Welcome to the Literary Road Trip and my Spotlight On . . . Joyce Hinnefeld. When I had the pleasure of meeting Joyce at BookExpo America (BEA) this last May, I discovered that she lives in eastern Pennsylvania. That gave me the opportunity to introduce her to all of you. Joyce's second novel, Stranger Here Below, was published just this week by Unbridled Books.
Today Joyce wonders about her own connection with place. Are authors always objective observers, standing to the side? Or can their characters pull them into the circle and welcome them home?
For someone whose fiction almost always springs from engagement with a place, I find it surprisingly hard to identify myself with one specific geographic locale. How can I write about being a Pennsylvania writer, I’ve been wondering as I’ve pondered this blog post, when I don’t really consider myself a Pennsylvania anything? Nor an Indiana writer, nor a Chicago writer, nor an upstate New York or New York City or Kentucky writer—to name some of the places I’ve lived, or written about, or both.
I wonder if all writers consider themselves, on some level, outsiders. We are perpetually peering in windows, looking on at other lives, imagining our way out of where we are and into someone else’s skin. I used to say that I managed to write about a place only after I’d left it. And that included places I’d only visited. I worked on my novel Stranger Here Below for many years, and never, during that time, was I in Kentucky—where the novel is set—for more than ten days at a time. When I was in Kentucky, most of my time was spent perusing the archives at the two communities where much of the novel is set: Berea College and the former Shaker community at Pleasant Hill.
But Appalachia—specifically the hills of eastern Kentucky—figures prominently in the novel too, and I wrote portions of the novel set in the fictional Appalachian town of Torchlight while I was staying in a remote town in New York state, in the middle of a gray and desolate March. Staring out my window at two overgrown spruce trees hiding the front of a rickety old house across the street helped me conjure a different, but equally sad and neglected, place.
I think that’s how our imaginations often work, and I think putting the imagination to work is what gets a fiction writer—and also a poet—to her or his desk each day. One of my favorite poems by William Stafford, “Writing the World,” begins “In the stillness around me that no one can cross / I am writing for life,” and ends: “. . . come true, sing / flame out, be me—who I might have been.”
But gradually, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to admit that there’s more to life than constantly seeking someone else whose skin I can try to enter (another “who I might have been”). And part of admitting that has been acknowledging my need for community, and my need to feel a part of the place where I’m living, right now. For the last thirteen years, that place has been the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, and in my first published novel, In Hovering Flight, I came home to roost, so to speak, and created fictional worlds in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and in coastal New Jersey—worlds that were very much rooted in those real places.
Pennsylvania is so rich in history that it can almost feel overwhelming at times. Right here where I live, in little Bethlehem, PA, for instance, there’s an interesting Moravian tradition that dates back to the early eighteenth century. I love the fact that that history is part of my teaching life (at Moravian College) and of my daughter’s life at school (at Moravian Academy).
There are rich, and endless, possibilities for creating fictional people and worlds that are rooted in this state’s real history—but there are also important realities here in Pennsylvania to write about right now. I spent much of the summer of 2010 working on an essay about, among other things, efforts to dam the Delaware River in the mid-twentieth century and ongoing threats to the Delaware River watershed today—for instance, from plans to drill for natural gas throughout the geologic formation known as the Marcellus Shale. We in Pennsylvania need to be alert to these threats for lots of reasons—most pressingly, perhaps, because of what it could mean for our water supply.
I came to understand more about the history of, and current threats to, the Delaware River Basin essentially by accident, when I was doing research for In Hovering Flight. One of that novel’s central characters, Addie, becomes involved with a fictional environmental organization that I called the Bucks County Mothers of the Earth. The leader of that group, a character I called Lynn, was considerably more prominent in an earlier draft of the novel—until my wise and thoughtful editor, Fred Ramey, helped me see the problems with her character and with my borderline stereotyped depiction of 1970s-era environmental crusaders.
Though she became less significant in the novel, Lynn stuck with me, as my characters tend to do. What was interesting about her was something I hadn’t yet learned enough about; in my original conception, she was someone whose family had owned a farm along the Delaware River, one that was seized by the Army Corps of Engineers in connection with plans to build a dam at a site called Tocks Island. I didn’t forget about Lynn, or her imagined family, or that strange time along the upper Delaware that I’d learned about in a book I found at the Moravian College Library (in which I was seeking more background on the lower Delaware River Valley, where the characters in In Hovering Flight live). When I dug deeper and started learning more, what emerged, instead of a fictional story about environmental radical Lynn, was an essay about the complications of property ownership, about land and water and our dangerous notion that there will always be plenty of both.
But it was Pennsylvania girl Lynn—still as real to me as the people I’ve since spoken to about the Tocks Island story—who took me there. Maybe “who I might have been,” in this case, is actually me: a Pennsylvania resident with hopes for many years of clean water, valued and protected land, and ongoing attention to this state’s rich history and vulnerable resources.
Thanks, Joyce. I am often struck by how connections to place can happen. Sometimes by accident; sometimes through unexpected avenues. Imagination leads to research that leads to awareness of community. (Photos by Joyce Hinnefeld; click to see full size.)
For more on Joyce, be sure to visit her website and blog.
Joyce Hinnefeld is the Cohen Chair in English and Literature at Moravian in Bethlehem, PA. She is the author of a short story collection, Tell Me Everything and Other Stories (University Press of New England, 1998), which was awarded the 1997 Breadloaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless Prize in fiction in 1997. Her first novel, In Hovering Flight, was a #1 Indie Next Pick. Her second novel, Stranger Here Below, is just out from Unbridled Books.
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.