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?’
One day, I took a ride out to the Quabbin Reservoir and got stuck behind an antique maroon Ford, which seemed cool and odd. A maroon Ford makes an appearance in the pages of CASCADE. When I think of old cars, I don’t automatically think maroon, but there it was, and I was behind it for quite a few miles. (I’d made the car maroon in the book because I am always trying to make my details vivid, concrete. But really, when I think of old cars, I think black.)
Much later, after I’d finished writing the book, and my wonderful agent sold it, Penguin’s art department was working on designing the cover. They originally thought it would be good to use old postcards in the design. They had acquired some old cards randomly, off of eBay, etc. When I saw this one, with the maroon car, I thought, “Wow, cool coincidence.” But what they’d sent me wasn’t the whole postcard—it was just the photo. The “Greetings from” part cropped out.
A month or so later, when we were deciding on art for the inside pages, I asked about that maroon car photo. It represented how I imagined Cascade. At that point, Penguin sent the whole card, and that was when I saw that the photo was from Belchertown, MA.
The Quabbin Reservoir’s legal address is Belchertown, MA.
There’s not much of a point to all this, except to shiver a bit.
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