American rocker, John Mellencamp, calls Bloomington, Indiana, home. Bloomington is what we’d call a hop, skip, and a jump from where I grew up just over the state line in the agricultural land of southeastern Illinois.
“No, I cannot forget from where it is I come from,” Mellancamp sings in his 1985 song, “Small Town,” and because we’re practically neighbors (because we share the landscape of the rural Midwest), I forgive him the clunky repetition of the preposition in that line. I understand the sentiment; we are tied to places. Whether by birthright or adoption, fiction writers cozy up to particular landscapes and use them to give their writing authority, contribute to characterization, suggest plots, and influence tone and atmosphere.
I’m currently reading the new Ann Beattie book, Mrs. Nixon, which is part portrait of Pat Nixon and part exploration of the fiction writer’s art. In a passage I read this morning, Beattie talks about how fiction writers can claim specific territories: “In writing fiction convincingly, what they [the writers] have to do is point to a specific literary sky, a sky under which anything is possible, and move their characters through a landscape that’s right for them, even though their scribes may live elsewhere, or prefer other territory.”
In our MFA workshop yesterday, we considered three student-written stories, and each of them made good use of the individual writer’s “literary sky.” That is to say, each story came from a very specific world that each writer knew intimately. Consequently, the characters created their own plots from the particulars of their very specific landscapes. A story of infidelity and romantic disillusionment in India, an indoctrination into the difficulty of knowing in the face of evil in rural Kentucky, an act of violent retribution bred from small-town culture in West Virginia. Each story and its characters were so connected to their particular landscapes that their actions were utterly convincing. For the fiction writer, that’s the first battle. If we are precise about our settings, our characters and their choices will ring with authority.
What will I remember from these three stories long into the future? The American woman in India, who, while traveling in a car with her married lover, glances out the window and sees a man riding a bicycle, a pyramid of eggs strapped to the back fender. That detail, so anchored in the landscape, becomes an image for the heart of the story, holding, as it does, everything that is lovely and fragile about the relationship between the woman and her lover. First and foremost, though, it’s a detail that comes from the writer’s intimate knowledge of his “literary sky.”
I’ll also remember the description of the forest sounds in the Kentucky night when a young boy, eager to prove his manhood, waits in his father’s truck, keeping watch over a sleeping man who’s about to wake and take the boy down a path that will shake him and challenge the way he’s always known his father and himself. The sound of a barred owl’s monkey screech coming from the forest speaks volumes about where this scene is heading. It’s a detail organic to the world of the story, and it’s one that helps create an atmosphere necessary to the scene unfolding.
Finally, I’ll remember the achingly beautiful scene of an absent-from-the-family father cutting his daughter’s hair on a river bank in West Virginia, and how the hair falls onto the grass and the father snatches up a bit of it and puts in his pocket. The world is so real to me because it’s so intimately known by the writer. Later, when this same father finds himself in a precarious position, kidnapped and waiting in a cave for his executioner, I’m persuaded because I’ve seen the act itself come from the choices of characters in response to the world they occupy, a world of drug abuse, machismo, and corruption.
Landscape in fiction is both a conductor and a receiver. It can both create and express the actions and emotions of a story, but first it has to be there in all its intimate particulars. Consider, as but one example, the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Gabriel listens to his wife’s story of the frail, ill Michael Fury, a boy who loved her so deeply he left his sick bed and went out into the rainy night in hopes that he might persuade her to come downstairs from her grandmother’s house and be with him one more time before she went away in the morning to the convent. Gretta sobs with the sad remembrance of how she told Michael to go home lest he “get his death in the rain,” and how he told her “he did not want to live.” Gabriel must confront the truth of Michael Furey’s great love for Gretta and the romance she once felt: “He [Gabriel] had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love.” Gabriel’s own feeling of self-importance shrivels at the end of the story, and, in addition to his knowledge of the romance between Gretta and Michael, he also accepts the mortality that is the truth of all their lives: “One by one they were all becoming shades.” The very last move of the story features the landscape, and Joyce’s description illustrates how that landscape holds the emotions that Gabriel can’t express to Gretta. From their bedroom window, he watches the snow falling outside:
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark, central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
The smallness that Gabriel now feels, the diminished self-importance, is projected out onto the landscape, particularly the churchyard where Michael Furey is buried, where everything is being covered with snow.
If writers know their places fully, they’ll not only paint a convincing portrait of the setting, they’ll also understand how landscape becomes necessary to the characters, their stories, their emotions, and to everything the writer has come to the page to explore.
I’ll close by suggesting a writing exercise:
Identify one of your “literary skies,” a place you know intimately. What are the particulars of that place? Don’t neglect the sensory details. Think about the customs and cultural attitudes of that place. Are the people similar to the landscape? What do they do or say that connects them with the place where they live? Or perhaps they exist in opposition to the setting. Perhaps they resist its particulars and its culture. Create a single character. Write an opening scene in which you portray the setting and have this character perform an action that’s either a result of his or her connection to the place or else is in opposition to it. See where that single act, bred from landscape, can take the character down a chain of causally connected events.