In the early versions of my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s father’s parents are barely mentioned. They live miles away in Iowa, for one thing, and, for another, whatever they do is light years away from his contented life in her mother’s close-knit extended family.
As a purely literary challenge, trying to fit any more characters into a five-generation tale runs the risk of adding confusion for the reader. But then, by my eighth and ninth revisions, I stumbled upon a simple tweak that allowed me to acknowledge his parents more fully — the simple names of Grandpa and Grandma Mac would do. Just how much of a picture do you get from just that much?
For the most part, they’re a sharp contrast to Cassia’s experiences of home. She and her brothers never feel comfortable in their childhood visits to their Iowa grandparents. But somewhere in my later revisions, an episode developed that changes her understanding and then allows a relationship, however tenuous, to develop. Can I admit being rather fond of the insertion? For one thing, it allows me to quickly sketch another kind of American family little known to the general public — one that faced earlier pressures not all that different from Cassia’s Greek-American lineage much later. For another, well, it’s closer to my own roots, even when I look at hers with some envy.
In the final revision of my novel What’s Left, the voice and direction of the story changed greatly. For one thing, it became much more Cassia’s own.
When biblical translator and subversive revolutionary John Wycliffe (born 1384) meets up with the psychedelic painter Hieronymous Bosch ( born 1450) in a railroad-siding town on the Great Plains, who knows what will erupt. Especially when modern dance genius Isadora Duncan (born 1877) joins the action. Who says great genius doesn’t continue, even in the most out-of-the-way places?
That’s the premise of my novella, With a Passing Freight Train of 119 Cars and Twin Cabooses, which has become part of my new book, The Secret Side of Jaya, now that she’s entered the fray. Jaya has, after all, shown up in town as a do-gooder social activist. How else is she supposed to keep her sanity in relative isolation?
Well, there is the Laundromat plus a subversive operation from an old warehouse owned by Virgil and Homer, as in Latin and Greek classics, erupting in my wildest prose to date. The original work bitterly split one competition jury that awarded publication honors to another author. So be warned, you’ll either hate or love it.
But it’s only part of the resulting new collection.
When I recently applied subtitles to my novels, I gave Reports From Trump Country to Hometown News, even though the events in the story take place, by implication perhaps, during the Reagan years in a small industrial city out in the Rust Belt.
Now the August issue of Harper’s magazine has come out with “The Challenge of the Rust Belt: Can Biden pry it from Trump’s grip?” touted on the cover, and I’m feeling some vindication in the Trump connection in my subtitle.
Vindication? I hate to admit that the Vindicator was a big rival for me in a town that looked very much like Rehoboth, and it had entrenched strength against a small upstart like ours. We were responding quite well, until the larger economy turned against us.
The Vindicator’s home base already resembled a bombed-out German city, left with only several miles of steel mill shells, so we were well within the Rust Belt.
Many communities, especially in the Midwest, simply haven’t recovered from the sharp decline of American manufacturing in the ’70s and ’80s or from the blow to the myth that you’ll be rewarded if you just work hard enough. So much for the work ethic itself.
No wonder this is my dystopian novel.
Now, 40 or so years later, those things really haven’t improved. Let’s be honest. There really is a Groundhog Day surrealism in many locales. We really need a better end for the story – mine and Harper’s – than what I’m seeing.
Not that Cassandra had an easy time of it. either.
Some of my novel What’s Left, has her revisiting her memories of early childhood.
Later revisions made this passage redundant, and so it’s been scratched out:
By then even Papou Ilias and Yiayia Maria are long gone. Only the wisp of Yiayia Athina remained. But we still had our own little gang — Barney and Pia’s kids, and Tito and Yin’s, plus my brothers. By then we even have Rinpoche and his presence.
The final version of the novel has many sharp details, including some prompted by the photos she turns up. It is surprising, though, how powerful some of these memories can be, sometimes triggered unexpectedly from deep recesses. When I was 12, I ran into two brothers from my old neighborhood, my pals up to my fifth birthday. I hadn’t seen them in over seven years, and people do change a lot in that time. Still, I recognized them immediately at the Boy Scout event where we were.
Tell me one of your earliest memories from childhood, good or bad.
The kernel of this passage is insightful, but it got reworked and retold in a much more humorous vein in my novel What’s Left.
Well, he had every reason to feel out of place, I suppose. He might as well have been a Tibetan or a man from Mars dropped down in the middle of America. But reincarnation would assume that Iowa was the right place for him to be growing up, that he’d found the right set of parents and right surroundings, and that would mean I’ve been overlooking a lot.
Well, the alienated individual is one complex issue to take up. Just look at Kafka. Cassia’s having her own struggles, so let’s concentrate on those, especially as she’s becoming aware of surroundings that work in her favor, unlike those of her father’s youth.
Perhaps nobody’s in a perfectly right or wrong place. We usually make do, as best we can, although I’ve lived some places where that could be challenging.
What’s been “right” for you where you are? Or, if you’d rather, what’s felt “wrong”?
In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s brothers and cousins — the ones she calls the Squad — are essential for bringing the story fully up to right now. It’s their turn to move forward. What do they want to do with their lives? What does this family mean to them?
Cassia makes her own bold decision for her future — one I sense is enabled by their solid identity.
But there are the other cousins — the ones from the other side of the tracks, the ones who don’t fit in and never will.
So it’s not just about the family restaurant.
As she noted in an earlier draft, comparing her mother’s side of the family to her father’s:
From everything I’ve seen, his family wasn’t warm or truly close. They did what they were supposed to. Had what they were supposed to. Basically, they followed orders. So what Baba found and embraced with Manoula’s family was more disorderly and conflicting and yet also affirming when it came to his own existence. Privacy here is not taken for granted. Thea Nita, for all of her love of solitude, would spend far more of her working hours surrounded by the public, where the action and people were. Maybe that’s why the Buddhist meditation held such appeal for Nita and her siblings — it was one time they could really focus on themselves alone.
There are flip moments when I’d say my family was defined by the TV programs we watched together. Think of the TV dinners we ate on those TV trays we set up between us and the screen (black-and-white, for the most part). Even the pizza we ate on very special nights, scraping off the toppings to eat separately from the dough and its crust. Or the burnt popcorn we ate afterward.
Cassia’s close kinship was more active than that, but working with her father’s photos did give her a place of retreat.
Do you ever feel trapped in your family? Or in your social circle? At moments like that, where would you rather be?
Sometimes details advance a story. And sometimes they raise unnecessary hurdles. In my novel What’s Left, what Cassia discovers about her deceased father (her Baba) is much better than this. So I cut it.
Hey, how many 12-year-olds would even know what a biochemist is? Or, for that matter, 16-year-olds, depending on when she’s making the connection? You still get the drift in the final version.
Under a different system of education, he might have become a biochemist or mathematician. He had leanings that way, which were not supported over time. So instead, he became a photographer — a very adept one who leaves behind what I’m finding to be an astonishing archive of social upheaval and redirection.
Oh, my, she wouldn’t ever say that last sentence, would she? Of course it had to go!
The point of her observation, though, remains pertinent. Many kids are thwarted at key points in their development, not just educationally, either.
What would you say has been a crucial obstacle in your past? How have you coped? Has it changed the direction of your life?
Considering that they were drafted 30 years apart, I thought these two novels would have nothing in common.
Boy, was I wrong.
Here are ten overlaps.
American Midwest. Southern Indiana for Cassia. The Great Plains or somewhere similar for Jaya and Joshua.
Asian spiritual practice. Tibetan Buddhism for Cassia’s father. Hindu-influenced yoga for Jaya.
Relationship and family focus. Five generations for Cassia, including her close cousins known as the Squad. Three same-age couples for Jaya, plus her in-laws and landlords out west.
Livelihood. Family-owned restaurant and real estate for Cassia’s clan. Nonprofit public services for Jaya.
Women in business. Cassia’s whole family, from her great-grandmothers down to herself. Jaya in nonprofits management.
Career uncertainty. Cassia’s cousins have difficult decisions to make about whether to stay with the family business or find other livelihoods. Three of the spouses in Nearly Canaan struggle in their search for suitable employment, while the other three are caught up in their professions.
Far West. As a young adult, Cassia works with clients across the western half of America, while Jaya and Joshua eventually relocate to the Pacific Northwest.
Death and loss. They’re central to both books.
Food. Cassia has all of that Greek heritage. Jaya and Joshua move to a land of orchards and fresh seafood.
Restaurants. Cassia’s family owns a landmark café. Jaya is introduced to Joshua where he’s a flippant waiter.
It’s not Ohio, for one thing, even though a surprising number of people don’t know the difference. And it’s really quite distinct from Idaho, out in the Rockies further west. It doesn’t even have a big-league sports team.
But thanks to its unique party caucuses for presidential candidates, the Hawkeye State is back making headlines, at least for now. It makes for a big diversion, now that the crops are in.
Here are some quick perspectives.
Dubuque, the state’s oldest city, grew out of the arrival of Julian Dubuque in 1785, shortly after the Revolutionary War. He was a French-Canadian lead miner working the bluffs along the Mississippi River, and Iowa was still claimed by France.
Cedar Rapids-based Quaker Oats is the world’s largest cereal company.
Wright County has the highest percentage of grade-A topsoil in the nation.
The St. Francis Xavier basilica in Dyersville is the only Roman Catholic basilica in the United States outside of a major metropolitan area. The pope is supposed to hold forth there whenever he’s in the area.
In key social justice advances, married women received property rights in 1851. Women were allowed to become lawyers in 1869, making Arabella Mansfield the first female attorney in the U.S. “Separate but equal” schools were outlawed in 1868. Prohibitions against same-sex marriage were struck down in 2009, making Iowa the third state to allow gay marriage. On the other hand, the state was also a leader in prohibiting alcohol sales: bars were outlawed in 1851, followed by a strong prohibition law in 1855, and a constitutional amendment in 1882 made Iowa a “dry state.” According to one version, women wanted their men to stay sober. The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement was big in Iowa.
West Branch native Herbert Hoover was the first U.S. president born west of the Mississippi River. His mother was a Quaker minister.
Iowa State University is the nation’s oldest land-grant college.
The device for creating sliced bread was invented by Iowan Otto Frederick Rohwedder in 1912. He wanted his bread to fit into the toaster more neatly.
The state has the nation’s highest concentration of wind-powered turbines. The towers produce nearly 40 percent of the state’s electricity.
There are more hogs than humans – 21.2 animals to a tad over three million people.