Sarah A. Strickley
When I began work on my current project, it was a simple short story. It became a complex historical novel when I followed my narrator from a flood-devastated river town to the coal mining operations once known as the Little Cities of Black Diamonds. Knee-deep in the in the tar of research and mourning the loss of a hard drive, I eventually reached an impasse. Then I found myself bristling with guilt and envy whenever the painters I interviewed for my day job turned to the topic of their plein air work. There is no substitute for being there, they all said. You must be under the sky.
It's not that I don't believe in the value of careful research or the ameliorating power of imagination; it's just that I want to be able to see and feel the landscapes (both human and geographic) I describe as I'm writing. Chekhov talks about this in a letter extolling the virtues of certain passages in his work that "give off the scent of hay." I've long admired the sentiment, but, as Chekhov also writes, "it is difficult to combine the desire to live with the desire to write."
When I applied for the support of an NEA fellowship, I had in mind a visit to a still largely intact company town now known as Eclipse. I wanted to feel the texture of the grass on the path leading to the old mines; I wanted to see what the wives of the miners saw as they stood on their porches and watched their husbands go; and I wanted to write all day without interruption. That this should actually come to pass is nothing short of a revelation in the context of my life. I am humbled, awed, and immensely grateful.
Excerpt from Little City of Black Diamonds
As a young man, my father swam the Ohio River from bank to bank. He did it on a bet of ten dollars. And I suppose I thought, as I moved away from the house with him inside it, that he was still young enough to do that again if he had to do it. But the banks of the river were blown. The water spread evenly over the bulk of the lower parts of the city and it moved quickly down our street, pulling debris with it. Bits of timber and, more unsettling, pieces of broken dish and furniture. There was no sound to the streets that was usual, no voices coming from inside the houses. It was all the rush of water, the sound of a train running its tracks too fast. The neighborhood was abandoned. Doors stood open wide, as though welcoming the water inside. From what I could tell, we were the last ones there -- the very last of them. Wrapped up in our private grief and tensions, we hadn't taken much note of the exodus. And none of our neighbors had ventured to persuade us of our folly as they fled. It must have been six months since any of our old friends had knocked; we'd driven them all away by failing to answer.
I was able to manage a slow walk in the current, aiming for sure footing and finding it before I took another step. It was hard work, a struggle, and I wasn't sure where I was going. My instinct was to travel south, to make my way up the city steps to the houses that I could see were still fully above water. Rather than cut between the houses, where the small yards beneath would be more thick with mud, I walked the sidewalk headed east, so that I might make my turn at the block. It wasn't until I reached the far end of our street that I could see it was surrounded by water. We were on a little peak. The streets above us and below were flooded to the first story windows. I'd decided to turn back, to accept the ridicule of my father, when I made out a figure in a small rowboat, about fifty yards away. Like a fool, I jumped to wave my arms and was taken down by the current. The mud clung thickly to my arms and back as I struggled to stand and failed. The weight of my pack held me down in the middle, as the force of the current turned my body fully around so that I was facing west like a tiny arrow in a sea.
On my back with the river rushing around me, I considered death. I was in the river, after all. It was all around me and if it wanted to take me, it could. But it didn't. It simply moved past me on its way. I understood the river, then, as an indifferent sort of being. It didn't care who you were or what. It wasn't coming for you, it was merely headed in that direction and you were in the way. It didn't care to punish or prove anyone. It simply was. When the man in the rowboat finally reached me, I was a part of the grand indifference of the water. I was cold to the bone and I couldn't feel. I didn't tell the man in the boat about my father, perhaps because I understood that the flood's indifference for him was matched by my father's indifference for the flood.