Friday, January 24, 2014

Getting to the Right Place

Getting ready for YAK FEST this morning up in Ft. Worth! Waiting for the ice to lift so the roads are safe. Polar vortex made it to Texas with ice and snow! But never fear, by Sunday it will be 70 degrees! That's Texas, folks.

Also thinking about setting today, and how I use setting in my various novels, including a Texas setting in my newest, THE SWEET DEAD LIFE, the gorgeous paperbacks of which arrive on 2/4!

Creating setting is a larger task than just throwing out a few vague place markers. I can’t just plunk the Empire State Building in one scene and have my main character ride the subway in the next and call it New York. Not that I have ever written a novel set in New York. But if I did, I know it wouldn’t be enough. At least I’d need that pretzel cart and maybe the MOMA and that yummy scone benedict I ate at Alice’s Tea Cup on the Upper East Side—well, I’d have to remember the china it was served on now, wouldn’t I?

Okay, that’s not quite it either. And not only because I don’t have an eye for china.

Place is built through a multiplicity of elements of the senses, the cultural milieu,  the manner and mode of the time – of everything that makes a place hum and breathe.

Which gets us – if I take a giant enough leap—to Texas, the setting for my most recent YA novel, THE SWEET DEAD LIFE (Soho Press, May 2013) and its sequel, THE A WORD (Soho Press, May 2014)

Now here’s the thing: I did not grow up in Texas but in Chicago. So my formative years held an entirely different set of life details. East was the lake. The subway was called the ‘L’ because most of the time it was ‘El’-evated above ground. I knew my way around public transportation and what the light looked like on a Tuesday afternoon in the fall. I knew what the air smelled like when it was going to snow. I had no clue what the White Sox did or didn’t do because I grew up on the North Side where you rooted for the Cubs, no questions asked. I knew that everyone had their own favorite hot dog place and Super Dawg was mine but there were dozens of others and most of them also served Italian Beef and inexplicably, tamales, which I still can’t explain. Lake Michigan was my ocean and sometimes in the coldest dead of winter, the waves nearing the shore would freeze—which shouldn’t have been possible but happened anyway. I knew what steam heat from a radiator felt like and sounded like and smelled like because we lived in an old 1920’s historic register brownstone type building until I was thirteen and when we first moved in, the furnace still ran on coal because that’s how it was set up.  I walked to school and most other places, and I did not buy my first car until I graduated from college because really you could get by without one. The mostly straight and orderly grid of the city tucked itself into my skin. The clear dichotomy of the neighborhoods was also clear. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. This is not always a good thing, by the way but often a euphemistic way to explain divisions and segregation and the million other things that separate people. On the other hand, Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw and you can get pierogi and sausage to die for. And German pastry and Jewish rye bread and Greek food in restaurants that seat 1,000, served to you by waiters who tell about how they drank too much ouzo one night and passed out in a snowdrift. Then you yell “opa!” and they bring you flaming cheese.

When I wrote my first novel, DREAMING ANASTASIA (Soucebooks), and the other two books in the series that followed it, I got to live and breathe Chicago again because that’s where the series is mostly set. But it had been a long time since I’d lived in the city proper, so Anne was a product of the North Shore suburbs where most of my family now lives and where I visit frequently. She is a resourceful girl, Anne Michaelson, as is her bestie Tess, but they are not city girls by any means. Anne’s sense of place is the quiet and boring ‘burbs – and thus it’s all the more startling both for character and readers when Russian fairy tale witches and mermaids and a cute spell-casting former Russian monk and a trapped Russian princess invade the norm of big houses and wide streets and little jewelry shops and the occasional IHop. Still, that norm must be authentic. Although I don’t name the suburb, I’ve heard from more than one reader who has managed to pinpoint exactly where Anne’s ‘normal world’ is set.

But Texas – and specifically the northern suburbs of Houston where THE SWEET DEAD LIFE (Soho Press) is set—is a different thing entirely. Narrator Jenna and her brother Casey inhabit a very specific corner of the Texas landscape, as do I. People wear cowboy boots here all the time, even though most of us don’t work with horses on a daily basis – or at all. Big belt buckles and hats, too, and not always limited to the three weeks that encompass the Houston Livestock and Rodeo – when everyone breaks out their western wear and it is entirely common to see horses and riders trotting alongside the freeway. We hit the local bakeries to eat kolaches – a Czech-immigrant-inspired pastry with yeast dough and fruit or cheese or sausage or a combination of the above even though kolaches are not hip or healthy. They also existed in Chicago, which I saw as a sign of good fortune. They taste good. They wash down well with coffee and you can eat them in the car. Shockingly the rest of the country, outside of places like Prague, Nebraska, don’t know from such things. You are missing out, I tell you.

Here north of Houston, wharf rat size rodents called nutria slither in my duck pond. It rains hugely here when it rains – enormous ‘gully-washers’ that pour from the sky, commonly dropping 5 inches of rain in an hour… unless there’s a drought. Which could be broken by a hurricane in the Gulf. We prepare for the worst here – and endure it if it comes. Yes, even in the suburbs. Things happen. Things explode. And in the case of TSDL’s Samuels family, fathers disappear and people mysteriously poison my narrator and her brother bites the dust in a car accident and comes back as her guardian angel. Here in a place where Olive Garden is always packed, where capri-pants wearing women push loaded carts at Wal-Mart and more than one business that combines paint by the number art with wine tasting thrives. As Jenna herself observes, the Crocs kiosk is still open and selling a bunch of clogs in the mall and people can buy things like the Fartinator at Spencer’s. High school football is still king. And the east side of the freeway is sometimes considered the ‘other side of the tracks.’ Downtown Houston and the rarefied atmosphere of the Houston Galleria shopping center can seem far away even if they’re not. It is no surprise to me that some reviewers who have never been here think I’m describing a small town and not a suburb. Because that’s how it feels. And that’s how it is.

Somehow, it felt like the perfect backdrop for a story of an unlikely angel and his feisty sister who find themselves solving a mystery and fighting the bad guys – who in the sequel get progressively badder—and trying to figure their way around that larger battle of good vs. evil. A story of love and siblings and family and what you do when everything breaks. Texas is the perfect place for all that. We were, you know, our own country. And Houston – well, to know Houston you also have to understand that it’s a port city even though it’s 75 miles or more from the Gulf of Mexico. Houston dug a Ship Channel to create its own destiny. It created its sense of place just as Casey and Jenna do.

All of which hopefully makes THE SWEET DEAD LIFE a good read. With or without kolaches.

What novels have you read where the setting plays a large role?

1 comment:

McCourt said...

Great comments on setting Joy and how important it can be. Recently, I think Kathi Appelt's setting really came alive in The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. Delicious details really made you feel like you were in the swamp with all those characters. Her settings really seem to inhabit her stories.

And yes - Houston suburbs can be their own kind of small towns!