Cascade, the town in my novel of the same name, is loosely based on four towns in Massachusetts that were flooded in the 1930s to create a vast reservoir. Recently, an irate reader wrote to ask why I had invented a fictional town. “I would have enjoyed this book much more if you had chosen one of the four real towns for the setting!”
I was reminded of the scene in SIDEWAYS where Jack’s future father-in-law says to novelist Miles, “I like nonfiction! There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented it—waste of time!”
The best fiction is full of truth, but instead of a treatise, I just wrote back and thanked my reader for reading. And I told her this: that I originally intended to write about the real towns, but soon realized that my story of an artist struggling with leaving her mark in the world needed to be set in a town that had been a real “place to be” in the 1920s, a cultural center with a Shakespeare Theater at its heart. So, like many authors, I superimposed an imagined town over a real piece of land. These drowned towns happened all over the country, all over the world, in fact. The “truth” of what happened is of course very much a part of my book. Anyway, thinking about all this, I was reminded of some favorite, relevant quotes:
Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. —Albert Camus
Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. –Tennessee Williams
How wonderful! CASCADE won the voter’s poll and is The Boston Globe’s first Book Club choice. I was honored to be included with writers I greatly admire: Andre Dubus III, Junot Diaz, Geraldine Brooks, and Claire Messud.
Readers can take part in the club all summer:
Dana, Massachusetts was one of the towns wiped off the map to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir, but much of what was Dana is now watershed, and thus above water. Here’s the old Main Street and grassy town common. You can imagine the Eagle Hotel, the General Store & Post Office, the church, the school, automobiles, people…
I’m a writer and fascinated, naturally, by the way memory plays into storytelling. It can be disconcerting to know that much of what we think we remember is either flat-out false, or at the least, distorted.
The town in which my novel CASCADE is set is based on real towns that were flooded to create a reservoir. At book events, I often tell people that I live on another river that was also flooded, and that my house, built in 1831, was one of the only houses allowed to remain standing, because it was high off the flood zone.
Tragically, I say, in the field to the right of me, an old man lived in the house he had been born and raised in. He was so distraught at the knowledge that he would be forced to leave his lifelong home that he hung himself.
That’s what I tell people, and we always share a sober moment of silence. But even as I’ve been telling that story, I’ve been questioning myself: It’s true, right? I didn’t just make that up? An old man did hang himself? And his house was in the field?
I’ve been half-heartedly trying to find the town history writeup that I knew was somewhere in my house, and now I’ve finally found it. I am relieved to know that I didn’t invent a poor soul hanging in the rafters, but I had messed up the details. A man had killed himself, yes, but in the basement. And he doesn’t seem to have been particularly old. Most striking to me was to realize that he had only recently acquired the house. It hadn’t been his lifelong home at all.
Guts of the story: true. Details: false. I was glad to know I hadn’t completely made up a hanged man, but I concede that I might have. Memory’s tricky that way.
In England, artist A.R. Hopwood has collaborated with a professor of psychology at the University of Warwick to explore the phenomenon of false memory. They are building a “False Memory Archive.” They are interesting to peruse and you are welcome to add your own: http://www.falsememoryarchive.com/
I’ve always known that if I can’t clearly see a character or a scene, then the reader surely won’t be able to. Yet even though I knew better, I did submit the Cascade manuscript with a fuzzy part I hoped no one would notice: At one point, Dez and Jacob open a dam. I had no idea what that dam really looked like. I wrote about it in a summarizing, detail-less way, and hoped no one would notice. Of course, I should have known better, and of course my editor noticed:
[pgi1]Hard to picture this, why is there a gap? How was the wedge stone hanging before?
I realized the whole scene was too vague to be believable. I needed to rewrite it, but first I needed to be able to SEE it. I enlisted the help of an artist, my brother Michael, who, fortunately, is more mechanical-minded than I am. He drew up various pictures of possible dams. Once I had these visuals, fleshing out the scene with details was a cinch.
Dez crossed her fingers that the job at The American Sunday Standard would be hers for as long as she wanted it, for the first time feeling for herself the undercurrent of anxiety that had plagued people everywhere these past years: How much worse can things get? If I have a job, how long can I keep it? What will I do if I lose it?
The newsreel that the visiting crew had filmed on Independence Day in Cascade played in theaters the week of July 29, and America sighed. Because what small town did not have a Criterion Theater? A Brilliant Lunch Bar? A tiny cemetery with rain-worn tombstones toppling over behind a steepled church? And who could conceive of the destruction of such permanence?
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.