I asked my daughter Caitlin to pose for this photo almost 2 years ago. She has said “ok” to my posting it to raise organ donor awareness during organ donor awareness month. Caitlin has been on the waiting list for a double lung transplant since April 24, 2014. Two years! And she’s not alone in her wait. 121,000 people are currently waiting for organs in the USA.
Are you a donor? I’ve been one since age 16. It takes two secs to register. You can’t take them with you but you can leave a bit of yourself behind and save a life.
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
At my desk, working on this new novel, and wondering where it will be a year from now? Finished? In good shape? How will the story have changed, as it surely will? And wondering, too, what personal stories will fill my notebook this year..
My daughter knows I like to have little “talismans” that relate to stories as I write them. For Christmas, she gave me this photograph from Copenhagen, 1967, and a Czechoslovakian coin from 1967. One of my characters has important experiences in those places, during those years. The back of the photograph says, “Town Hall Square, Copenhagen, Denmark, 7/67. Dot Ogilvy.”
Who was Dot Ogilvy and how did she end up on eBay and then in my Christmas stocking?
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.
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.
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.