When I began drafting Big Inca versus a New Pony Express Rider, I was coming off a two-year stint that had me traveling across the Northeast, including the Atlantic Seaboard from Maine through Virginia. I hunkered down in Baltimore to concentrate on a handful of major writing projects in a very intense year of self-imposed sabbatical. (No university support, if you were wondering.)
While Big Inca marked a sharp departure from my other works, moving into dark subconscious realms and mysterious meanderings, it did incorporate castoffs from some of the other projects. The prompt, though, was a vague dream of restoring landmark mills beside a river, a project that could have happened just about anywhere in the region I’d been traveling.
We think of them as textile mills, and many of them were. But the water power could be employed for just about any kind of manufacturing, as I’ve since learned, from machine-making itself to shoes to clothespins to locomotives, as well as the grain and sawmill operations I’d been introduced to on our trips to historic sites in my childhood, starting with the overshot wheel and grindstones in Carillon Park in Dayton and the reconstructed Spring Mill village in Indiana.
As a youth, I’d also owned a gorgeous volume the duPont company had published to celebrate its history, and my favorite parts were the illustrations of its early mills and supporting waterways and lands in Delaware.
So there was already a degree of romance in my thinking about the use of old-fashioned waterpower.
Then, in my first job after college, I was introduced to the ruins of cigar factories beside a dam in the Susquehanna River, a tangled patch I returned to frequently, as I describe in my set of poems, Susquehanna. Just how would the mills have looked, anyway? And how would they have shaped the adjacent neighborhood, a setting reflected in Riverside, another of my poetry collections?
My more recent employment had me calling on places like Fall River, Massachusetts, with its array of vacant stone mills, as well as towns incorporating the more common red brick versions, large and small.
Add to that mention of the entrepreneurial impact of the many mills that once stood along the Jones Falls in Baltimore itself, before the freeway wound through the sites, and I was quickly writing.
Since releasing the novel, though, I’ve been wondering about scale. Just how big a town are we dealing with? And, for that matter, how big a mill yard?
In the back of my head I’d imagined something along the lines of Binghamton, New York, a city of roughly 50,000 – large enough to move about in inconspicuously but not too big to be, well, anywhere in the corporate radar these days. Or, more accurately, the recent past when the action takes place.
That’s had me looking more closely at old mill towns, of course, and asking if this one or that could be the right setting. Security, by the way, adds another consideration – I wouldn’t want the novel’s mills sitting right downtown, as they do where I now live or in several of the neighboring towns. Somersworth, to the north, has train tracks separating its old mills from the rest of the town, and Binghamton had a freeway.
A smaller town, in contrast, might simply have too many nosy neighbors who would insist on knowing everything about a newcomer like Bill, and that wouldn’t do. Still, there are some beautiful sites for imagining as you move about.