Scenes set writers just as writers set scenes.
By direct confession or roundabout reference, many authors at the 13th annual Festival of the Book on Friday told how dependent they are on the landscape where they put their characters and stories. From James Lee Burke learning how to write dialogue by listening to black riders on segregated buses in the Jim Crow South to Candace Savage using the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan to frame her “Geography of Blood,” a sense of place underpinned much of the action.
“New Orleans is like an open-air mental institution,” Burke told a ballroom at the Holiday Inn downtown packed with fans of his fictional detective Dave Robicheaux. “It’s a gift from God to the artist.”
At a panel discussion on “Memoir and Landscape,” David Treuer said he tried to explain the attraction of Leech Lake, Minn., in his book “Rez Life.”
“You tell people you’re from Leech Lake and they say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry’ or ‘That’s amazing,” Treuer said of his Ojibwe Indian reservation home. “It’s like saying I’m from the future.”
It also assumes the only things to know about the town are its alcoholism, drug use and poverty, he said. But it ignores the fact that if all that’s true, why do people remain there?
“It’s not like I cannot wait to get back to the trauma,” Treuer said. “Clearly, there’s something else that makes it important to us.”
In developing the book, Treuer said his own perspective changed, from seeing Leech Lake as a place of deficit to a place of surplus. Even if that surplus was of too much crime or poverty, he came to appreciate “the hustle to get food on the table in such an impressive lack of employment.”
“The Mountain and the Fathers” author Joe Wilkins recalled his family home on the eastern Montana plains was a house knitted together from other abandoned homesteader shacks. In a passage from the book, he described the thunderstorm floods that frequently threatened to shove the building off its stone foundation and filled the basement with stinking, mosquito-breeding water.
“But the waters never rose high enough,” Wilkins said, “and the stone, even broken, was stronger than it looked.”
Gregory Martin told of the odd experience of writing a book about the 33-person Nevada town where he spent some youthful summers. Despite its diminished population, it remained a hub for a diaspora of Basque immigrants who left the mountains between Spain and France to herd livestock in the West. His own Basque family heritage helped him feel at home during his visits. But it was disconcerting to hear residents there start recalling their own history by referring to his “Mountain City.”
“When they try to remember what happened, they say let’s just look in ‘the book’ – my book,” Martin said. “And I wasn’t even from there.”
Savage spoke of how the lowly Cypress Hills nevertheless were the biggest geological feature between the Rocky Mountains and the mountains of the Labrador coast. And their eroded edges exposed everything from dinosaur bones to tepee rings.
“They help us remember times that the rest of the landscape has forgotten,” Savage said of the terrain. “Sometimes you just trip over it. The whole landscape keeps trying to tell you a story.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.