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.
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.
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
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.
The empty hours stretched ahead of her…. A walk would be good. A walk to the falls, which felt wonderful once she was out there on the road, the breeze rippling her blouse, the pavement solid under her feet. She should walk every day. She had loved walking in Paris—along the river and up over the Pont Neuf to wander through the Île de la Cité and the Île Saint-Louis.
Sometimes you needed to look up from your work, from yourself, blink your eyes—there was a sky up there, a vast expanse of air to breathe.
“Really?” Hadn’t the models for all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings been pretty much the same—ethereal, long-haired? Dez’s hair contained the requisite red tones but it was unruly, shoulder-length now. And her features were modern-looking: strong nose and chin, clear eyes. Far from ethereal. In fact, she often felt like the subject of an early Picasso, the plate of which sat in a book on her studio shelf: a downtrodden woman slumped over an ironing board.
The characters are talking about Woman Ironing, by Pablo Picasso (1904), painted near the end of his “Blue Period.” You can see it at the Guggenheim in New York.
Was he flirting or simply making a statement? Something was happening and she wasn’t sure it was real.
The characters are talking about Beata Beatrix, by Dante Rossetti (1870), which Jacob has seen in London. The TATE owns it still.