I used to own a house that had about an acre of sloping land, and when I bought it, nearly half that acre was entombed in blackberries. The day I closed and got the keys, I walked down to the entombed half and started to bushwhack through it just to see what was there. To my surprise, there was a small shed built long ago but still standing tall, although it was evident by the vines growing through its open windows that it had not been used in ages, and just beyond the shed, overgrown and very long neglected, was a grove of apple trees, a dozen of them. Several of the trees were dead; the rest that were living were too old and unpruned to do anything with them beyond letting them be. They grew small, deformed apples that a family of deer (who also lived within that entombed half-acre) used to nose into piles and dine on. I loved the gangly grace of those old trees, even the dead ones, with their frenzy of branches reaching out in all directions as if in constant want of contact by any means. There was a story to them for sure, about how long they had been neglected, and about who neglected them and why, and I realized that the only way I could know that story would be if I made it up myself.
Jump ahead a few years, to when I had finished my first novel (which had nothing to do with apple trees) and when I thought for sure that I'd never write another word because nothing was locking itself to my heart, when one depressed autumn afternoon standing on my deck looking down the slope to the apple trees, I heard an elderly woman's voice say as clear to me as any voice has ever spoken, "Don't be afraid to buy the big bunny!"
Now, I should state here emphatically that I am not one given to hearing voices. I may invest inanimate objects and/or pets with a cabaret of my own
voices, but hearing other
people's voices when no one else is around is not among the reasons for which I've ever gone to a shrink. Yet, standing out on the deck that day, the atmospheric molecules swirling about me must have taken on just the right amount of vector and velocity to render them audible, and produced for my ears only a voice that was A) urgent, B) brittle, and, given the bit about the bunny, D) probably nuts. In that moment and in that voice (which I concluded was not nuts, but addled by age), lay the (apple) seed of my novel, The Remnants
The woman to whom the voice belonged would become one of the novel's tent-pole characters, the addled centenarian, True Bliss, in whose home and at whose invitation the novel's skeletal central action – a birthday tea – would take place. My old neglected apple trees, some already deceased, the rest not long for this world, would serve as the inspiration for True's small-town world coming to its end, where the last members of the last families would take with them to eternity the collective memory of all who came and left before them. Their stories, like the small, deformed apples that grew on my trees, would be nosed into piles not by deer but by me, and I would nibble on them until I felt I had digested their world whole.
What's so explosive about a birthday tea, or an unrequited love 80 years past its prime, or sibling rivalries, or a summer day gone horribly wrong, that they would cling to my heart with such a firm grip that I could not shake them for years...?
You may be wondering: How do you get that
story from some batty old lady's voice coming out of the woo woo talking about buying a rabbit? I wish I could boast that I pulled that rabbit out of a hat and it arrived with a story fully formed, but alas, that wasn't true for True, or any of the novel. All I had to go on was her addled voice, and trees representing a disappearing life, and it would take me a few years to create the stories that would bring a world of lives and lore to life.
But beyond the how
of the idea's genesis is the why
of it being so compelling to me. Why write about a bunch of old people in a small town when there's a world of stories out there as in the moment and in your face as shards from a bomb blast? What's so explosive about a birthday tea, or an unrequited love 80 years past its prime, or sibling rivalries, or a summer day gone horribly wrong, that they would cling to my heart with such a firm grip that I could not shake them for years; stories that in their deceptive simplicity would turn dark and complicated even as my fingers tried to type them elsewhere, and often brought me to tears while fashioning them from thin air?
There are stories in this world that will always bring me to tears. Stories about good people whose best intentions bring them nothing but heartache; stories about simple people who make the same life mistakes over and over and never come to understand why; stories about seemingly unremarkable people who do the best they can with the little they have, and hope that it will be enough that they can call it a life.
Relic lives. Remnant lives. What can I say? They speak to me.
These are the stories that came about as I was creating the world that the character True Bliss inhabits. Oddly enough, or maybe not so odd given that my first encounter with her was her admonishment to not fear bunny-buying, but she and her fellow characters Kennesaw Belvedere and Hunko Minton and the Lope sisters and Carnival and Jubilee Aspetuck and the Drell family and the several dozen others in the novel whose lives and defining moments and twisted genetics overlap and intersect, were born of a somewhat comic impulse — they were caricatures at first, fairy-tale fodder at best, who, the more enmeshed with them (and I admit, in love with them) I became, matured into full-blown, blood-pumping, semen-spewing characters who yearned for contact, love, understanding, meaning, and purpose in their short times on this earth, no matter the path and no matter the cost.
They are all in one form or another people I have known in my life, with real character traits or experiences making their ways into certain moments of my own creation, the "lies that make the truth truer." But strip away that conceit, and what is really at the heart of The Remnants
are bits of me from moments in my life: pieces from relationships I have had, childhood moments, adult interactions, loves, fears, unspoken fantasies — every shard in it can be traced back to me in some degree. If writing is no different than method acting in that, to truly understand the emotional truths you're plumbing, the writer needs to have felt similar in order to say and show so, then every character in The Remnants
is as much me as the skin I'm in.
So, to say that the genesis of the novel came from a voice out of the blue is to mislead. For, in truth, what's in The Remnants
was swirling about in me long before I sat down to write it. Emotions and memories and experiences that needed a way out, and so, conspired to invent an old lady to serve as their mouthpiece. Or so I tell myself. Because otherwise, I honestly do not know where the book came from, or why it clung to me for years and demanded to be told, or why it took on the form it did with the voice that tells it, or why that voice and story should be so invested in such seemingly small lives.
It's in the air, I guess, swirling about those old apple trees I used to own, down slope from that house I sold long ago; the impetus to write a novel about a world soon to be no more — gone as those trees of mine that were already going and may, for all I know, be gone already. Gone, but so much a part of me that never will I forget them.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a New Englander by birth, a West Coaster by choice, and an Oregonian by osmosis. As a writer, he has worked in advertising, entertainment, educational software, and not-for-profit fundraising. He is a recipient of a Literary Arts Walt Morey Fellowship, a Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Fellowship, and his first novel, When All Is Said and Done
(Graywolf, 2006), was shortlisted for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction.