About forty years ago I read an article about Eudora Welty in which the writer praised her sense of place. That’s it! I thought. A sense of place. It needs to be a strong element in any fiction worth reading. Welty did it with accents, quirks of speech, and descriptions of houses, towns, the land and the weather. Reading Welty you felt like you were listening to your grandfather or a favorite aunt telling true stories. You were there, emersed in it. Her writing was so unassuming, so believable.
My friend Jack Butler was a master at creating a feeling for place. No one has ever encapsulated a summer day in Mississippi so vividly as Butler did in his novel JuJitsu for Christ. He wrote, “A Mississippi summer is an awesome and boggling thing, a slab of steaming time, a hundred cubed: a hundred days at a hundred degrees and one hundred percent humidity. Resin bulges in big globby tears from the trunks of pines…”
Recently I read a book that apparently did not have a huge impact on me because I can’t recall the title or the author. But one thing about it did impress me. There was mention of the “counterweight” on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, and of a building next door to where my son once lived. I immediately felt at home. I felt like I knew where the hero probably shopped for groceries, where he got his hair cut and the coffee shop he frequented. I was IN the story.
I was happy to read in JA Knold’s review of my book Teacher: “Teacher takes place in the town of Olympia, and readers who know Washington state’s capital city are in for a treat. Many are the insightful references to Olympia’s subcultures, political leanings, and physical surroundings.”
Or Anthony J Adam’s review of my novel Tupelo: “As is the case with most Southern writing, the land itself becomes a major character. For those of us who lived for a spell in north Mississippi, the lakes, backroads, drugstores and courthouses will have a familiar ring. The streets here are actual Tupelo streets – Main, Gloster – and Clayton’s detailed descriptions could almost be a roadmap for someone new to the town. The language also rings true – characters do not speak as Southern stereotypes but as you’d expect them to speak if you ran into them on the street decades ago.”
The thing that spurred these thoughts was watching a Playing for Change video of “What’s Going On” with Marvin Gaye and Sara Bareilles and others. Vasti Jackson was playing his guitar and singing in my old hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I was thrilled to know I was watching a famous blues man doing his thing in the town where I went to high school and college and that the sound and image were going out all around the world. And Bareilles was performing in Washington Square Park in NYC. It brought back memories of the many hours I spent in that park watching the old men play their games and musicians making music and mothers pushing their babies in strollers.
I think I’ll watch that video again.