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.
In a whimsical twist in my novel What’s Left, I placed the town along the Ohio River. Well, the navigable waterway is a defining element of southern Indiana.
Length of the Ohio River: 981 miles
Length along Indiana: 240 miles before adding twists. Drains all but the northernmost area of the state.
At its mouth: It is considerably larger than the Mississippi, making it the main hydrological stream of the whole river system.
Number of states feeding into the Ohio River: 15.
Largest tributary: Tennessee River, 652 miles long. Its watershed includes Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, a corner of Louisiana, as well as Tennessee and Kentucky.
Largest northern tributary: Wabash River, 503 miles long. It originates in Ohio and flows across Indiana before becoming part of the border with Illinois.
Average depth of Ohio River: 24 feet.
The biggest city along its way: Pittsburgh, metropolitan population of 3.5 million. The river begins with the confluence of the Allegheny, from upstate New York, and the Monongahela, which drains part of West Virginia and Maryland as well as Pennsylvania, at Point State Park in the Gold Triangle.
Next largest: Cincinnati, metropolitan area population of 2.2 million. Can be seen as the waterway’s hub.
Major hurdle: Louisville, Kentucky, sits at the Falls of the Ohio, which once presented a barrier to river traffic. The McAlpine Locks and Dam stand where the Louisville and Portland Canal was built in 1830 to allow vessels to bypass the falls. It was the first major engineering project on the river and, by some accounts, the first on an American waterway.
Like many young males of his generation, Kenzie in my new novel Daffodil Uprising gazes on the Playboy magazine centerfolds as an ideal of feminine form.
In fact, he mysteriously receives a manila envelope containing about two dozen of them, and they wind up being taped to the ceiling of his dorm room. They fit perfectly in the recessed space between the beams.
Never mind that he still didn’t have a real love life. She would be coming along shortly.
Thinking of this while revising the book had me revisiting images of some of those classic “playmates” online. To my surprise, they’re far more ordinary than we guys would have admitted at the time. To be honest, I think of at least ten of my former girlfriends were more attractive.
My, have times changed! Just think of all the selfies floating around on the Net or all of the plastic surgery enhancements now considered routine. Baring skin no longer has the risqué air it carried back then, either.
Me? I still prefer a natural look. As did Hef back then, when the mansion was still in Chicago.
My newest novels are both set in the same college town, but each one focuses on a different locale within it.
Daffodil Uprising takes place largely on the campus, and even when three of the characters move off into a shabby apartment, their focus is on college. It’s an outpost in more ways than one.
What’s Left, in contrast, settles into a neighborhood between the school and the courthouse square. The town and its university aren’t even named in this account. Instead, Cassia’s family’s restaurant is the center of attention, along with their surrounding properties. This story has a strong sense of the town itself, including the river, and the family’s impact on the community.
One thing I’ll confess is that in abstracting the location, I’ve created a place that doesn’t actually exist in the state. There’s nowhere along the Ohio River that’s just an hour from Indianapolis. Consider it as something like the visual tricks Edward Hopper performed in his paintings. Things feel right, despite the realities.
Southern Indiana, with its hills and forests, really is defined in large part by its relationship to the river. I hope I’ve heightened that sense.