On a hot July evening years ago, my Toyota Tercel overheated on a flat stretch of highway north of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A steam geyser shot up from beneath the hood, and the temperature gauge spiked into the red zone. I pulled onto the shoulder and shut off the engine. Except for my car's gasps and sputters, all was quiet. To the west, nothing but corn beneath the falling sun. To the east, an oat field nearing harvest. It was Sunday, traffic nonexistent, the cell phone era still more than a decade off. With the few tools I kept in my trunk, I tore off the frayed end of the radiator hose and reclamped what remained — it was enough — to the radiator, which of course was now dry. Half a mile away, across the oat field, I could make out a farmstead partly hidden in a clutch of trees, and I set out for it briskly, aware of time passing and thinking of my wife at home in Minnesota, expecting me back.
As I entered the yard of the little farm, a man watched from a church pew that was favorably placed in the grassy shade of a huge elm. His hair was white and lay on his shoulders in two thin braids. His face was deeply lined and dark brown, his cheekbones a pair of sharp fists protecting his eyes, which were the same light blue as the Iowa sky. He'd buttoned his Western-style shirt right up to his neck. When I told him what I needed, he angled his face toward a length of hose lying in the grass. It was attached to a spigot on the farmhouse.
He spoke in a quiet rumble, pointing: "And you'll find buckets in that shed down there."
I found them like he said, a dozen buckets scattered on the floor, five-gallon plastic empties from some kind of farm product. I filled one of these from the hose, called out a thank you to the man, then set off across the field again, wading through oats thigh high, some of the plump, yellow-brown heads of grain brushing off into my precious water. The sun was gone beneath the corn. I topped off the radiator, walked the empty bucket all the way back across the field, and returned it to the shed.
"Never thought I'd see that bucket again," the man told me from his church pew. He hadn't moved. In fact, he seemed like a permanent feature of that place, his eyes watching my coming and going with tolerance — and with a bit of weariness too, it seemed, as if he'd watched too many people like me rushing haphazardly from one place to the next, people who knew more about going than about what to do after they got there. I was a would-be writer whose address had changed seven times in six years and was then, at 31, wrestling with a novel that would finally beat me on points. At the time, I didn't know my encounter that day was going to stay with me. I didn't know how precisely I would recall the clear-eyed man who never rose from his shaded pew. I didn't know that decades later, as I worked on a different novel, my memory of him would yield a character who became a crucial link between my own world and the world I was conjuring: the northern plains of 19th-century America. Even now it's difficult to explain the man's significance to me, though I know it must have to do with his rootedness in contrast to my own transience, and what that suggests about the troubled history between Native America and the immigrant cultures that supplanted it.
My new novel, The High Divide, is the result of many such isolated incidents, idiosyncratic memories, chance encounters. Call it a literary Western, a historical road novel, an Odyssey-like quest — whatever it is, the story is grounded in factual details from the tumultuous endgame of America's headlong affair with Manifest Destiny. Some of the characters are my own versions of real people. Most of the places are right there on the map. But the story is invented. And it's the inventing that's hard to account for.
"Where do you get your ideas?" people ask fiction writers. "What sort of research do you do?" "What is your process?" "Is your work autobiographical?"
I don't mind the questions, which I have certainly asked of others. But in trying to provide answers, I'm afraid my tendency is to simplify. Methods of research, lists of books that I've read, inspiring trips, lifelong interests and obsessions, important mentors, my own little writing tricks, and of course the importance of discipline — and it is important! — as if one's work ethic will ensure a desirable outcome. But taken together, all these answers and explanations fall short of describing how a novel seems to grow out of life itself, and how at times there seems to be some kind of benign conspiracy that makes certain the necessary lessons are delivered.
A year and a half after my car broke down in Iowa, my wife and I were living in a rented farmhouse an hour north of Minneapolis. She was a reference librarian eight months pregnant with our first child, and I was still slogging away on the soon-to-be-abandoned novel. It was the coldest week of winter — minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit that day — and our car (the same Toyota) was in the mechanic's shop half an hour's drive away. When we got the call saying it was ready to be picked up, I put on all of my warmest clothes and walked the gravel road to the county highway, where I stuck out my thumb. Despite the wool socks I wore, my feet after 10 minutes were a pair of wooden stumps, no apparent relation to the rest of me. I was unsure whether any of our cautious, rural neighbors, very few of whom we had met, would be comfortable stopping for a hitchhiker. But luckily I didn't have to wait long. An aging sedan with a bad muffler tapped its horn and pulled onto the gravel shoulder. The rear door swung open, and a draft of warm air and cigarette smoke washed over me. Three young Native men sat inside, smiling.
"Where you going?" I asked them.
"Cambridge," one said. "You?"
"Past there another five miles or so."
"No problem. Get in."