Several years ago, a new student arrived early for class to talk about the novel he would be working on during the semester. Its setting seemed eerily familiar to me. I remarked that this sounded like my hometown. “Where was that?” he asked, and when I told him, he said, “That’s the place I’m writing about. ”
My student was an accomplished artist. He had lived in Boston and New York and had spent extended time in other great cities of the world. He’d lived in my little town, notable mainly for liver mush and water laced with lithium, for only a couple of years during high school. Yet this was the place that captured his imagination and continued to thrive in his memory.
After recovering from the coincidence (of time as well as geography—he’d been just a few grades behind me at the same high school), I began to understand his fascination with that little town, a place where, for most his life, he was not.
I now know that, for me, not being there is a necessity for writing about place. I tried writing about Boston when I lived there, but I ended up with borderline autobiography, too up close and personal, too much all about me. Years later, back in North Carolina, I tried to set my fiction here. I observed everything first-hand, people and things as well as backdrops, but again, that writerly claustrophobia descended and imagination shut down. At last, I’ve found a place to write about that feels just right. It’s Boston again, but an earlier century, so this time I’m not there in either time or space, which is a double-good thing for me.
But not for everyone. Vicki Lane, the successful fiction writer and popular Great Smokies instructor interviewed in this issue, inhales the culture and lore that surrounds her and exhales stories that fill the reader’s head with atmosphere. A Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote about Vicki’s latest novel: “Lane demonstrates how deeply she feels part of her Appalachian home, how tied she is to the land and the pulsating beats that can't quite be found elsewhere." Tommy Hays writes in his introduction to this issue about the roads near his childhood home in Greenville, South Carolina, where his father would take the family “to ride” and which run through his novel, The Pleasure Was Mine. “…You don’t have to take your characters to Africa or Everest or Antarctica,” Tommy says. “In fact, you don’t have to go far at all. You can drive them a few miles or walk them down the block or direct them into a room they don’t usually go in.…”
This fourth issue of The Great Smokies Review takes readers to places in and out of this world, familiar and strange, from the confines of a suburban house a grieving mother refuses to leave to the Cretaceous Period somewhere on Earth visited by a hasty time-traveler. There is no end of places that have inspired the writings in this issue: the North Slope of Alaska; Zipingpu Ferry in Sichuan; a “vast howling wilderness” in colonial-era Massachusetts.
Whatever setting we choose for inspiration, Katherine Soniat offers advice in her Craft Session: “If you, too, would like to use place in either fiction or poetry, try immersing yourself in a defined segment of your topic’s history, then do some good factual reading concerning an object or life that attracts you.” Having done that, her advice continues, “Sit back, stir, and be patient.” As an approach that combines the contemplation of distance with the excitement of immediacy, this sounds like a good plan for all of us.