Although I usually use this column to highlight exemplary writing about place, this month I’d like to bring attention to some of the many beautiful photo essays I’ve stumbled across in the past few months. With the popularity of slide shows on the web, it’s easy to take extraordinary photography for granted, but every once in a while, when I stop to think about what I am able witness on my laptop screen, I am blown away. An extreme example is Slate’s recent round-up of the year’s best images in astronomy. Here you’ll find photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter interspersed with earth-bound shots of the Northern Lights.
This literary map of the United States, which pins American writers to their places of birth, got me wondering if certain stories exist apart from writers, and the trick (no small trick) is in discovering them in the landscape. Huck Finn seems more bound to the Mississippi River than to Mark Twain’s imagination. And if Tennessee Williams had never been born, I wouldn’t be surprised if some other writer bumped into Blanche Dubois.
Every once in a while you encounter one of these inevitable-seeming stories, a yarn so intimately linked to its place of origin that you automatically pull up a chair. For me that happened most recently when I read the first line of Frank Bill’s Op-Ed in The New York Times:
“Used to be, every year around deer season, there was a story that got told in my family…”
I live a few blocks from a cruise ship terminal. When ships dock there, they tower above the nearby buildings, which top out at four or five stories high. At night, their decks and windows glitter in neat rows, like high-rise apartment buildings, as if downtown Manhattan has suddenly been pulled close. When the ships finally depart, their horns boom dramatically, out of place in my quiet, unassuming neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Last week, as Hurricane Sandy bore down on my waterfront neighborhood, I found myself worrying about the future of coastal areas across the country. I live in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a low-lying area that has always been prone to flooding, but which saw new levels of damage with Sandy. For years, people have been predicting a rebirth of Red Hook, in part because of its spectacular ocean views, but perhaps those same views will spell its demise. Will neighborhoods like mine eventually be washed away? In short, is geography destiny?
I don’t think I understood the idea of a “love-hate relationship” until I moved to New York City. Over the years I have become one of those obnoxious people who talk constantly of leaving New York while at the same time shutting down all possible escape routes. Having grown up in a small town, I can tell you that this flavor of self-delusion is not unique to New York City, but perhaps it happens in greater numbers here, simply because New York is host to so many outsiders — outsiders who eventually become insiders.
A few months ago, while walking home from the subway in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I noticed a change in the sidewalk — four of the white cement paving stones had been replaced with darker, bluish-gray stones.There had been a lot of construction in the area, and at first I thought they were simply new stones, not yet faded to match the surrounding sidewalk. But when I got closer, I saw they formed an artwork, engraved with the silhouette of a young, leafless sapling. The etching was meant to approximate the shadow of a nearby street tree, although that tree, now in full leaf and several feet taller, was throwing its noticeably longer shadow in the opposite direction.
Travel poses a particular seduction to writers, especially writers between projects, which Lynne Sharon Schwartz admits was her predicament when she began Not Now, Voyager. After completing her novel, The Writing on the Wall, which dealt with post 9/11 New York City, Schwartz wanted a retreat from American politics. An easy solution was to leave the country. But Schwartz didn’t want to go elsewhere in search of inspiration. For Schwartz, travel is “a distraction from writing—from living,” and often leaves her feeling bereft. During travel, Schwartz writes, “Most of me seems to have remained at home, or dormant, or in a state of suspended animation….” Her attitude, she realized, was unusual, or at least not one championed in a culture of rapid globalization. Not Now, Voyager was conceived as an antidote to this, and how much it succeeds as such depends on how much you enjoy wandering around Schwartz’s mind.
Maura Candela is one of my favorite writers, as well one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met—two talents that don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Her debut fiction, “The Boys’ Club” was featured in the first issue of The Common. Maura has also recently finished a novel called The Love Dogs, which is set in contemporary New York and deals, in part, with the long-term effects of 9/11 on rescue workers and their families.
That Irresistible Idea: An Interview with Maura Candela