Recently I read a collection of short stories, The Same Terrible Storm, (2012) by Sheldon Lee Compton that caused me to think once again and more deeply about the power of place in fiction.
Place is so much more than a location. Place includes the inhabitants – and yes – the events that are precipitated by the cultural structures and strictures of place.
Plot flows organically from place in good fiction. And it seems a paradox that every ‘place’ in fiction is generated by the writer’s creative efforts to draw fine lines of descriptions with words that reveal the unique ‘place pressures’ that cause people to do what they do. And yet, part of the effect of that process requires that the experience will ultimately connect to ordinary and extra-ordinary common events of human lives.
The writer’s descriptions of sense impressions that are specific – never generic – to a particular place, takes a place, even an imaginary place, and renders it so real a reader can, not only see it, but also feel it, smell it, hear it, touch it and come away carrying that experience.
After having been fully engaged by Compton’s fictional stories, I believe in the world he’s constructed. For a writer to write successfully about place in this deeper way, such a writer must find and notice what a particular character in that particular place would notice, and yet not notice, because that feature has always been there. It’s what the character knows and sees and feels and smells and touches daily. Perhaps one way to think of it – at least for me – is to say it is the ‘there and the not there.’ Yes. This does sound a bit like I’m channeling Gertrude Stein. But I’m talking about characters’ ‘in-the-moment’ process of living a life that adds depth to a writer’s work.
I believe in the quiet desperation of people of Compton’s world, living in despair, but with dignity and grace, in spite of grinding poverty. I taste the grit of coal dust coating Kentucky mining communities. I smell and hear the local train hauling away slag and debris. I see mighty trucks driven by thick-handed men roaring down steep mountainous roads, hauling ass and coal. I hear the chronic wheezing of black lung disease in gnarly men bent over cups of thick coffee in a diner. I smell the oily sickness of it all, and although I find myself somewhat reluctant to do this kind of feeling, I did feel it.
Now it is as if I’ve visited another country. I know things now – at an intuitive level – gut level, if you will, that I’ve previously known mostly at an intellectual level. And isn’t that what fiction that marks us with the unique, organic qualities of place can do? Yes. I believe that is exactly what good fiction should do.
Interview by: Jan Bowman – August 7, 2012