So here we are at Interlochen College of Creative Arts in Northern Michigan, and before the ICCA Writers’ Retreat starts next week, I have some time to be concentrating on my own writing. A sort of self-imposed retreat while Philip teaches a printmaking workshop.
I’m working on a novel-in-progress that takes place in New Hope, the fictional town where my story collection The Temple of Air is set. Working title is either Sledding the House of God Hill or Climbing the House of God Hill (my apologies, Jaimee Wriston-Colbert, for manipulating the title of your very fine collection: Climbing the God Tree) depending on the day. Some days we go up, some days we go down. You know.
So this desk is in a sweet little cabin in the woods and I have close by those things that are important to my writing: coffee, nuts, books, journal, water, and a wall. I like having a blank wall in front of me while I write, because I can fill it in with the things I need at the time, and I have to turn away from the work of imagining in order to get a real view. Here the real view is to my left and also behind me. Through a screen door and windows I can see the wooded campus and sandy lanes, black squirrels skittering around. On the cabin wall I have a reduction linocut print that Philip made in preparation for his workshop. It is of rocks and stones. Very groovy. I also have a couple of lists from the novel, not something I usually need, but I left this book behind for nearly a year after my brother died last summer, and school took over in the fall, and the work of producing and promoting the story collection swept away winter and spring. These lists come in handy because I move around in time and point-of-view in HOG Hill, and there are three families in the act. Two of these families are quite large, with five children in one, and seven in the other. So in order for me to move forward more effectively, I have had to go through the hundred-plus pages I have so far to gather names, events, what’s been told, when things happened, what I have really already written, and what I just think I have. Not all problems are solved in the list making, but many have been discovered.
If I had been working on this novel straight through from its original conception, I would have been able to carry the story in my head with all of its details–one (or is it two?) of the great joys of writing is living one life and dreaming another on a daily basis. Now, though, I sort of feel like I might at my high school reunion: everyone is more or less familiar, and I know I should know who this is and remember that name, but too much time has passed since the last time we met. And did that really happen the way I remember? Who was there then? What am I leaving out?
An excerpt, then, from the novel. Allison is a blossoming 14-year-old girl at the pool with her sisters but without her stepmother Rebecca. Her father would not approve of this. Lanny is her father’s friend.
Sledding (Climbing?) the House of God Hill – an excerpt from chapter 4, “At the Pool”
“I’m thinking you’re on your own, you girls,” Lanny said. He didn’t look at her but watched people pass, his eyes moving over their bodies, unabashedly taking in limbs. Allison checked him out while he was distracted, this man who was her father’s age. She followed the lines of his shoulders and arms (broad, muscled, the arms of a laborer) and the way his belly went soft and round and spilled over the waistband of his trunks. His hairy legs, nothing remarkable, and the cling of his bathing suit to the spot between his legs, the significant presence of it, the bulge there.
“What do you think?” He said.
“Am I right? You girls are alone here?” He smiled then, an accomplice’s smile, Allison thought, slightly crooked and—she saw it, she knew it was there—flirty. She remembered times when Lanny would come to the house when the girls were all little. He sometimes would grab them by a leg and an arm and swoop them in wide loops in the living room. She remembered jumping up and down, begging for more, the way her heart lifted in the bottom of her throat when he spun her, the way it thrilled her to watch the room race past her eyes: her father in his chair, Rebecca’s paintings on the walls, her sisters in the doorway, the couch where Rebecca sat looking slightly frightened. And when he put her back on the ground, Allison stood on trembling legs, her body weaving in place, her eyes still shifting, moving, then landing on Lanny’s broad grin. She loved him then.
Nearly ten years ago I had the honor of being Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy. When I returned to my work at Columbia College Chicago and told a colleague about my time writing in a cabin in the woods, he said he would never have been able to stand it–the isolation, the quiet. Poor man. Who wouldn’t want to write here?
→Limited spots left for this summer’s Interlochen Writers’ Retreat. Go to http://college.interlochen.org/program/writers-retreat for more information. -PMc←