How grounded are your novels and stories in your personal history in terms of ancestry or a location/setting you’re closely familiar with such as Indiana or western Wisconsin?
—John Minczeski, St. Paul, Minnesota
I guess I can start right away by letting the cat slip out of the bag on this question, John. For those readers—the vast majority I’d guess—who’re unaware of it, John Given of Suite Harmonic was my mother’s maternal grandfather, so he was my great-grandfather. I haven’t foregrounded this information, and I certainly don’t mention it directly in my descriptions of the book. I’m not trying to be coy about it. It’s simply that I’ve wanted readers to approach the book on its own terms and not think of it as just someone’s family stories. I was actually a little burned on this by a couple of people in publishing who read part of the manuscript knowing the relationship and warned me off sticking to the facts of the story I wanted to tell. I think their view may have been colored in part by an assumption that it wouldn’t be possible to write a compelling story unless I took great liberties with the facts, but my whole point in writing the book was to try to re-create John’s actual experience while dramatizing it in the imaginative world of the novel.
In terms of this particular book, that has meant a couple of things. The first is that some readers have said this is information they would have liked to have had at the outset, that to know how absolutely grounded in actual events, small as well as large, the story is might have made their reading experience a broader one, or at least a different one. It’s hard to know that, isn’t it? There’s a part of me that feels it’s better if this information comes as one of the possible revelations of the story as it does at the end (there’s one little oblique line), so the reader is surprised and perhaps moved more deeply at realizing that the challenges and losses the book reports were so true. I’m on the fence about this disclosure even as I make it, assuming that only a very small portion of the people who read the book will read this interview question first. Perhaps this is a small experiment . . .
The other thing John’s being my great-grandfather means for the book is that it’s filled with characters I’m related to by blood. His parents and siblings, including Kate who is such an important part of the book, and various Bartons and Thrailkills and Mulherns and O’Donnells—these are my people! This was part of the draw for me in writing the book. I think we’re all curious about the people who came before us and what their choices and life experience meant for our lives, even for our very existence. I may have felt this particularly keenly because I didn’t grow up with grandparents. My paternal grandfather died before I was born, my maternal grandparents when I was a baby, and my paternal grandmother when I was just four and, though I’d seen her quite often when I was a toddler, I have only one memory of her when I was three or four because our family moved from the town where she lived. I felt that lack and I think it made me keener to try to fill in the picture where I could, particularly since I had John Given’s remarkable and tantalizing letters.
So the Suite Harmonic connection is very strong for me from an ancestral standpoint. You hit the money on that. But, once again, Suite Harmonic is the exception in terms of my work. That’s it for my writing about my ancestors, assuming you don’t count parents as ancestors; there are a few stories that start with bits of biographical data drawn from them and then spin off into fiction. Yet you’ve asked another seeing-eye question when you raise the matter of the importance of familiar settings and locations for my work. I’ll start with your examples.
Though I did live in Indiana for a couple of years as a child, we moved when I was four and the only places I remember there are part of our house, the lot next door, the front steps of a house across the street, and the backyard of a neighbor who owned this big cement roller thing he and my dad used to flatten something. Soil? We lived in Terre Haute, which had serious coal pollution at the time. I had many bronchial infections, so perhaps part of Terre Haute is written into me, but I’ve not written it into my work except for a couple of stray details. My knowledge of Indiana, other than just driving through it at various times and visiting family friends a couple of times as a child, comes almost entirely from the research trips I made to New Harmony and its environs. New Harmony always had a special presence for me, though, because I knew my grandmother had grown up there, that it was where the Given family and Margaret Mulhern had immigrated to, and it has so many of the family gravestones in Maple Hill cemetery. I became very familiar with it over repeated trips and it was easy to imagine my characters living there.
Western Wisconsin is very much the setting for the stories of In the Land of the Dinosaur. Its title story establishes the place of that beautiful countryside where cornpickers, left in fields, look like dinosaurs with their heads poking up as high as the trees beyond the fields, and where Lawrence Lugar finds his world changing so that he feels about as needed and useful as an actual dinosaur. I lived almost a quarter of a century in western Wisconsin, both in town (small) and country, and the landscape and the rhythms of the life became very much a part of my sensibility and awareness both for their harshness and their pleasures. I think that, for those stories, you could say I was writing from physical experience and from a sense of a cultural place.
But autobiographical place plays both a smaller and yet more ubiquitous role in all of my work. Place, in fact, may be one of its stronger elements as I always try to put the world of a story on the page so the reader has a sensory feel for it. Here, perhaps a bit randomly, is an example from the beginning of Chapter 24 in Suite Harmonic with John with the Army of the Potomac, a big scene that required a physical location:
He had come to the center of a bustling universe. The wharf, which fronted on the James, looked out on as many ship masts as he’d seen in New York harbor. Maybe more. Whether it was the heart of day, with muscled laborers unloading supplies, or a sunset with boats at anchor and their riggings shaping the sky into triangles of pink-tinted light, the port was invariably crowded. It was full of energy. It was full of people. City Point, where the Appomattox met the James, housed everyone from General Grant in his cabin to the hundreds of clerks and craftsmen in the quartermaster repair shops, while the log huts and tents of thousands of Union troops stretched far across the plateau.
That’s not an autobiographical setting, of course. However, I did travel to that very spot and was able to piece an idea of it together with added huts and tents to re-create, first for myself and then for the reader, a picture of what it must have been like during the Siege of Petersburg. That sort of placement is very important to me as a writer.
I don’t know when I first realized that the physical scenes in my head that accompany certain stories, and certainly the rooms and houses and structures and landscapes, often have an actual counterpart in my memory. Years ago certainly. I don’t start writing with the idea I’m putting characters in some miscellaneous place that I know but I do sometimes realize after the fact that that’s what I’ve done. I had written “Turkey Run,” for instance, well before it occurred to me that, though Rennie Mettlie’s house is in the country, it’s actually the house our neighbors across the street in an Ohio village had when I was a young girl. The layout is the same even to the angled turn in the stairs and the door at the bottom of them and the wood stove in the kitchen. The outside at Rennie’s is a different neighbor’s farm from a later period. I don’t know if other writers populate their work with such familiar places, but the scenes characters inhabit in our minds have to be created from something. It’s not always that specific for me—Elliott’s apartment in New York City in “The Temple of Amun” isn’t somewhere I’ve been. But while I can’t identify it precisely, I assume it’s a combination of bits and pieces of apartments from my memory or—who knows?—maybe the movies.
I find this is all interesting. I think I actually take a certain pride, justified or not, that place is often so strong in my work. I also think it makes a lot of sense both for me and for other writers. I’ve read that some medical research indicates one of the losses of Alzheimer’s is that sense of physical place and space—where things are, how much a distance actually is. The suggestion is that a lot of memory is physically lodged in some way and when that physical connection is gone, so is much of the memory it underpins. The real point is that place and memory are very interwoven. We remember in concrete ways and, though in my fiction I write other people’s stories, not my own, I often without even thinking about it put them in familiar places. And now that I think of it, there’s even a chair in my living room where Clare McHenry of Clare, Loving spends a sleepless night. I suppose you could say writing is like dreaming in this way. Without our intention, it cobbles together unexpected things.