I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of place in writing. Personally, I’ve never written about any place unless I have lived or at least visited there. This, intuitively, makes sense to me. That said, I know that many writers live in one place and write about a completely different place. Many readers are surprised to learn that Elizabeth George, who writes so beautifully about England, spent most of those years writing the Inspector Lynley mysteries from her home in Southern California a place, she said, she hasn’t the slightest interest in writing about. Sue Grafton, on the other hand, lives in the South and writes about Southern California. This intrigues me. Does a writer need a certain distance from a place in order to write creatively about it?
In his essay, Location, Location, Location: Depicting Character Through Place, Richard Russo tells how the first draft of his novel, Mohawk, was originally set in Tucson, Arizona a place he only had a tourist’s knowledge of from the six years he spent in a study carrel at the University of Arizona Library. Luckily, an early mentor who’d read the first draft of Mohawk told Russo that the only part of the story which came alive were those parts that took place in upstate New York, a place very much like the small town where Russo grew up. But once he left that small town, went to college and became a writer, he wanted to hide where he was from, didn’t want to be defined by it. And I understand that completely. It’s a wonderfully American trait to reinvent ourselves, move to another part of the country, reject our pasts, especially if the place one is from is sneered at by those from a place perceived to be more exciting, more beautiful, or simply the hot new place.
As a Midwesterner who moved to the West Coast, I spent my first several years in Seattle defending the Midwest. And yet, my new friends would say with an ironic smile, you left. I always blamed it on the weather and here I am in the rainiest city in the U.S. And I haven’t written about Wisconsin. Not yet, though I think there may be something to say about the city where I grew up, a place filled with German immigrants, where it was as common to have a beer man as a milkman who made weekly deliveries to the tidy homes in my neighborhood.
Russo reminds us that place is character in fiction. Just think of Dickens’s London, the vivid characters who come alive in that city’s debtor’s prisons, courts of law, counting houses and blacking factories. They are the products of the city and the time in which they lived. What about race and gender? These things are also undeniably important in character development. But Russo says just about the only people I know who seem to believe that place is crucial to human destiny and the formation of human personality are fiction writers. He cites Annie Proulx, Ivan Doig and Peter Hoeg as examples and I’m sure you can add your own examples from your favorite writers.
But I’m more interested in something else about place in literature. And that is the increasing homogeneity of the United States. If you drop me off in some mall parking lot anywhere from California to Pennsylvania, I may have trouble figuring out where I am. What distinguishes one city or state from another these days when Safeway and Starbuck’s and Macy’s and Pottery Barn and JC Penneys are everywhere? When we’re all connected by television and the internet. Where we can wake up in one time zone and go to sleep in another just by taking a short plane ride. Where children grow up in one state, go to college in another and find their first job in yet another state?
Russo mentions this phenomenon as well. He relates an experience he had attending a writing conference session on Contemporary Southern Writing where, he says, there was little talk of landscape or the rhythms of daily life or architecture or occupations. He asks: How should writers handle the Wal-Mart sameness that is creeping into our cultural life regardless of where we happen to be located? If what makes Southern fiction distinctly Southern is being subtly eroded then couldn’t the same be said for the notion of place in general? Is place itself, which is under siege both in reality and in metaphor can be rescued for the endangered species list of important concepts?
So I’ve decided to begin my own research project on this idea of place in literature. I’m going to read a work of fiction from each of the United States and see what I learn about places I’ve never been and may never travel to in this vast country of ours. I’ll get my book recommendations from independent bookstores that I contact in each state. I’m excited to get started on this road trip I’m taking from the comfort of my favorite reading chair. I’m not sure what I’ll learn along the way but I know the adventure will be filled with characters I’ll come to care about and places I will want to visit. Who knows? Some day it may actually lead to a real road trip. Wish me well. I’ll keep you posted.
And, if you want to learn more about how to effectively use place in your own writing, I highly recommend Richard Russo’s essay. You can find it in one of my favorite books on writing: Creating Fiction: Instruction and insights from teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Edited by Julie Checkoway.