The Importance of Place in Writing
by Emily St. John Mandel
I read an interesting speech by Zadie Smith a while back, where she laid out her theory of micro versus macro writers. I find the division between the two types imperfect—there are elements of both in the way I write—but I think it’s an interesting division nonetheless.
Her theory is that writers can be divided into Micro Managers and Macro Planners. She considers herself a Micro Manager, figuring out the story as she goes along, unable to move on to the next line until the previous one is perfect, obsessing over every detail, essentially setting the book in stone as she goes. Whereas Macro Planners, she writes, have their books completely outlined in advance, which is to say they know how the last chapter’s going to end before they start writing the first sentence. Paradoxically, she wrote, that structure gave them the freedom to make enormous changes while they were writing the book, things Smith says she wouldn’t dream of—“moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example.”
When I read Smith’s work, this makes perfect sense. Her magnificent debut novel White Teeth is set in London, and it’s impossible to imagine it set anywhere else. The story is inseparable from the place. There are cases where the book is entirely dependent on place and wouldn’t exist without it, as in Karl Marlantes’ novel of the Vietnam War, Matterhorn. Or books where place is a declaration: I haven’t yet read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, but I’ve opened it a few times and I think very often of the magnificent rhythm of its opening line. I am an American, Chicago born.
But then, on the far opposite end of the spectrum, you’ll find the books that could have been set almost anywhere. I’ve noticed that a great many books set in suburbia fall under this category, which says more about our suburbs than it does about our books.
I did a reading a couple nights back, and during the Q&A someone asked me how place had affected my most recent novel, The Lola Quartet. I think of The Lola Quartet as contemporary noir; it’s a mystery, I suppose, but as always the mystery part happened by accident, a side of effect of trying to write literary fiction with a strong plot. A disgraced man reinvents himself as an amateur private detective in order to discover the fate of a high school girlfriend who he thinks might have been pregnant when she disappeared. The book follows this man, Gavin, and the other members of his former high school jazz quartet. The action plays out mostly in South Florida. But as it happens, the book’s concerned in a tangential kind of way with something about place that’s been bothering me a little for quite a while, which is that places are beginning to look too much alike.
It’s mostly a matter of suburban sprawl, which has created a hinterland of interchangeable suburbs—the outskirts of Toronto look an awful lot like the outskirts of Boca Raton—but globalization and the spread of exotic species between continents have exacerbated the trend. In a 2009 article in The New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger wrote that invasive species “can change the way we see a place. A parrot in Miami is like a McDonald’s in Kathmandu: a sign that you are everywhere and nowhere at once.”
Everywhere and nowhere at once! That’s it exactly. I have occasional moments during book tours, in the long spaces between cities, where I gaze through the window of the bus or the train and think, “I could be anywhere.” No matter where I am I see the same handful of chain restaurants, the same stores, the same hotels shining their logos out into the dark.
“The Lola Quartet could have been set anywhere,” I said at the reading the other night, in response to the question about place. It’s true, I think, although it’s of course impossible to know how the book would have turned out if I’d decided to set it in Oklahoma or Saskatchewan. I set it in Florida in part because I wanted to write about the economic collapse and the accompanying foreclosure crisis, and Florida is a place that was particularly hard-hit by the latter. I was also interested in writing about the spread of exotic species, which is to say, that unsettling phenomenon of Burmese pythons and Nile monitors infiltrating the canals of certain Florida suburbs.
But I was going through old versions of the manuscript just now in search of the above Burkhard Bilger quote, and found an early document—two pages long—in which I’d been sketching out a version wherein the story was set in and around Vancouver. How different would the book have been? It still would have been contemporary noir. The characters would have been the same. Once I’d committed to Florida I tried to make the setting reasonably Floridian, but when I wrote about the crushing quality of the Florida summer heat I was drawing off my experiences during hot summers very far away from there, memories of staggering through heat waves in Toronto, Montreal, and New York. (I know, “heatwave in Montreal” sounds like a punch line. But I remember a day when the temperature reached 104 Fahrenheit.)
“But the protagonist’s New York apartment,” someone else at the reading said, “that was very New York.”
“It was based on an apartment I had in Toronto,” I said.
Photo credit: Miriam Berkley