The last time Dez had visited New York was in the fall of 1928, and as busy as the city was then, it seemed to have grown more hectic. A vast bridge, made completely of steel, now spanned the Hudson, allowing a flood of cars to pour onto the island each morning. Taxis joined the cars in clogging the streets, and their drivers all seemed to be in a contest to see who could blow his horn the longest. Dance palaces, billiard halls, and movie palaces all blazed with electric light. Street peddlers sold anything they could get their hands on: apples, pencils, neckties, and every block had its shoeshine boys, even though many were grandfatherly age, old men sitting patiently on their wooden boxes, shine kits at their feet. Everywhere was stark contrast: bread lines so long they snaked around corners at the same time that women wearing smart hats stepped out of taxis to enter the dozens of restaurants that seemed to be doing a thriving business despite the hard times.
Dez walked down to the new Empire State Building, tallest in the world, as soon as she had settled in, just to gawk at it, at its modern, stainless-steel entrance canopies, at its sleek, tapered sides that led up to an observatory that maybe she would visit with Jacob. She remembered reading about its official opening a few years back, how President Hoover was able to light up the entire 1250 floors by pressing a single button in Washington, DC. What an extravagance it seemed, to build such a thing in the middle of economic depression. Dizzying, to peer up at its needle-top. Much of it still stood empty, said a man who paused to join her in admiring it. ‘Tenants are few and far between, they say. People are calling it the Empty State Building, but you have to admire its permanence, don’t you?’ he said. ‘It’s not going anywhere, is it?’
I’m in Washington doing some research on my new book and it was a bit uncanny to walk into the National Gallery of Art and see a big Pre-Raphaelite show going on. I wrote about some of these paintings in Cascade, and had tried to see them in London the last two times I was there, but the Tate didn’t have them on display. Here they were, without my even knowing! This cover on the book of postcards the NGA is selling is the Dante Rossetti painting that Dez and Jacob talk about:
“You know,” Dez said, “the only Rossetti painting I can clearly see in my mind’s eye at the moment is one of a redhead combing her hair, and she was frightening-looking, as I recall.”
“Lady Lilith. His wife didn’t model for that. His mistress did. That’s another whole story.”
“It’s a stunning painting, in person,” he said. “It glows. Beatrice glows. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.”
A few weeks ago, the wonderful shereads.org site asked me to write about Cascade, but to write about something “true.” I wrote down a story that readers at my events always love to hear:
Way back when Cascade was a short story idea—an idea about artists in New York in the 1930s—the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum put me in touch with a few people who had painted for Roosevelt’s “New Deal” art projects during the Depression. I was interested in the fact that the government, for the first time, had said, 1, that putting artists to work was just as important as putting bridge builders to work, and 2, that art was for everyone.
One of the artists, James Lechay, lived down on Cape Cod. I arranged to interview him one summer Saturday, and although I was looking forward to it, I dreaded the five-hour round-trip trek. My plan was to zip down as fast as I could, interview him, then zip home in time for my evening plans.
But when I arrived in Wellfleet, the loveliest man was eagerly awaiting my arrival. Indeed, he had planned his whole day around it.
James Lechay was 91, and he would live only another three years, but nothing about him seemed particularly old. Even his house was cool and edgy—gunmetal gray, with modern lines and a flat roof, built to his specifications years earlier. He himself was tall, elegant, with soft white hair that fell to his shoulders. Inside, the house was serene and spare. A wall of glass overlooked pine thickets and the distant sea; his semi-abstract paintings lined other walls.
I saw that he’d set the table. He’d made us lunch. He had wine.
No, I didn’t zip anywhere that day. Instead, I spent a long and precious afternoon talking about New York in the thirties, and painting, and about the drive to create that never gets quite satisfied and which never goes away. In fact, I later read that he painted right up until a few days before his death.
My interview with him and two other artists turned into an article for an arts magazine, not a short story. But years later, I incorporated much of that research into Cascade. Some of James Lechay’s spirit inspired the character of Dez, and he completely inspired the novel’s last line.
The nicest true thing? Last year, when Cascade was in production, my husband and daughter gave me one of his paintings, the above “Barrels on the Beach,” for Christmas.
Desdemona came from Shakespeare.
Asa? I liked the sound of the old-fashioned name, but I particularly liked the story of a long-ago resident of one of the four towns flooded to create the reservoir in Massachusetts that I use as the model for my Cascade.
Asa Snow lived in Dana, Massachusetts in the 1840s. His nickname was “Popcorn” because he was a vegetarian who survived on popcorn and milk. He, like me, had a terrible fear of being buried alive, so he had a metal casket built for himself, with a glass window at the head. He instructed the undertaker to check on him for a week after his death, to make sure that he was well and truly departed. But stories followed Asa long after his death: he walked the earth every November 15. His body, seen through the glass, did not decompose.
Then there’s Jacob Solomon. That name just came to me one day when I was working on a short story–a story that would eventually turn into Cascade–about artists in New York City in the 1930s. I had decided that Jacob would end up in a tenement on the Lower East Side, and I was looking forward to seeing an exhibit of 1930s photographs at the New York Public Library.
Okay, the VERY FIRST photograph in the show just happened to be the “tenement belonging to Jacob Solomon.” Another ghost?
Maybe. The attached is Jacob Solomon’s tenement on Avenue D, photo by the great Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
And for more stories about Asa “Popcorn” Snow, check out the small-press books of J.R. Greene, and this page: Quabbin page.
We die, we know we must die, she thought, and still we treat death as surprise, as tragedy, as punishment. How many painters had seized on Shakespeare’s image of Ophelia floating among the flowers? How many maritime paintings had captured, for one transfixed moment, sailors going down at sea? People were fascinated by drowning—and here she herself had proof of that, with people from across the country responding to the mesmerizing prospect of a town drowned. A “great deluge” was part of the myth and legend of almost every culture on earth.
“Ophelia” by John Everett Millais, on view at the Tate Gallery, London
The morning Abby was due to stop by on her way to her new life in New York City, Dez woke with a thought running through her head: one of many, one of many. How did one stand out among many? Because one did, undoubtedly. But how to convey the idea with paint? The viewer’s eye would need to be drawn to that blade, forced to reflect on how alike it was to all the others, while still uniquely itself. –From Cascade
Yesterday, Randy Susan Meyers published an essay about the difficulty of making one book stand out among the many: Beyond the Margins: “Writers Wearing Costumes, Baking Cookies, & Other Mad Men Tricks.” It makes for amusing, sobering, and true reading. I urge anyone interested in what publishing a book is really like to read it.
Outside, the day was grim and overcast, a few stray snowflakes starting to drift down from the sky. It was the kind of day that would turn to night without fanfare, with a gradual extinguishing of light, the kind of day that pierced you with melancholy and reminded you it was only December, that a whole winter had still to be gotten through.
So much goes into a book, yet never finds its way into the book. As Hemingway said, “If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.”
From Dez’s diary, a ‘darling’ I had to cut from the final version of Cascade:
Each day I get no farther than scratched-out sketches that accumulate in the trash—balled-up sheets of valuable paper that trigger so many waves of self-doubt.
How can I be any good if I can’t even capture my own father? If my mind’s eye is already losing the precision of his features—the sharp length of his nose, the weak blue of his eyes, how then, to grasp the intangibles? The heavy grace of his stage presence? The disquieting boom of his voice? The chills he could deliver to an audience?
Sometimes I am afraid that inspiration has shrugged at me and will never return. And words—inky marks!—look paltry. They’re no better than paint. Even the date, so meager: January 24, 1934. Today. Now. Even as I complete the w, now becomes then.
Time is so slippery, it doesn’t even bother to laugh at the human desire to grasp it—it simply does nothing but pass.
This photo, courtesy of the Quabbin Visitor’s Center, shows the town of Enfield as it was being razed to make way for the flooding.
The storm started dramatically, with a darkening of the kitchen and thunder that rattled the shutters. Rain spattered the windows as Dez put away the sketches that she and Abby had drawn, as she washed their plates and cups, scrubbing where Abby’s lipstick had left a stubborn mark. She had expected Abby’s visit to be cheerful, nostalgic, a little gossipy. She had even expected a bit of envy—she was, after all, married and living in a fine house with a studio of her own. Instead, Abby had turned her unimpressed eye on Asa; she had made sly remarks about Jacob.