint.
I loved this version too. I felt strongly that I could make this story feel absolutely real. Like I was writing from true life and not from a dark corner of my mind. But when I began to work out the plot something interesting happened. I was struck with the idea for an alternate version of the story that set off fireworks in my head. Suddenly I had a new approach to my American slavery story that, while original, somehow seemed obvious. Like the story should already exist, but for some reason no one had gotten around to writing it yet.
Personally I don’t feel that revealing the inspiration behind the final version of Forty Acres is a spoiler, but a lot of readers disagree. I’ll respect that and remain vague for this piece, but to be clear, it is not my intention to tease and intrigue you. Well, maybe a little.
As excited as I was, I still bounced the idea off of a few trusted friends who regularly suffer through my endless inspirations. Usually, some get it, and others don’t. I usually know what to expect from my human sounding boards, which helps me decide which notes to listen to and which to ignore. In this case the reaction was unanimous. Wows, and double takes, and lots of encouragement to quit wasting time and start writing.
Pinning down the idea is just the beginning of how I came to write Forty Acres. Because I’m a screenwriter, all this effort was for the purpose of writing a movie, not a novel. I received a lot of push back from my movie people. They liked the latest version of Forty Acres but they still didn’t think it would sell as a movie. Usually I would move on to the next project, but I was so passionate about telling my slavery story, that I decided to leap out of my screenwriting comfort zone and write a novel.
How Forty Acres will be received is still an unknown but I feel extraordinarily fortunate that my first novel has been published and will reach readers.
Maybe I’ll write the sci-fi version as a sequel.
FORTY ACRES by Dwayne Alexander Smith is out now, £16.99 (Faber & Faber)