Thursday, August 23, 2007

Neighbours

(A belated Hump Day Hmmm…)

It’s hard to be a writer when you’re eighteen years old. You’re old enough to have outgrown the universal desire to write children’s books (the one that possesses anyone who has read Little Women and yearned to be Jo March). You want to write something grown-uppish, or if that sounds too intimidating, at least a Harlequin. (Is it time for me to switch to the first person and past tense yet?) There’s only one problem: at eighteen, you have virtually no experience of the grown-up world. By default, your heroine has to be a high-school teacher, and that still leaves the problem of setting. Harlequin romances, like blogs, have much to gain from being set in an intriguing locale.

Good settings, in light realist fiction, are as follows:

  • London, England (as in Bridget Jones’ Diary)
  • Chicago (as in the movie version of High Fidelity)
  • New York (as in everything – but just for fun let’s say Sex in the City)

Serious fiction can take place in small-town or rural settings – anything in the South will do, and even small-town Ontario can work if you can shake off the influence of Alice Munro. But if you’re going to write a TV-show/book/blog about nothing, it’s essential that all that nothingness take place in an upscale and/or gritty urban environment. Crappy settings, in light realist fiction, are as follows:

  • suburban Ohio
  • the MidWest, post-1880
  • London, Ontario

I’ve always felt handicapped as a writer by the blandness of my hometown. From the point of view of outsiders, I’ve been told, London is a great place to live. It has a vibrant strip of shops and restaurants downtown, fun annual summer festivals, and several residential areas with lovely Victorian architecture. There are markets full of fresh-picked fruit and corn in the summer, and there’s skating in Victoria Park in the winter. The university is as renowned for its beautiful landscaping as it is for its ivy and limestone.

Still, though. Living in London is the definition of boring. At one time, London boasted the most mall-space per capita of any city in North America. That has changed now only because of the advent of big-box stores. When I moved to Kingston as a university student I was enchanted by the atmosphere of its narrow tree-lined streets. Beautifully renovated homes rubbed shoulders with student ghetto dumps, all within walking distance of the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted at the Chinese Laundry cafĂ©. Each September, the town was flooded with frosh wearing the traditional uniform of purple-paint-spattered coveralls, along with cadets from the military college in their mandatory dress blues and pillbox hats.


I could write a novel, were I so inclined, set in Kingston – London is another matter.

I’m so accustomed to thinking of London as bland and white-bread that this perception has become astonishingly resistant to the influence of experience. London is a culturally diverse city, and my neighbourhood even more so. Yesterday as I drove to the grocery store, I saw a family waiting for the bus: a small boy in a stroller held in place by his father, and a mother sitting cross-legged on the ground, her spine ramrod straight. They were the best argument against miscegenation I’ve ever seen, their skin arresting in its glossy blackness. I completed my errand quickly, and when I drove past five minutes later they were still there, the mother standing up now, resplendent in her long red African dress cut along straight, simple lines. She stood tall, in the late stages of pregnancy, and looked so gorgeous that for a moment the bus stop and grocery store faded and I felt something that was oddly akin to homesickness.


These are the people in my neighbourhood.

29 comments:

Alpha DogMa said...

Yes. Too true, it is "hard to be a writer when you’re eighteen years old." Did you hear that Kaavya Viswanathan? Hear that Harvard admissions board? Hear that Little, Brown and Company?

I too live in a town that is not worthy of fiction.

niobe said...

Luckily, I'm not a writer. But I think that I'm just about the only one in the town where I live who can make that claim.

nomotherearth said...

I still harbour a small hope of becoming Jo March someday.

Janet said...

My town is fairly London-esque. There is quite a bit of cultural diversity in my kids' school, especially when compared with the WASPs' nest where I grew up.

I always thought that, if I wrote a novel set in Ontario, it would have to be in cottage country. It wouldn't involve a fancy, schmancy cottage from the cover of House & Home magazine, but one of those old relics on an island with no road access and unreliable plumbing.

I wonder why nobody has offered me a book deal....(ha!)

kittenpie said...

You know, I figured it would have been the West Edmonton Mall or Mall of America that bumped you... I didn't realize London was such a mall haven. You know, my parents brought me home to London for my first year and a half, and I visited Misterpie there in undergrad, but I've never really BEEN there, if you know what I mean.

Aliki2006 said...

I consider my town to be totally mundane--blech. Now Rochester, NY--THAT was a town filled with characters.

Lisa b said...

Queens of the Stone Age are playing in London and not TO if that says anything.
I won't argue with you its fitness to be the setting for a novel as I have no idea about that but London is a lovely city. Perhaps the jails of Kingston add a grittyness that makes it a better setting? Or is it just the purple frosh?

Lawyer Mama said...

I've always associated my former home - Omaha - with that blandness. Now, I live in the South and we have an ocean to look at but a friend of mine recently called this area "Omaha with a beach" and she was right. I've always thought of a picturesque university town as far more interesting. The grass is always greener, right?

Julie Pippert said...

I think my main trouble at eighteen---with regard solely to writing, LOL---was an inability to understand the progression of plot. I had character and setting but I was missing the thing that propelled a story forward. Motive requires an answer to the question, "What do I want?" And I either wasn't able or willing to answer that, yet.

But I did have setting. ;)

I can't speak to London (not sure if I've been there or not) but the thing I was noticing recently---as I read a book utterly out of my usual preferred genre but that came highly recommended---was it hardly matters to me, any element, if the story is well-written.

But of course, this is 20 years later.

I understand at 18 the unfamiliar is exotic and appealing. But sometimes the familiar is very poignant.

As you described so nicely here. :)

Better late than never, right. :)

Julie
Ravin' Picture Maven

bubandpie said...

Lawyer Mama - Hehe. I considered putting "Omaha" for my second crappy setting, and then considered "any mid-size city not located on a coast" but that seemed too wordy, so eventually I just went with the entire MidWest (after googling the capitalization, which seems to vary widely).

Lisa B - People associate Kingston with the penitentiary, but I found that the jails don't have a lot of effect on the culture of the town because, you know, the inmates are INSIDE. There are quite a lot of crazies in Kingston, but I'm not convinced they're there because of the penitentiaries.

Janet - Bonnie Burnard's A Good House features the kind of cottage you describe - not in Muskoka, though, on Lake Huron. And she gets the region absolutely right. The ultimate Muskoka novel for me will always be The Blue Castle (though it's in a wish-fulfillment mode rather than gritty realism!).

Jenifer said...

We visit London fairly regularly and it seems to getting more and more diverse all the time. Our friends are an interracial couple and in the first few years they lived there they were quite a novelty. Now though, the neighbourhood is becoming more and more diverse.

Florinda said...

I've moved around a few times - lived in New York, New England, and the South - but now I live in the definitive locale of suburban blandness. In fact, since it's the suburbs of Los Angeles, it's the representative locale of suburban blandness, as seen on TV and in the movies.

As you note about your own hometown, though, even the blandest places are becoming more diverse and less "white-bread," if we just look around. And I think your post conveys a great sense of place for every place you mention.

Beck said...

Huh. As much as I sometimes despise where I live, it's always seemed interesting to me - the rednecks, the generations of inbred creepy rural hillbillies, the German immigrants talking cheerfully about Hitler, the (generally quiet) cultural clash between the town and the reserve, and what it feels like to live someplace cold and far away from anything.
I don't want to write THAT book, though.

Christina said...

So I guess from here on out, my blog will be set in New York, and not suburban Ohio. ;)

Columbus has actually become more diverse in the last 10 years. What used to be a typical boring midwestern town now has a large, vibrant Mexican population and an equally large and interesting Somali population.

OK, so we're still surrounded by corn fields. Can't escape that.

Terri said...

Actually I think London sounds quite lovely.

And I still do dream of writing a children's book if for no other audience than my own children or grandchildren as the case may be.

Ally said...

Funny, I've never thought of London as boring, or whitebread. But I guess I've not spent enough time there. (Just a few days lay-over on my way to study abroad in Lancaster). But I love how these two figures smacked right into your daily routine, and made your reform your perception of London.

Simply Hollie said...

now living in Brandon Manitoba where I lived for much of my childhood, that would be a BORING setting for any writer whereas being a Toronto mom as I am now well there is too much around town that one could write about..

read some of your OLD posts tonight and wow i have too add you to my blog roll of cannucks,

bubandpie said...

Ally - London, England: cosmopolitan, full of atmosphere and history. London, Ontario (where I live): not so much.

Magpie said...

Beautiful. The thing is, to be able to find beauty and humor and love in the banal is what makes a writer.

Magpie said...

PS - and I love that last image you used.

Luisa Perkins said...

But mundane, bland places are GREAT settings for horror novels. Maybe switch genres? (I know, I know; it was a long shot.)

PS--your London sounds lovely.

Katy (formerly June C) said...

I love the diversity here in London. Back in the States, unless you lived in a metropolitan area, pretty much everyone is white or African-American. Now, just going down our street in my head, our neighbors are from England, America, Yugoslavia, China, Germany, Poland...and that's just thinking of the neighbors whose homes I can see from my front porch. In the States, one would assume we lived in a poor, urban setting--- but the reality is totally opposite. I've never seen anything like this. So as white bread as London is, I'll take it. My kids need this.

But the big box stores suck big time.

Joy, of course said...

I often feel that my entire life is too bland and ordinary to inspire writing (if I were inclined to call myself a writer which I am not), but then I look at some of the bloggers I read and realize gifted writers can make the familiar shine in a new light.

You did that here.

winslow1204 said...

I agree.. I grew up in a small town, never anything big happened.. Didn't push me to really want to write... It wasn't until I went to a bigger city:)

Gwen said...

Aha! So it's the fact that I live in the Midwest, post 1880, that is holding me back! I knew it couldn't possibly be moi! Never!

If we're going to have a "whose town is the most dull" contest, I think mine might win. Even the colorful characters are only the lightest shade of grey.

Jenn said...

I live in Pleasantville, so I understand.

And being a writer at 18? Reminds me of the phrase, "Youth is wasted on the young".

Catherine said...

funny you should write about this. Just yesterday I thought to myself, if I were to write a book I, like Anne, should write about what I know. What do I know? And felt disappointed that as I went down my life story, it didn't lend a lot of great locale.

Not true, really. I've lived in India, Switzerland, traveled to most continents. But I've lived in small towns, and suburbs.

So maybe a memoir, but not a novel, in my future. Alas,

danigirl said...

Now, as you know, I grew up in London, but as of this year I've officially lived in Ottawa longer, and I haven't been back since my folks moved up here in 2003. But, I do have to agree, London as I remember it is about as white-bread and middle class as it is possible for a city to be. (You didn't mention that at one point, they also had more doughnut shops per capita than any other North American city!)

I love what I remember of London. I love the smallness of it, the tidiness of it, the way you can walk ALL over downtown, every single street, in just a couple of hours. I love the yellow bricks and the big lots and the trees and the fact that houses are actually affordable. Just today I wrote about Storybook Gardens and how much I regret not being able to bring the boys there. I miss the pool at Wonderland Gardens (long gone, I know) and the beach at Fanshawe Park, and the way that Western students can so totally dominate the city (but it might have only seemed that way because I always lived in that area of the city.) I love the agricultural bent of the Western Fair, and the rolling fields of corn and tobacco just outside the city. I love the fact that I never saw a street person until I visited another city. I love the Covet Garden Market.

The stories I tell myself are often set in and around London. It's a good place to be from, and a lovely place to keep your imagination!

Mommy-Like Days said...

You should definitely move to the GTA, then. Remember the Ancaster plan?