If recent recommended reading lists are any indication (see: Suzanne Alyssa Andrew on Messes and Meltdowns in the City; Danila Botha's Too Much on the Inside list), Canadian writers and readers have a real fascination for setting and place.
In this guest post, Lana Pesch, whose debut is the story collection, Moving Parts, explores that fascination and why places in fiction seem to matter as much as they do.
“Science tells us that we are creatures of accident clinging to a ball of mud hurtling aimlessly through space. This is not a notion to warm heart or rouse multitudes.” – Paul Ehrlich, in Human Natures
Yet here we are. Clinging and hurtling, telling our stories.
In grade school we were taught to write stories that had a beginning, middle, and end. We were given the basic elements of fiction: plot, character, theme, point of view, setting. Think about the last book you read. Where did it take place? Did it matter? Could the story have happened somewhere else? Would another setting have made it a different story? How did the setting shape the narrative?
Admittedly, the stories in my debut collection, Moving Parts, are character driven, but those characters exist somewhere. They are plunked in a situation (and a place) that requires action. And those places are all over the map, including everything from a hospital waiting room to a Cessna cockpit; an interrogation room in an Arizona prison to a Pelee Island B&B. Pivotal scenes are scattered throughout the book in nature settings like the backwoods of BC’s Sunshine Coast, Lake Erie, and an eco-ranch farm near Kingston, Ontario. There are flashbacks to Jönköping, Sweden and Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Other cities featured in the book are San Antonio, Pensacola, and Toronto, where I have lived for the past 15 years.
Speaking of Toronto, it’s worth mentioning the Toronto Book Awards that will be announced next week on October 15th. The Awards were established by Toronto City Council in 1974 to honour authors of books of literary or artistic merit that are evocative of Toronto. This year Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, who interviewed me at my Toronto book launch, is a finalist. Her novel, All the Broken Things, takes place in various neighbourhoods around the city including The Junction, High Park, and the CNE of the 1980s. It’s a well-written story with such specific sensory detail about these places, I felt like I was there. Not a big surprise she is a finalist.
The shortlist also includes a couple of other gems relevant to this post. Margaret Atwood is nominated for her collection, The Stone Mattress, and says: “Often you find the really interesting things in places that other people don’t think are very interesting.” And Bruce McDougall, whose book, The Last Hockey Game, is also a nominee says: “You really can achieve a lot by writing about what you know. And Toronto is my home.”
Arjun Basu blurbed my book with: "A hip cross-country tour of contemporary North America.” Perhaps he chose to write that because he too, takes his settings seriously. His latest book, Waiting for the Man, is set in parts of New York City, as well as several US cities on a westward road trip that ends on a dude ranch in Montana. His book trailer gives a bit more info into these places and the role they play in the book.
Other notable Canadian books where, I think, place is paramount to the story, or stories are:
Walking with Walser, by Daphne Gordon
Circle of Stones, by Suzanne Alyssa Andrew
Fauna, by Alissa York
This Cake Is for the Party, by Sarah Selecky
And Also Sharks, by Jessica Westhead
A Magnified World, by Grace O’Connell
In Stephen King’s book, On Writing, he writes a bit about description. “I think locale and texture are much more important to the reader’s sense of actually being in the story than any physical description of the players.”
For fun, here’s a short exercise on memory search about setting King describes in the book:
- Visualize a place you know. Perhaps a favourite restaurant, your childhood bedroom, a concert hall, a park, your last vacation destination.
- Do a brief and intense hypnotic recall involving all the senses. Pick four specific details about the place. Maybe the colour of the walls (or trees or sky), a certain smell, the quality of the light, the texture of the floor (or ground or water), a sound that is particular to the space, the temperature.
- Voila. “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” King also writes, “It’s also important to remember It’s not about the setting, anyway—it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story.”
“A novelist’s business is lying,” writes Ursula K. LeGuin, the great science fiction author, in the introduction of The Left Hand of Darkness. “Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists of inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say There! That’s the truth!”
She goes on to list several facts that could support these packs of lies, some are real places and actual processes and I am roused with possibility of what my next stories might reveal, and where they could occur.
We might also consider this: “It is this place, ‘within,’ where all stories take place, despite their ruse to the contrary. We talk about the world of a story, or its setting, but stories are only set inside us. We keep making up other names for our interior. Setting is a myth, like all properties of a story. When it succeeds, we insist it is not a myth. We call this believability.” – Ben Marcus, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories
Three cheers to the to the neighbourhoods we know and love, the settings we adapt and make up, the locations we have yet to discover and the believability of the places that are not real at all. Or are they?
Lana Pesch is an alumna of the Banff Wired Writing Studio and her short fiction has appeared in Taddle Creek and Little Bird Stories: Volumes I and II. She was longlisted for the 2014 CBC Short Story Prize and won the Random House of Canada Creative Writing Award at the University of Toronto in 2012. Moving Parts is her first book. She lives in Toronto.
About Moving Parts:
A blind date blooms in a grocery store parking lot. Lake Erie forms the backdrop to a botched assisted suicide. A neurotic, dog-loving caretaker writes a complaint letter after an unfortunate leg-waxing incident. While his uncle lies in a coma, a young man befriends a dead homeless guy. A coming-of-age road trip leads to encounters with a gang of costumed lesbian arm wrestlers and a man with a hoof. A plane crash on the BC coast brings an artist and a bootlegger together in a dire situation. These flawed, often broken characters seek meaning, acceptance, and closure under extraordinary circumstances ... though not necessarily in that order.
Equal parts insightful and heartbreaking, Moving Parts is a provocative debut collection of deeply imagined, darkly funny stories. Through language-driven narratives that are wry, moving, and off-kilter, Pesch bravely holds up a mirror to uneasy issues and troubled relationships. We are revealed in her characters: raw and inappropriate, loving and confrontational, struggling to connect.
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