Tricks of memory and a beautiful New England autumn

I went away this weekend to visit one of my brothers and his family in Western Massachusetts and deliver some books for appearances I’ll be doing there December 5 at the Greenfield Public Library and in January at World Eye Bookshop. (Greenfield inspired the setting of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.) Along the way I stopped in at an old haunt I’m using in my next novel to see if I was capturing it more or less correctly.


I got the ledges themselves right. Here’s how I describe the place. This book is still in rough draft, so I might still change it to be more fictional, since the town it overlooks is going to be a mish-mash of Shelburne Falls, Buckland, Charlemont, and whatever I feel like.

The High Ledges was an Audubon bird sanctuary on a mountainside overlooking Jasper and the Deerfield River. It was notable for Lady Slipper orchids along shady woodland paths and for the rocky ledges with the great view of the valley below. For birds, too, but Dori was no bird watcher. She was not surprised when she drove up to find only one other car in the visitors’ parking lot; it was a place that was tricky to find if you didn’t already know where it was, and the gates would be closing in less than an hour.

The last time I was there I was in my twenties. I remember parking the car and the ledges being a brief stroll away. My first clue was when a gentleman coming down the trail said, “Doing a bit of mountain climbing today?”

“Not any serious mountain climbing,” I said, adding, “I hope.” And no, it was not serious mountain climbing. But it was chilly, damp, and took a good twenty minutes — mostly up hill.

No doubt I’m less fit. (I’m sometimes amazed to contemplate distances I used to cover on an old three-speed bicycle.) I suppose the car parking area might have changed in the interim, too. And I suppose it was still a fairly short walk by hiking standards — not to mention beautiful, with plenty of foliage left to enjoy even if it was a bit past peak.

Thankfully, the view at the ledges was as stunning as I had remembered. This is looking down toward Shelburne Falls and Buckland.

Here’s the view towards Charlemont:


When I visited Peterborough, New Hampshire a couple of years ago I had a similar moment of puzzlement and confusion. I had remembered much of the town correctly, especially the diner, when I was writing The Awful Mess. But the bridge and river running through the center of town were not at all what I remembered.

It was the warmest day since she’d arrived in Lawson, New Hampshire, a sunny day in March of 2003, and the Took River was swollen with melted snow. For the first time since Mary had begun these daily walks, there were other people clustered on the Main Street Bridge to watch the river. Uncomfortably conscious that she knew none of them, she considered hurrying past, but told herself that it would be ridiculous and stopped at her usual spot at the bridge railing.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” a man said, and settled in next to her at the railing.

Here’s the actual Main Street bridge in Peterborough. It doesn’t even have a railing! The river was quite sedate, too, though that could be a seasonal issue.

Contoocook River for FBI like my version a little better, frankly. Good thing I write fiction instead of memoir. Has your memory of a favorite place ever turned out to be unreliable?

10 Confessions of an author-publisher

1. I would rather do anything than mop the floor. Come up with this list, for example.

2. I got my MA in fiction writing because I didn’t want to have to pass a French exam. I may have also been avoiding some additional expensive GRE component. I was such an idiot in those days that I didn’t even read the work of the writing professors I would be studying with before applying. Mind you, I mostly wanted to get out of editing technical articles about the Radio Shack TRS-80, and UNH did pay my way with a teaching assistantship. And I discovered that I loved teaching. So it worked out okay on that front, but after two years of graduate writing seminars I developed a strong preference for going out and living my life rather than writing small, artful stories. Which, in hindsight, was probably healthy.

3. I will do almost anything to avoid calling someone. I have to put it on a calendar and work myself up to a phone call. I am not terrible once I’m on the phone, but I dread getting on it. My (separated) husband likes to Skype, and my dad enjoys doing Facetime on his iPad. Oh, the horror! That supplies everything uncomfortable about the phone, plus wondering if your hair is combed and how messy the room behind you looks. Also, just saying goodbye becomes strangely long and drawn out.

4. I have thrown at least fifty boxes of books in the dumpster. People donate a lot of bestsellers to the thrift store where I volunteer and we have limited space. By the time we get the latest Danielle Steel just about everybody who wants it has already read it. Yes, there are ways to recycle books, but we haven’t quite figured out how to work it into our system yet. I have to tell you, it makes me feel pretty virtuous publishing e-books.

5. Reading often feels like work now. Do heterosexual male gynecologists get jaded about ladies’ private parts when they’re off the job? I’d love to just lose myself in a book, but I’m often hyper aware of other writers’ craft. Also, I have such a pile of books that I really should read in addition to the ones I just want to read that I feel I will never catch up. It’s a bad zone to get into.

6. I hide chocolate. I go days when I don’t eat it, but I like to know it’s there.

a photograph of the author's messy office

My messy office

7. I work in appalling disorder. About once every six months I organize my office and keep it that way for a week or two. Strangely, I usually find things much faster when it’s a mess.

8. Social media feels a little too much like high school. On the plus side, I get to hang out at the lunch table with my friends. But sometimes I post something and get crickets and feel like an awkward fifteen-year-old again. Or nobody favorites or retweets or follows me on Twitter for a stretch and I wonder if I’ve developed bad digital breath.

9. I can’t proofread my own stuff worth sh*t. Nobody can, but this time around my attempts were much less successful. Maybe I’m just older, but changing a manuscript from first person present to third person past is also an editing nightmare. A friend just pointed out more typos that I missed in my last book. He also offered to beta-read next time. (Both of those are being a very good friend.)

10. I named a heroine after an outhouse. It’s true. When I picked tobacco as a field hand for Consolidated Cigar Company in the Connecticut River valley of Western Massachusetts between high school and college, the outhouses were called Mollies. I always wondered how they’d gotten that name and what it must have been like to be the original Molly. Those girls could be pretty mean. (You didn’t want to be IN the Molly when they decided it would be fun to rock it.) But Molly in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire already had enough to deal with, so the only thing I did with my summer of picking shade tobacco was crash David’s plane into a field of it.

Here’s one of the songs the girls would sing lustily on the bus or at lunch (to the tune of “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener”):

Oh, I wish I were a CCC tobacco barn.
That is what I’d really like to be,
‘Cuz if I were a CCC tobacco barn,
All the boys would be inside of me!

Yes, I sang it, too. Adolescent girls are just not the sweet, innocent little dears you might like to think they are.

Any confessions of your own to offer? (And here’s one of those points when I might hear nothing but crickets. Ha!)