In my novel Nearly Canaan, Joshua and Jaya meet in a railroad crossing known as Prairie Depot. And in my newest release, The Secret Side of Jaya, she returns there in a magical sort of vein.
Yes, Prairie Depot is somewhere in the Midwest. But the region itself is hardly as homogeneous as many portray it.
Defined: The region is generally comprised of 12 states – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. I question the inclusion of Missouri, which was a slave-holding state and thus Southern, but others try to add Oklahoma. Population 65 million.
Breadbasket of the world: Wheat, corn, and oats are major crops, along with soybeans and sugar beets. Beef, dairy, and hog production are also huge. The fields run on for miles. And Wisconsin is the nation’s leading producer of cranberries.
Major cities: Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Des Moines, Omaha, Columbus, and Indianapolis head the list.
Mall of America: The 400 stores, waterpark, and aquarium in Bloomington, Minnesota, are deemed one of the most popular tourist magnets in the country, drawing 35 million visitors a year.
Heartland: The geographic center of North America is in Ruby, North Dakota.
A taste for the oddball: Cawker City, Kansas, is home to the world’s biggest ball of twine. Ten feet in diameter.
Linked by rail: The Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard in North Platte, Nebraska, is the world’s largest railroad yard. It’s eight miles long and up to two miles wide, with 301 sets of rails.
Horses and buggies: More Amish live in Ohio than in any other state. In 2015, there were 69,255. And Iowa has a significant number, too – about 7,000.
Cowboy country: Much of what we consider cowboy-and-Indian out west actually took place in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. And sharpshooter Annie Oakley was raised by a Quaker family in Ohio.
It’s not really homogenous: Each state is different, starting with the economy, religious mix, ethnic origins and culture, and amount of annual precipitation. Even the parts of a state can vary widely along these lines. Much of the eastern half of the region is heavily industrial, with steel and auto making at the fore, while other parts are intensively agricultural. There are further breakouts like the Great Lakes region or the Great Plains. And it’s not all flat, either.
What are your impressions of this part of the country?
Much of my literary writing has attempted to capture the unique sense of particular landscapes, sometimes to the extent that the locale becomes a character of its own. Serious wine drinkers might see this as a matter of terroir, meaning distinctive local flavor.
In my novel What’s Left, I tried to avoid this touchstone but wound up developing the neighborhood around the family restaurant anyway.
In placing it in a college town in southern Indiana, I created an inside joke all the same. If you’re familiar with the region, you’ll know the Ohio River is much more than an hour from Indianapolis. The college town where she lives is defined by both, and thus in a site uniquely its own. If only it actually existed!
Still, I think the flavor is right.
I know I’m not alone here.
Tell me of a favorite book or movie where you think the location becomes a character in its own right. Let’s make this a long list!
After high school commencement, most of my buddies headed off to campuses elsewhere, while I was stuck living at home and attending a local commuter school while working part-time. I didn’t even have a car of my own, unlike the assumption of so many kids these days. Well, after I graduated there was a hot round of romance with someone a year behind me, but then she, too, headed off before I finally made my own escape. I’ve always missed her, though my biggest regret was in not responding to her desire for me earlier. Yes, too late, as it turns out. Always turns out?
Eventually, my zig-zag career across the continent put all of that far behind me. So I thought.
Even so, I did ponder attending the 50th anniversary reunion, maybe just to brag, but complications came up. It would have involved a long drive or costly flight, and then a bunch of embarrassing pictures with old people who were nothing like me. As well as a high probability of a fatal heart attack, as I learned later. End of the book, right?
Except that in the past year I heard from someone I’d emailed a dozen or more years ago but never heard back. Maybe a good thing, considering how gushy it likely was.
And now? It’s opened an emotional can of worms, as well as some conversations we should have had then but didn’t. Or should I say couldn’t? We were so uptight. Period.
Ours was a largely middle- and working-class, all-white, high school, and in retrospect I’ve realized how whitewashed our indoctrination was. In my innocence or ignorance, I had no sense of how many pregnancies happened, even in our college-prep circles, just for starters. Not that I had any clue how to interact with a girl or any life in the other levels of our classmates, even in our homeroom, which was never exactly homey.
The new communications have sent me back to the yearbooks, where I see half of our classmates already probably never had a chance. Let’s be honest, breeding starts to show, or maybe the dull look in front of the camera, in contrast to the good-lookin’ ones, who also have all kinds of activities behind their names. I suspect I was walking a fine line between the two camps, not really belonging to either. As for the in-crowd, we never would have gone into the secrets of their home lives, although all of that becomes more suspect today.
Naturally, you know who I avoided or maybe never, ever, really saw or considered. It was a fine line we never explored. Besides, I was being told I belonged in the big city, far from where I was growing up. Now I see that as another way of saying I didn’t fit in, not fully. Still, I tried. Oh, my, did I.
That seemingly out-of-the-blue phone call and then emails led to Facebook, a platform I usually avoid, though this time with a raft of new contacts. A blast from the past, as we would have said back then.
So this is where they are now? But where are how many others? WTF have we done with our lives? All of that, and more.
The biggest kick in the gut came from an FB public figure page called the Disillusioned Bell-Ette, outrageously funny and caustically humorous. It quickly spun me into a depression.
You have to understand that the Bell-Ettes were our high school’s elite girls, a marching corps perhaps modeled on the Rockettes in Manhattan and sexier in general than our wholesome cheerleaders, not that I would have discounted any of them. For full disclosure, I even took one to the prom.
The anonymous Disillusioned Bell-Ette displays a prodigious talent in montaging images of the corps’ members and our school mascot, a bison – here I had been wondering if it even had a nickname, though she insists it was Bucky, uh-huh. Not so sure on this end, which makes it even funnier. Especially when she has a special, uh, affinity for him. I’m impressed by the sheer labor in putting these together, as if anyone’s actually watching. Or is she venting?
Beyond that, there’s the candor of being disillusioned after being at the top of the social pyramid, the destructively adolescent structure.
More to the point, what about the innuendoes regarding a faculty member’s sexual proclivities?
And I had already been wondering about that. Coincidence?
And I had also already been wondering about one Bell-Ette, two years older than me and the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper as well as a member of our church, who was engaged to be married after she graduated. Was she the disillusioned but very talented host of the site? For now, I’m inclined to say not. But don’t rule it out altogether.
Missing is the wonder of how we ever came to have a buffalo as a mascot in the first place or how our drill marching team came to be widely known as cowgirls. We were in an industrial city so far from the Wild West. How weird!
All of this had me recalling some dreams – literally, visions in the night – where upon awakening I imagined how I would have redone the Hilltopper, the school newspaper, to include everyone. I would have condensed the club stuff to an Eye or Ear on the Hill column, with snarky comments. And then had a focus for each edition: Food, Transportation, Personal Style, Jobs/Working, Free Time, Survival (advice to the underlings and to the future), Favorite Teachers (a sly way of suggesting who to avoid, if you could), Engaging the Arts & Entertainment, Electives, Dating & Relationships, Personal Style, Living with Siblings, Prepping for Summer, Graduation and Moving Up. That sort of thing, inviting entries for the next issue, too, open to all. The focus would have been on the whole possibility of having fun rather than trying to meet the standards imposed from elsewhere, including in the paper’s case, a remote scholastic press association and its judges, who misplaced our entries for a whole year, anyway, thus failing to give us any useful guidance or feedback along the way. So much for my failings as ed-in-chief, not that I would have had any backing in attempting such a revolution.
Oh, well, a few more missed opportunities in my life. And a few more letdowns from those who were supposed to support us.
The ending of my novel What’s Left, is not the one I anticipated. Rather, it’s the one Cassia dictated to me as I was drafting. Believe me, it came as a surprise, but I trust her. It really feels fitting, from my perspective.
Up to that point I’d been thinking of swapping the placement of the last two chapters, ending with Rinpoche, the Tibetan teacher, telling Cassia of her father’s last moments and maybe setting her on a new lifetime pathway. Instead, her story concludes on a rainy Saturday morning as she converses with her best friend forever, her cousin Sandra.
Not that this should be a spoiler for you.
If you’ve ever lived in Indiana, you know how commonplace the rain is, especially on Saturdays, or so I remember. But this one is truly special.
It’s one thing to be writing and other to be reading or watching.
In reading a novel or watching a movie, have you ever felt a character wanted to go in an independent direction from the one the plot follows? Can you say why or which way you’d go?
Growing up in the middle of America, I had little awareness of the extent of immigrant Greek influence in the New World, much less in my own hometown. These days, though, I see how pervasive — yet nearly invisible — it’s been, now or then.
My decision to have my first novel close with Cassia’s future father marrying into a Greek-American family was, in part, predicated on a desire to have his immersion in one ancient culture from Asia, Tibetan Buddhism, be countered by another from Western civilization, and thus Greece , blending both classical glories and some New Testament threads, which seemed appropriately symbolic.
It’s up to you to weigh in on how well it works in my novel What’s Left.
In the past decade, though, perhaps prompted by the annual community-wide festival our local Greek Orthodox church presents every Labor Day weekend, I’ve been connecting the dots and discovering how many Greek-Americans I’ve known over the years and how much the recent encounters have been enriching my own outlook.
As I wrote to one friend:
One thing that’s greatly surprised me is how little literature exists that relates the Greek-American experience. You’re too numerous to be so invisible. What’s up? Just look on your impact in Dover alone. Perhaps the best overall portrayal comes in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (a masterpiece, by the way), although the work is acclaimed mostly for its exploration of hermaphroditic genetics and identity. Along the way, he also does a knock-out job of nailing the Midwest where I grew up, another strand of literature that’s otherwise anemic. I am glad I’d finished the first draft of my new work before encountering his novel — he won the National Book Award and Oprah’s endorsement for good reasons. It could be too intimidating. Well, if he could go on to do such an insightful job with Quaker Meeting, as he does in his third novel, The Marriage Plot, maybe I’m not so out of line in venturing into yours. I hope. Oh, yes, I’m also glad I finished the draft before getting to connect the dots of your own family. You’d be ideal for the movie version.
Look around at the people you know. Tell us something (good, we hope) about someone of Greek descent.
My novel Nearly Canaan starts off in a railroad crossing called Prairie Depot. It’s imaginary, of course, a blend of several small cities I’ve encountered. But, for the record, let’s say this.
It was a dozen or so miles from the nearest Interstate Highway.
It sat in what had been the Great Black Swamp that covered roughly 1,500 square miles before being drained to open up some of the best farmland in the world … and some of the flattest, stretching for miles.
There really were some surviving patches of original prairie nearby, as well as new reservations harboring restoration. The ecosystem had reached westward to the Rocky Mountains, especially in a broad swath through much of the Midwest.
Five different railroads once interconnected in the town. It could lead to frequent delays for drivers and pedestrians alike, as well as interrupted sleep.
It was also a good place for grain elevator dealers to ship from.
The real center of town was a small restaurant owned and operated by two brothers and their wives.Back to the novel!
The town library had a translucent marble exterior wall and a fine collection, thanks to a resourceful director who managed to deflect criticism. He could be a fictional character all in his own.
The region was the scene of a big oil boom, back in the early 1900s. Petroleum was still being pumped at the time of the novel, on a smaller scale, though the grade was lower grade than the market desired.
The place was best known for its collectible glass, before the company relocated to West Virginia, where the name lives on, if not the quality, at least in the estimation of some.
The most celebrated resident dwelt quietly on a shaded side street, her secrecy preserved by the locals, even though she was rumored to have been gangster Al Capone’s mistress. Yes, the one.
The vibe lives on. Here are some hot spots in the American heartland:
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Yellow Springs, Ohio
(Disclaimer: I’m relying largely on Thrillist and have been to slightly fewer than half of these.)
Looking across the country, we’d add Athens. Georgia; Austin, Texas; Berkeley, natch; Port Townsend, Washington; Cambridge and Northampton, Massachusetts; and Burlington, up in Vermont. Again, half of these are by reputation, not direct experience.
What other towns should be noted, anywhere in the world?
In early drafts of my novel What’s Left, I considered going into detail on her uncle Dimitri’s practice of micro-lending and startup investing. Here at home we discussed including a whole list of failures and successes — or reasons applications were approved or rejected. Just think of all the once bright options that soon failed, as well as the ones that have since gone mainstream.
One proposal that didn’t survive my second-thoughts was this:
Thus, when friends decide to launch a local winery, we support them.
At the time I first noted this, 45 or so years ago, a local winery would have been cutting edge. Now there seem to be wineries everywhere, and their output can be widely uneven and often overpriced.
My experience as a home brewer, making more than 2,500 bottles of beer, was fascinating. We relied on kits from a local aficionado and never had a bum batch. But we still haven’t tried making our own wine.
Gardening, of course, is another matter. As is composting.
Do you raise any of your own food? Make your own bread or yogurt? How about jams or jellies or artisanal vinegars? Any other hands-on touches?
Unless you’re a hermit or a successful recluse, you’re bound to come across a host of humanity in your daily life. Just think of the spaces you inhabit — home, neighborhood, buses or subway cars, classroom, workplace and markets, church, a gym or swimming pool, dances, sports teams or choirs, coffee stop, and on and on — all filled with other people who cross your path.
Just mapping all the places you touch in a week can be a big challenge.
So faithfully following a character in a story presents an impossible task: how many of these intersecting individuals can an author include? Think, too, of the level of importance — whether you’re presenting a central figure whose influence runs through many of the pages; a major character who may be important at some point, even a single chapter; someone who provides peripheral color; an episodic figure, who flits in and out. And how many of these require names versus those who can be quickly sketched by a simple title or description?
I’d still love to do a tale having only two characters. Even holding it to six would be fun. But obviously, that wouldn’t do when the story touches up to five generations, as my novel What’s Left, does. Now you can share my perspective.
Consider, too, that we typically know others in one circle of activity or another. Sometimes they fit in several, but encountering a person out of context can be confusing. There are people I know at the indoor swimming pool, for instance, but we’re always startled when we run into each other on the street or at the supermarket, where our joke usually goes, “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!” (Yes, we do wear swimsuits — and often swim caps.)
How many people do you know by name? What’s your most important social space when it comes to being with your cohorts?