In Medieval Arabic lit, the number 1001 was not always literal, but suggested a vast amount, or the Infinite. There is actually an academic debate about whether The Thousand and One Nights contained the literal amount of ‘Nights,’ that is sections of stories that Scheherazade told the King night after night. Given that the oldest known manuscript only contains 284 Nights, and then ends, suggests the actual form of the original might have been smaller. And it was European editors and translators, following up a Western craze for exotic tales, who padded manuscripts with all kinds of stories, just to satisfy our Western need for literal, complete consumerism: we must have all 1001!
In the above paragraph, there are three great reasons why I chose to embrace this magical number for a series of books about people recalling their incarnations. First, I loved the idea of a book where from chapter to chapter you got wildly differing styles of stories, as the memories passed from historical anecdotes to sci-fi encounters to romantic dalliances. I became thrilled when I realized that The Thousand and One Nights was the perfect model for such a sprawling form. In her desperate attempt to keep the King entertained and save her neck, she bounces from recounting a historical epic to a romantic fantasy to a fart joke. Everything and the harem sink. It was exactly this literary sprawl that pulled me toward 1001.
As I researched the Nights, I discovered a second reason to relish 1001. Because of the history and debate about the correct form of the Nights, and the fact that the original version has been lost for over 1000 years, no two editions of the work are the same. The choice of which stories to include, what order to put them in, and how many to include varies from scholar to translator. What other book is like that? What a unique concept for a literary endeavor. The more I read, the more fascinated I was with the history and substance of the Nights, and not just its form. Although, my 1001 is super-controlled and full of hidden structures that make only one version possible, I embraced the unique story of the Nights by using much of it as actual material for my characters’ lifetimes. They learn that they were behind the creation of the Nights is some fashion.
Ultimately, my main reason for delving into the number 1001 is because it does represent the Infinite. Whereas many fantasies lead the reader to a climax revealing a great secret involving immortality, The Reincarnation Chronicles starts with the assumption that the soul is immortal. It asks: “What if you knew you lived forever and could remember your past lives?” How would that effect your daily perceptions? How would it change your choices and values? And — would it drive you nuts? How we protect ourselves from the Infinite, and how we might face it, is the subject of 1001. The number means that for me.
But then why am I so fascinated with the Infinite? That will have to wait for another post…