Local heroes

“I know these woods.”

Robin Hood, in Robin and Marian

I know something of rural New York, which makes me biased toward regional writers who set their stories there. I know those woods.

Place matters. It is significant that something happens in one place and not another.  And if particular experiences in particular places don’t matter, what the heck does?

Here are three regional writers I like. They have different subjects and styles. What they have in common is an exquisite sense of place.

Beth Peyton

Beth Peyton’s memoir, Clear Skies, Deep Water, was the best book surprise of the summer.  It is about a lot of things: life in a lakeside village after the summer people have gone home, having the courage to love deeply and passionately, the hard work that comes on the heels of choosing to follow a dream, and finding the place just right, meaning home.

Clear Skies is a particular story—personal, individual, and rooted in a real place—but it also is bigger than the simply regional.

Mary Pat Hyland

Mary Pat Hyland is an Irish-American writer who lives in the Southern Tier area of upstate New York (generally, west of the Catskill Mountains and along the northern border of Pennsylvania, including the cities of Binghamton, Elmira, and Corning). She is the author of six novels and a new collection of stories, In the Shadow of the Onion Domes.

Her stories are fictional but feel real. They grow out of deep knowledge of the place where she lives.

Anne Sneller

Anne Sneller is the only writer I know of who published her first book at age eighty. As it happened, she didn’t publish a second one, but not because she couldn’t have. She lived well into her nineties, probably vigorous and observant to the end.

The book is a memoir titled A Vanished World. It goes WAY back; Anne Sneller was born in 1883 on a farm in Cicero, New York. A dust jacket photo on the first edition shows a good-looking woman; she must have been beautiful when she was younger.

In  A Vanished World, she says, “Look! This is how it was. This is what my mother’s house looked like; this is what my crazy uncle was like, and my hard-worked and underappreciated aunts. Here are some images of death. And here are some of life.”

In my first novel, I quoted a passage from A Vanished World. That makes me the only writer in the history of the universe to quote a rural New York memoir in a science fiction novel set in the 22nd century. I hope that makes me interesting; it certainly makes me unusual.

I’m working on a story cycle with the working title of The Green Town Stories. It, too, is set in the 22nd century. However, Green Town is very old. In its earliest incarnation it strongly resembled the real Chautauqua, New York. At that point in its history its name was New Albion. It was a long strange trip to Green Town.

Chautauqua science fiction? I think that is another first.

Good reads: A Vanished World

Green Town, or Imagination on Fire

My next project is a story cycle, eight or ten of them presenting different takes on a single event: idylllic scene with bicyclesthe arrest and imprisonment of an eighteen-year-old girl falsely accused of witchcraft.

The time is 2199. The place is the Reunited States.

Networld e-beasts rule the Reunited States and most of the rest of the world, too (and they are getting sick of it). But these stories are not about e-beasts. Nor are they about how strange the future will look compared with what we know. In Green Town the future bears a strong resemblance to the present, in spite of the e-beasts.

The stories are about the business of living, which goes on regardless of what governments are trying to do.

I took the name Green Town from Ray Bradbury. It is the setting for his novels Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. The original of his Green Town was Waukegan, Illinois. The original of my Green Town is Chautauqua, New York.

What the two Green Towns have in common is being well loved by their creators.


Without TV

For two weeks I was in southwestern New York, at Chautauqua, which looked like this:


idylllic scene with bicycles


And also like this:


Chautauqua lake


So it was not totally surprising that watching TV stopped feeling important or even interesting.  What it felt like was a waste of time, and I stopped doing it.

When you are out from morning to night taking in the richness of a place that blooms like Brigadoon for nine weeks every summer, watching images flicker on a screen seems  like a very small thing to do. Weird and small.

Then I came home and found something odd had happened: I had broken my TV habit without intending to or especially wanting to. I went another week without turning the thing on, letting my 200 channels languish, until it occurred to me that paying for cable was a fool thing to do if I didn’t watch TV.

Like everyone else, I wish I could pick my channels off an a la carte menu. I would pick maybe six or eight. Of those six or eight, there would be only one I actually like: classy, commercial-free TCM.

Though I watch other programs on other stations, if the stations were to vanish from the lineup tomorrow, I would shrug. What does it matter?

This state of mind is wearing off, however. The choice between 200 stations and 0 stations is more drastic than I want.  So far.

Do you have cable TV? If not, do you substitute something else for it?

What the heck do you do if the one station you like is the one station you really cannot duplicate?






Being there

I was on vacation in western New York for not long enough.  It was so good that when I returned, rather than feeling comforted by the familiarity of being home, I felt as though I were moving into a sublet. How convenient that the place has laundry soap and food in the cupboards, and that I have a key that fits the lock on the front door. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with me, even though the mail has my name on it, and I have the mysterious ability to pay bills and do work.

Convenient. But not home. Home is the place where I was. (Why, yes, it was a great time.)

One of the best things about getting away is how it reorganizes priorities. Things that were routine go out the window. New things crowd it. In the time I was away I never turned on a television; for some reason, the idea made me flinch. I think it was because I was in the midst of the REAL. Doing things, being places—not watching electronic reproductions of all that.

I used the iPad to keep up with email—you have to—and uploaded a few photos to Facebook. Checked the local weather. That was it for the internet. My work and all the nonsense I use to distract myself from work fell away as if it were made of mist.

So I am here at this Pennsylvania sublet with my name on it. Mentally and spiritually I am still in western New York, by the lake.


Porch and parrot, Chautauqua, New York

Good read: Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan

There are gazillions of books in this world, which is why I never heard of Stewart O’Nan until I read a paragraph-long review in the New Yorker of his latest novel, Emily, Alone.

I wanted to read the novel because it is set in Pittsburgh, where I was born and grew up, and because it involves a trip to Chautauqua, New York, a place I discovered just 2 years ago. It is a particular treat to read someone else’s take on places you know.

Remember that cliched advice to writers: “when you don’t know what to do, have someone walk into the room with a gun”? I’ve read entire novels built on that advice—apparently the authors never knew what to do. These novels are not shocking and in the end not even interesting. They are a bore.

O’Nan’s novel does open with what might, metaphorically speaking, be someone walking in with a gun: Emily Maxwell, the widowed elderly matriarch of the Maxwell clan, takes a trip to Eat’N Park with her sister-in-law Arlene. Arlene faints at the breakfast bar. However, this is a popgun of an event. Arlene is fine. She is examined and discharged from the hospital and goes on much as before.

However, Arlene’s medical scare wakens Emily on a deep level. She finds herself becoming more engaged with life.

O’Nan creates a compulsively readable story out of the ordinary events of Emily’s life. A trip to church. Classical music on the local public radio station. Driving. Shopping. A Christmas visit from her daughter and grandchildren.  Hiding all the liquor bottles in the house so Emily’s daughter, a recovering alcoholic, won’t see them.

This book is short: only 255 pages. That is good. The level of detail could get wearing in a long novel, but it is just right in this one.

Caveat: I am only halfway through Emily, Alone. I don’t know whether all this beautiful detailing will add up to a powerful portrait of Emily and her world, or whether it will just remain beautiful detailing. Either way, reading this novel has been time well spent

Chautauqua: bumblebees CAN fly

In 2002, a scientist named Dr. Kirsten addressed  the “bumblebees can’t fly” myth in a forum called This Week in Science:

For the longest time people just couldn’t understand how these big fat aerodynamically impaired insects could get off the ground using such proportionally itty-bitty wings. Finally, scientists realized that there was much more involved . . . . It has something to do with the way they use their wings and the lift generated by vortices that swirl behind the moving wing edges.

“The way they use their wings”

The Chautauqua Institution is a bumblebee. Founded in 1874 by a wealthy Ohio businessman and  a Methodist minister, it had—and has—the motto, “Every man has the right to be all he can be, to know all that he can know.”

Let those words sink in. Linger over them. They were extraordinary in 1888, when John Heyl Vincent (the minister) spoke them as part of a Founder’s Day speech. They are extraordinary now. They reflect idealism that cynics would call hopeless, naive, doomed. Such a bumblebee could not get off the ground.

The cynics are wrong, however. Chautauqua opened its 137th season last week—still flying.

Chautauqua provides recreation, education, arts, and religion in any combination you chose (all, some, none). Its mostly Victorian cottages and inns are set close together. It is a walking/biking community because cars can barely get around the place.

While I was there, I did these things:

  • Sat 10 feet from Alan Alda while he participated in the reading of Roger Rosenblatt’s one-act play Blueberry.
  • Got refreshed and inspired by the brilliant preaching of a brilliant man, The Very Rev. Alan Jones, dean emeritus, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. (In a world populated solely by fundamentalists and atheists, there is no place for me. But as Rev. Jones made clear, the world is bigger than that, and so is faith.)
  • Heard symphony, pops, piano, and “chamber blues” music. (Chamber blues grows on you.)
  • Saw ballet and acrobatics.
  • Listened to good conversations among good writers.
  • Drank Presbyterian coffee while discussing regional snowfall with people who retired to the area because they love it so.
  • Browsed the very good bookstore and bought books I would not have bought at home.
  • Walked and walked and walked.
  • Had more excellent conversations than I can count.
  • Spent many deliciously idle hours on the shady hotel veranda, looking at the lake.

Monday through Friday I took Special Studies course #1414: The Seeker in Search of the Way. The instructor was Kay Lindauer. The subject was an Irish epic story called “The Salmon of Knowledge,” which traces a hero’s quest. The story is very, very old (~200 AD), but is familiar and resonates in the heart.

When I left on July 4, my car’s GPS recalculated the route four times in the mile or so to the gate. The GPS was baffled because it had only its preprogrammed maps for guidance. I knew to ignore its nervous advice. Being there is the one and only way to understand Chautauqua.