When they ask about my debut novel, Glow, people often want to know why I set it in the mountains and forests of Georgia. In Glow, ghosts inhabit the landscape just as easily as living beings, the two sometimes being interchangeable. When I began writing the story, I knew I needed an environment that could support and evoke that. I needed a forest.
As a child growing up in New York City, I found the forest a distant and alien place filled with slithering reptiles, crafty quadrupeds, drunken teenagers, and witches. As I erupted into adulthood, my concept did not change much. Simply put, I am no outdoorswoman. That is not to say I don't enjoy sipping a warm beverage at an outdoor café (preferably in Paris) or drifting in the clear blue waters of my grandfather's native Gaeta or zipping along the Hudson River at sunset with a friend. Oh, how I do! And if adventure includes coursing down the Amazon in a hundred-foot-long wooden boat or soaring into the sky in a 1929 biplane, I have been adventurous. But the Amazon trip was with an alumni group from my university, and, yes, there was risk of malaria, and I encountered my first (and hopefully last) anaconda, but, still, I wasn't bushwhacking with a machete in the jungle, blazing my own trail, hunting for breakfast. As for the biplane, I was merely a passenger. I am a city girl.I navigate the subway from Brooklyn through Manhattan to Queens during rush hour to attend an avant-garde clown show. I gorge on chocolate-covered crickets at my favorite sushi spot. I savor my anonymity amid a horde of natives and tourists on 42nd Street.
Outdoorswomen and outdoorsmen are self-sufficient, intrepid types who can turn river sludge into drinking water, plot a course by compass, and survive a capsized boat.
Enter Harry (as I shall refer to him for the sake of his dwindling privacy). Harry was a mountain climber. Rainier, Kilimanjaro, Chimborazo, Cotopaxi. He had trekked through Rwanda and Vietnam. He was a backpacker, too, with a fervor for the Appalachian Trail, or the "AT" as the cool, outdoorsy folks called it. He relished being one with nature, solitude among the trees and all that. As for me, I relished Harry.
But what is love if not trying to prove to your amore that you are no city-girl wimp, you can climb any mountain, and you are just as fit as he?
So, shortly after we met one summer, we journeyed to Idaho, home to vertiginous mountain ranges and turbulent rivers.
Our first day, Harry selected a four-mile hike. I snorted. Easy!
He looked at me with a knowing eye. "It's not the same as city blocks," he said.
We set off. Four miles expanded to 10. We had missed a cairn on a poorly marked trail. My behind longed to sit down on something other than scree, my blisters screamed at me, and the sun slapped down on my hat. Harry offered me some of his filtered and distilled (river) water. I sipped but refused to show any sign of fatigue. I moved with alacrity. Grumbling, complaining, aching alacrity, but alacrity just the same. After consulting his compass, we finally arrived back at the trailhead and our car. I gingerly extracted my feet from my new hiking boots and muttered, "Cool. When do we get to do that again?"
The next morning, my beloved suggested a bike ride. When I lived in Northern California, I used to ride my sleek tour bike from San Francisco to Sacramento and back again. "Sure, let's do it," I rallied. When we arrived at the bike outfitters, I was aghast: Mountain bikes are tour bikes' hideous cousins: behemoths with thick gnarled tires, wide chunky handlebars, and clunky gears.
I lumbered up the first mountain pass, Harry in the lead. I huffed and sucked in the dry air as quietly as I could. I would not be defeated. Soon, I was down to my lowest gear. And then I pedaled so slowly I had to walk my bike to the top. Once there, I stifled my pride, remounted my wheeled steed, and followed Harry as he careened with joy through a shallow riverbed to the far bank. I pursued him and, in doing so, rammed my front tire on a protruding rock in the riverbed. My back wheel flipped skyward. As did I. I landed face down in the arctic water. Stunned, I lifted my head to see a worried face asking, "Are you okay?" When I nodded, Harry burst into heartfelt laughter. Apparently, I cut quite the figure, spread eagle, river coursing around my splayed figure.
"I've never seen anything like that!" he said.
I declared the bike ride over.
The third day Harry suggested white-water rafting.
Did you know that when you go river rafting you do not sit in the raft? You sit on the edge of the rubber vessel, leaning out, with your foot hooked under the seat. This enables you to dig into the water with maximum force and remain balanced and inside the watercraft. Which was critical: the river was running high, no gentle waves here but level 5+, the highest. The most exciting, according to my outdoorsman. Until our guide misguided us over a waterfall. The raft buckled and tossed, and the two front rowers, Harry included, fell forward, somersaulting into the toothlike rapids. Then the boat clamshelled and the two rowers in the middle squished out the sides. This left the guide and me. Or not. I turned to my right to see him falling overboard, nothing but his leg visible to me. With an adrenaline-filled cry of "Nooooooooo!" I reached out, grabbed his foot, and hauled him back into the raft.
Together the guide and I retrieved our rowers. No one was hurt. But one of us was missing: Harry.
"Are you worried?" the guide asked
Not for a second. My Harry could find his way out of the forest with a compass. He could speed to the top of the mountain on his bike in a single bound. And if the river was strong enough to suck him out of the raft, Harry was smart enough to know how to survive.
And he did. A couple of miles downstream we found Harry hanging out on a boulder, catching the sun, waiting for our arrival.
I'm not certain I proved anything on that trip. I know I had fun, even if I wouldn't admit it. I have since trekked the AT, scaled St. Mary's Glacier, summitted a mountain or two myself. Harry proposed on a mountaintop, of course.
Still, I am not an outdoorswoman. But I try. Because it is Harry's passion. And he shares mine: When I asked him to drive with me from Manhattan down the Eastern seaboard in search of a setting for Glow, he was game. He knows my kind of adventure involves meeting people and learning new cultures. Inventing characters and placing them on the page, on the stage, or in film.
When we arrived in northeastern Georgia, I knew I had found the ideal surroundings for my story: The forest was wet and lush and fertile with spooky pockets of light and dark, dotted by exotic flowers the likes of which I'd never seen before in the United States. There were mountains, hidden coves, cataracts, and cavernous gorges, the perfect playground for my characters. And I embraced it.
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Jessica Maria Tuccelli is a graduate of MIT. She currently resides in New York City. Glow is her first novel.
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