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…
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?
Hi Maryanne — I met you at my book club meeting a couple weeks ago. Just wanted to write and tell you that you inspired me to read Alice Munro. I’ve been reading a story every morning — and it kinda makes my day. –Suzanne
That note made my day, and reminded me that I often like to start the day with a poem. Or a couple of eggs in Paris….
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?