Welcome to the Literary Road Trip and my Spotlight On . . . Justin Kramon. I am so pleased to introduce you to Justin because I think you'll be hearing a lot about him this summer. His debut novel, Finny, will be released next week, and there is already quite a bit of buzz.
Although Justin is not a native Pennsylvanian, he went to college outside of Philadelphia and now calls the city home. When I ask the authors spotlighted for the Literary Road Trip to write a guest post, I give them free reign, and I'm always curious to see how Pennsylvania plays into their writing or their memories.
Some scenes in the novel Finny take place in Philadelphia. A smart idea, you might think, because Justin is familiar with the city. Or is he?
The idea that you should write what you know has always made me nervous. It's embarrassing how little I know. Whenever I'm invited to play Trivial Pursuit, I fake a groin injury. If someone asks me a question that requires any kind of practical experience in the answer, I begin to cough, or if that doesn't work, I'll cry. I've gone into labor to avoid admitting I don't know how to get to Main Street.
To compound this problem, I don't enjoy research. The word archival gives me a rash, and if someone even points at an encyclopedia, I need to swallow half a bottle of Tums.
I have very little to offer in the way of useful knowledge or advice, and even if I did have anything helpful to say, I'd probably spill something hot on myself before I had a chance to say it.
So you can see why writing a novel was hard for me.
I live in Philadelphia now, and I went to college just outside the city, but I wrote most of my novel while I was living in New York. There's an entire section of the book when my main character, Finny (a woman—you can guess how much I know about that) is living and going to school at a small college outside Philadelphia. I remembered some details about the school and the area, but honestly, my picture was fuzzy. And I didn't want to break up the writing with a lot of research trips back to Philly, to jog my memory about how long it took to get to Center City on the train or what stores were on the corner of Broad and Chestnut.
What I had, more than specific facts, were impressions of the place: the dining hall that for some reason reminded me of a medieval dungeon, the sunny lawn in front of the admissions office, the sound outside my door of a crazy student who used to ride his bike toward the wall and then slam on the brakes when his nose was only inches from the concrete blocks, a feeling of both excitement and disappointment about what lay ahead of me. Those are the kinds of details I have to go on when I write about a place.
My theory was that I would write the whole novel, then go back and research the details I didn't remember, so the book would be accurate.
There's one scene in particular I remember writing, a scene in which someone very close to Finny dies, and Finny's family has to go into a funeral home to make arrangements for the burial. I actually tell this as a comic scene in the book. The undertakers are a married couple who alternately sneeze on the corpse and complain about how insensitive the other one is. As a finale, one of the undertakers passes a bill for the funeral over the counter to Finny's mom and asks her to swipe her card, which to me (perhaps because I have something wrong with me) was both a funny and a tragic moment in Finny's life.
Afterward, I thought about it. This wasn't the way funeral homes worked. Bills and receipts weren't passed over the counter like at a deli. I told myself that when I finished the book, I would start calling around to some funeral homes, find an undertaker who would talk to me, walk me through the whole process of how a grieving family lays a loved one to rest, so that I could get every detail right.
Then I finished the book. I went back and reread the scene. I decided not to change it.
It could have been out of sheer laziness—always a strong factor in my decision making. But I like to think that in this case it might have been something else. As I reread the scene, I realized that, by bending the facts, I could actually say something truer about people's selfishness in the face of others' grief, about loneliness and loss, and also do it in a way that was consistent with the bright and optimistic tone of the book. I thought the fiction said more than the facts.
I went back to my college recently, since I live in the area now and it's not a long drive. It turned out I was right about some things: the dining hall did look like a dungeon, the lawn was as bright as I'd remembered. But the carpet in the library was a completely different shade than the horrible orange I'd had in my mind. I wondered if they'd changed it, or if it had just been my imagination.
Thank you so much Justin. I like the way your imagination works, and I was chuckling over the comparison of the funeral home to a deli. I am also impressed with the scope of Finny in both the time frame and the geographical range you cover.
I have Finny on my summer reading list, and I can't wait to get to it. I love coming-of-age stories in all their manifestations, and I think it's going to be a treat to watch Finny grow up.
To learn more on the novel, watch the book trailer.
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Justin Kramon is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he has published stories in Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, Boulevard, Fence, TriQuarterly, and others. He has received honors from the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, Best American Short Stories, the Hawthornden International Writers' Fellowship, and the Bogliasco Foundation. He teaches at Gotham Writers' Workshop in New York City and at the Iowa Young Writers' Studio. He lives in Philadelphia. To learn more about Justin and his novel Finny, be sure to visit his website.
For more posts in the Literary Road Trip project, visit the LRT link page. Thanks to Jenn of Jenn's Bookshelves for hosting this fabulous project.