When I married Medora Lavoie March 22, 1969, I was a twenty-seven year-old senior at Keene State College in my hometown of Keene, New Hampshire, and she was a nineteen year-old sophomore from Dover, New Hampshire. We honeymooned in Quebec City near our ancestral roots.
In the fall of that year we set out in my 1963 Chevrolet for Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where I’d been accepted by poet Donald Davie in the poetry section of the master’s program in creative writing. Medora and I were an hour and a half out of Keene in Bennington, Vermont, when Medora said, “Ern, this is the furthest west I’ve ever been.”
The year was 1969. I loved driving across the country. It made me feel patriotic in a time when there were good reasons to question the decisions by our leaders and even our values. Among my peers patriotism was suspect, but I grew up with the idea that the United States was special, even favored by the divinity. Seeing the country and its people help me reclaim a little bit of that earlier feeling for country, if not for God, with whom I have never been able to reconcile.
I didn’t like the Bay area from the get-go–too many seemingly good-natured people and a climate that raised my suspicions because it was so redundantly nice. I wasn’t in a mood for “nice” in those days. I wanted rigor.
My adventures in creative writing workshop at Stanford soured me on poetry writing as a career. It was the first time I’d met people who were more self-absorbed than I was and–more shockingly–unashamed, did not try to hide their ego mania, but traded on it in their writing. It was all too much for a young man who had been raised in a culture where St. Joseph was the ideal figure of manhood, guy who raised a son not his own and, near as I can figure, never got laid.
I wrote a crazy story about a young woman who seduces her bishop, literally killing him with love. Wallace Stegner read it and let me into his fiction writing class. The class did its job, which was to tell me I was a fiction writer all right but not one cut out for grad school. Let me add that I valued both Donald Davie and Wallace Stegner as mentors. I just didn’t have the right stuff for grad school.
I quit Stanford. Medora and I returned to Keene so she could finish college. Eventually, I landed a job as a reporter with The Keene Sentinel newspaper, but for a couple years I managed a small, one-man gas station; those were the days before you pumped your own. Nights I labored at the craft of fiction writing, days I wore a baggy light blue jump suit that said Top Gas over the left breast pocket. Many years later, after I’d published several books, I met a guy who said, “Where do I know you from?” I named one of my books. He said, “No that’s not it. I named another book. “No,” he said, “I remember now–Top Gas. You washed my window. They don’t do that any more.”
One summer day around 1971 an old dented pickup truck pulled into the station. The driver was a big, balding man about fifty with little squinty eyes and a mouth set in the start of a snarl. He wore heavy cotton forest-green work duds, and the left sleeve of the shirt had been cut below the shoulder revealing an arm that ended at the elbow. On the passenger side of the bench seat was a small boy.
The man bored into me with his eyes. “Fill it,” he said, and pointed with his one index finger to the regular pump. While I dispensed the gas, the man grabbed an oil rag on top of a pump with his one hand, tucked it in the crook under the half arm, raised the hood of the pickup, pulled out the dip stick, swiped it on the oil rag, inspected the dip stick, put it away, slammed down the hood and returned the oil rag to its place. I was impressed.
The man remained at the outer limits of my peripheral vision while I washed the windshield. I imagined that he was eyeing me critically; I went out of my way to do a competent but not great job to signal him (and convince myself) that I was not intimidated.
I took note of the boy. He was seven or eight, watching the motion of the squeegee with interest and delight.
Probably I never would have remembered the episode if something seemingly insignificant hadn’t happened. Just as the pick-up was pulling out of the station I glimpsed the man as he looked at the boy with a sudden softness in his hard eyes. I thought: this is a man who is both tough and tender.
That night I went home and started writing a fiction about that man who was tough and tender. The working title was The New Englander. I wrote in longhand in a school notebook. Since I had no idea what the story was, I wrote a day in his life, using number two pencils, sharpened with the short blade of my Swiss Army Knife. Over the next few months I wrote, I don’t know, maybe a hundred or so single-space pages. I had all this data about a character, but no story. I didn’t know what to do, so I set it aside.
Couple years went by. I got a job working for The Keene Sentinel, first as a sports writer, then as a general assignment reporter. I was only an average reporter, but I did have a flair for journalistic writing. I wrote fast and easily. In fact, my first year on the job I won two New England United Press writing awards.
Like my journalism writing, my fiction writing was coming fast and easily, but it was no good. I wasn’t getting anywhere. Eventually, Medora talked me into attending the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference. From that experience, I found my way. I realized that all the good writing I’d done came after I’d written it over and over again. And again. And again. I was, by necessity, a first-draft newspaper reporter; I was not a first-draft fiction writer.
I hauled out the New Englander manuscript that I’d written in longhand; I discovered that most of it was not only illegible, it was ugly. I couldn’t bear looking at my handwriting. As for content, I had no story, no plot, just a day in a man’s life. However, I did have something: I knew where my character lived, who his loved ones were, the nature of his personality. Perhaps most important I had given him a name–Howard Elman. Howard was derived from a book that meant a lot to me, HOWARD’S END by E.M. Forster. The Elman name comes from my hometown of Keene, which used to be known as the Elm City, until the elms were all destroyed by a disease brought by insects from overseas.
One reading my first novel, THE DOGS OF MARCH, might conclude that I based the name Elman on the theme of loss, that as the elm trees of Keene and other American communities were threatened by an invasive species so was Howard Elman. Actually, it was the other way around. I picked the name Elman merely because it sounded like a New England Yankee name. Two years had to go by before it occurred to me that Howard Elman’s name suggested plot points for a novel. In Forster’s novel Howard’s End we see an uneasy mingling of social classes; we see population changes to a small town brought on by the expansion of the city of London. I saw the same situation in the towns in my part of world, changes brought on by the coming of the Interstate highways, which closed the distances between rural and urban centers.
The Elman part of Howard’s name suggested that this would be a story of loss. I still didn’t have a main plot, but I had some vague ideas where this book might go.
This much I knew from my day-in-the-life writing exercize. Howard Elman was a shop foreman in a textile mill, and he lived in the small town of Darby, NH, in an old house with purple asphalt shingles and a yard littered with junked cars that offended the sensibilities of his new neighbor. The house with purple asphalt shingles and junk cars came from a house I admired, kinda, on a back road in the town of Sullivan, NH. I figured the owner must have gotten a bargain on purple roof shingles and used them as house siding. Junked cars in the front yard? Well, they’re more common than you might think, not only in New Hampshire but across the country. Next time you drive coast to coast take back roads. The whole of the USA is a junk yard. Junked cars are all part of nature to me, beautiful in their own way as mountain peaks and cascading waterfall.
I neither plotted or nor planned a book about Howard Elman. All I had was a character that I didn’t know well, and a vague story revolving around the idea of native versus newcomer. By the way, native versus newcomer is one of the great themes of North America and perhaps of human habitation everywhere. By means sometimes benign but more often disruptive and destructive, one group replaces another.
Just what is plot? Plot is not the journey, not the destination. Plot suggests possible adventures along the way, in particular the order in which those adventures occur. Good books sometimes don’t have good plots, and bad plots sometimes do have good plots, so a a writer should not overvalue plot. Even so, most of the time, plot helps a book and it certainly helps the reader, and often it helps the writer find his way. Plotting is the hardest job a fiction writer does (I am echoing a line from novelist John Gardner). I have to admire modernist and post-modernist fiction writers; through some kind of alchemy they have persuaded critics and many readers that fucked up plotting is cool. I wish I was so smart. In those days I had never heard of post-modernism and I had rejected modernism, kinda, so I was stuck with having to devise a plot that casual readers could follow and that would give structure and flow to the story. I was thinking, though not consciously, like a 19th century novelist. I had not formed as aesthetic, as such, I was just writing for my life: that’s that it felt like.
Devising plot is like mapping a route. It’s appropriate that I use a travel metaphor to make my point since I actually devised my plot for THE DOGS OF MARCH on the road. I continued writing the “day in the life” that I had started maybe year or so earlier. I had written scenes, plot notes, but idea what to do with all this data.
At the time I owned a Datsun mini-pickup truck. One day I announced to Medora that I would be gone for a while. I wish I could remember a dramatic moment when I made this decision, but it’s gone from memory. What I remember is taking off with no idea where I would end up. All I knew was that I wanted to stay on two-lane roads. I carried a tape-recorder. As I drove I would speak into the thing, plotting my book. First night I stayed at a state park in Delaware. By the time I reached New Mexico I had a half-way decent plot. I turned around and came home.
That was the beginning of a writing method that has served me well over the years. I always begin by writing a character profile with lots of random notes. I deliberately avoid thinking about plot or even story. Nonetheless, plot ideas emerge organically from the writing. I write these notions down as side notes. When I can’t bear the mess, I hit the road and plot the book. Sometimes on long cross-country trips, sometimes on short hops. Depends on my life situation. Since Medora and I have moved to Westmoreland, NH, (in 2009) I’ve faced an hour plus commute to my job at Dartmouth College in Hanover. No big deal. I use the time in the car to plot whatever book, story, or essay I happen to be working on.
So, then, the start of what is now seven books, the Darby Chronicles, goes back to that moment at Top Gas. I see him to this day in my mind’s eye, a working man, tough and tender. I named him Howard Elman, the protagonist of the first and last books of the Darby Chronicles. At the start of the series in THE DOGS OF MARCH he’s about 51. In HOWARD ELMAN’S FAREWELL he’s 86, or maybe 85 or 87. You see Howard is not quite sure how old he is, and neither is his creator.