One of the fascinations of writing fiction is creating characters “out of whole cloth”, then recognizing in them attitudes and dominant traits of myself, the people who shaped me, my children, or others who have left some mark. I remember creating Carla in The Inheritors and puzzling over her familiarity. Then I woke up one morning to the realization that she sprang from my mother. The children of Nowhere Else To Go live unhindered by any conscious ties to my lived experience, but in their voices I hear the attitudes of my children and their friends. Only occasionally have I consciously modeled a character on a person I know, and when I have, it often traps me in reality—as though the worlds of reality and fiction must be separate for the imagination to take flight. But there is no doubt, looking back, that those who shaped my character and attitudes come to life in my work. First and foremost, of course, my parents.
PIECES OF TRUTH
For my father, an avid reader and thinker, the greatest evils perpetuated by mankind are committed by mobs believing they are empowered by God or The Greater Good. Witch burning, lynching, and the Holocaust are the most famous examples, but there are many less historic examples, such as the burning of abortion clinics or eco-terrorist acts by Greenpeace. Reports of such acts would turn him red. He’d slap his napkin on the table, rise and pace the room, waving his arms in rage. What I carry from those rages is deep aversion to mob-think—whether from the peace marchers of the Sixties to the Tea Party of current times—and to those who claim a superior knowledge of the Truth. The blindness of zealotry in Nowhere Else To Go has its roots here. His maxim: No one has a corner on the truth. Everyone has a piece of it.
Oddly enough, the first thing I did, upon becoming an adult was to defy those maxims and join the Catholic Church. Why? Partly because the man I loved was Catholic, but mostly because I found in its music and liturgy a celebration of soul—a version of truth my father denied. His damning of mobs was a part of his belief in the evil of uncontrolled passion—a very Christian belief—which expanded, for him, to an aversion to all emotion. He was a scientist and a rationalist, which outlawed subjectivity from the search for truth—a version which, in my mind, is the truth but not the whole truth. The conflict between the two versions comes to life in Carla also, making her a blend and another person in her own right. Though my aversion to claims of infallibility won out in the end, I came away from the Catholic experience with a deep sense of the importance of passion in human greatness as well as human folly, and in the beauty of music and ritual in its expression. And so, in the end, I confirmed my father’s maxim: everyone has a piece of the truth; no one has it all.
As I look back, I can see that his hatred of absolutes gave me the habit of searching out differing perspectives—collecting pieces of truth. I think this belief is admirably suited to fiction. I love walking in the characters’ lives, picking up and expressing their version of truth. It is also too easy, in fiction, to create characters in service to your own biases and then bring them down. Straw men in the lingo of the trade. John Gardner, head of the Bread Loaf writing retreat when I attended, caught me at that one. His maxim, in The Art of Fiction, that you must love your characters is now engraved on my soul. It was particularly important in the many voices of Nowhere Else To Go; if I couldn’t “get into” a character, out it went.
Such shape-shifting fires my imagination, which is not at all rational but is critical to becoming a novelist. By both following and defying him, I found my own gifts. Such ironies make writers.
MY MOTHER’S FAITH
For me, place, the subject of another blog, and character fuse in ever new ways both in life and in fiction. I see my grandfather’s church, its white clapboard steeple rising from the hot, dry prairie. Inside, the floor is bare of carpet, the altar stripped of gilt, the walls are naked, the wood of the pews, scarred. The prairie sun blasts through the clear glass of the windows. That’s it. Raw heat on bare wood. My mother grew up sitting in that pew, listening to her father preach of man’s sins and the ever present danger of damnation. Her childhood was spent listening to the long list of hazards to the soul and recognizing the devil found lurking in every human passion, every tempting pleasure. This was the faith of her father.
She rebelled against this angry God and escaped, not into marriage but into college. Her father cut off her allowance, and she scrubbed floors in the dormitory to pay her room and board. Then she took off alone to the city—that pit of iniquity her father had warned against. She worked in the stool lab to pay her way to graduate school.
Then she met my father, became a housewife and mother, and the graduate student in biochemistry vanished, not to be heard from until years later. I was very nearly grown before I knew anything of her past, for my mother considered talking about herself self-indulgent and believed both wifehood and motherhood demanded selflessness. She was still a rebel. She dressed us in bright colors, but could not wear them herself. She said wearing red made her feel like a tart. Such is the enduring grip of our parents. She made our clothes by hand, but they were new—a vanity denied the pastor’s children. She rejoiced in our friends, a pleasure her father considered dilatory. She even allowed herself a few of her own, though she would never put work aside or dally over coffee as they did.
There was nothing in her of the punishing God of her childhood. Yet she would find beauty in the picture of the prairie church I painted above. In its simplicity, its unadorned surfaces, reflecting only the light of God. That God emanates from everything she was or did. This is my mother’s church.
Though she was the first to praise my writing, to become a writer would, for her, be an unacceptable act of self-indulgence. From that rigid code of selfless duty, I’ve traveled far. But the first novel I attempted was set in my mother’s prairie faith, known to me only through her, and I think I was searching, as she did, for that clear, uncluttered shaft of light.