Some facts related to Prairie Depot

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.

  1. It was a dozen or so miles from the nearest Interstate Highway.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Five different railroads once interconnected in the town. It could lead to frequent delays for drivers and pedestrians alike, as well as interrupted sleep.
  5. It was also a good place for grain elevator dealers to ship from.
  6. The real center of town was a small restaurant owned and operated by two brothers and their wives.Back to the novel!
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 astringent Greek Temple Revival appearance of Omar Chapel, in Seneca County, Ohio, not far from the prompt for Prairie Depot in my novel Nearly Canaan, continues to haunt me. It says so much about the dreams of its benefactor, out on what was then still frontier.

 

Best hippie towns in Midwest

The vibe lives on. Here are some hot spots in the American heartland:

  1. Ann Arbor, Michigan
  2. Bloomington, Indiana
  3. Decorah, Iowa
  4. Duluth, Minnesota
  5. Eau Claire, Wisconsin
  6. Lawrence, Kansas
  7. Lincoln, Nebraska
  8. Madison, Wisconsin
  9. Makanda, Illinois
  10. 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?

Among the fine vines … of Indiana

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?

~*~

Cassia’s family transforms an off-campus neighborhood into something like this, one they call Mount Olympus.

Characters reflect varied levels of involvement in the story

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.

If it were only pink, like the one in my novel What’s Left!

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?

~*~

Don’t forget:

You better be good to toads!

 

Getting to know Grandpa and Grandma Mac

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.

Continue reading “Getting to know Grandpa and Grandma Mac”

Could genius hide out in an out-of-the-way crossroads?

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.

I’m feeling a little vindication

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.

Lasting impressions from deep in the recesses of childhood

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.

~*~

Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this. Church of St. Pantaleon in the village of Siána on the Greek island of Rhodes. Photo by Karelj via Wikimedia Commons.

~*~

 

Yes, some men are from Mars

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, the renovated restaurant could have looked like this. The pizza oven at Little Creatures, Fremantle, Western Australia. Photo by Gnangarra via Wikimedia Commons.

~*~

 

Do you ever feel trapped by your family?

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?

~*~