Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Old John & Me, or: How Do I Get to My Own Backyard?

I was born in a small agricultural community in Northern California called Watsonville, which happens to lie adjacent to John Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley. I was always conscious, as a boy in Watsonville, that I lived in “Steinbeck country.” The famous author’s aged sister, a Mrs. Rodgers, was known to reside in the big white colonial that stood next door to Lambert’s Market on East Lake Avenue. To this day, my father, who worked at Lambert’s for nearly twenty years, likes to recall that he personally delivered groceries to the elderly Mrs. Rodgers. So it happened that long before I laid eyes upon my first Steinbeck sentence, the author’s name stood emblazoned on a monumental tablet in my mind. It wasn’t until I first read East of Eden, however, at age nineteen, that the true monumentality of Old John’s vision began to resonate within me. By that time, I had long since been displaced from Steinbeck country (my family moved 70 miles north to the Diablo Valley when I was eight), but here in the pages of this vivid, frightful novel I found the landscape of my provenance rendered to powerful effect--it’s mythic history and stoic farmsteading folk. Tones had been darkened, topography enhanced, everything transmogrified by virtue of the book’s historical setting and biblical cadences—but for me it all had the effect of immediately heightening the setting’s significance, increasing its haunting power. At one point in the novel, the villainous Cathy dispatches one of her bruisers to Watsonville. It gave me chills to read the name of my birthplace in the context of this larger-than-life tale.

In that season of my first brush with East of Eden, I had more than half-written a novel of my own. I’d set my story in London, because I’d spent a few months in that city and believed, however subconsciously, that my experience there was the single viable, write-able experience I’d had. More importantly: London was not California, that all-too-familiar state which excited me to nothing more than benign boredom. Given my great inexperience in fiction, the London novel was fated to fail. Miserably. Embarrassingly. But I coped by continuing to write, continuing to learn. About three years down the road, I found myself embarking on a whole new novel, and Steinbeck, whose works I had further explored in the meantime, became a major guiding light for my new project, the story that would become The Green Age of Asher Witherow.

I never sought to write a book set in my own locale. I guess I tended to think that setting a novel at home was like aiming for nothing higher than to get one’s name printed in the high school paper. But Steinbeck, through his uncanny talent for evincing the mythic resonance of California, helped me to see the potential for universality that lay in the land and history of my own Diablo Valley. In a letter of 1933, well before he’d started East of Eden, Steinbeck said of his native Salinas: “I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and ranches in the wilder hills. I can see how I would like to do it so that it would be the valley of the world.” The grim 19th-century coal-mining history of my Diablo Valley, a history largely unknown even to most locals, seemed to me to bristle with metaphorical and mythological implications. Clearly, the story of this little village called Nortonville reached well beyond the trifles of local history into something universal, something resonant. In other words, the brief and violent existence of Nortonville seemed to provide me with a template into which a kind of modern myth might be laid. To this end, the narrator Asher Witherow holds the plight of his tiny, long-forgotten coal town against such things as a two million year-old mountain, a 10,000-year Native American heritage, and Hindu scripture from the 9th-century B.C. So Asher’s journey in his Diablo Valley takes him toward his own “valley of the world.”

To some, this sort of local focus in fiction equates to “provincialism” or “regionalism”; both terms, to my ear, have a demeaning quality. And in fact, I suspect that Steinbeck himself, who often comes in for unreasonable bruising (his fiercest detractors argue that he did not deserve his Nobel honors), elicits such disapproval largely because he dared to set the greater number of his novels and stories in a provincial corner of the western United States. Worse, he had the impertinence to handle this provincial setting, the drama of its denizens, as if it were the whole universe, or at least a clear microcosm of some universal experience. But what Steinbeck was really writing in a book like East of Eden was a First Story, in other words, a tale that consciously invokes the innocence and awe of myth (our first stories). Who are we?—beg our mythic tales, old and new. Where did we come from? Where are we going from here? Very elemental concerns, leading to explorations of such essential mysteries as love, death and God. While writing The Green Age of Asher Witherow, I liked to think of the book as a sort of First Story in its own right, because such stories mean the most to me as a reader. At the very least, I hope The Green Age is not restrained by the nature of its locale, but somehow refreshes the reader’s sense of involvement in the human adventure.