June 18, 2017

Revisit Missouri

 A year ago, my daughters and I went to Hannibal, Missouri for a weekend. Pretty little place on earth and inspiring.  No wonder Mark Twain got ideas there.  Well worth the visit. 
Here's another blast from 2010!  Enjoy!


Sometimes it seems a writer spend all his or her time undoing cliches.
For instance, familiarity breeds contempt.
Really?  Indifference, maybe, but I’ve never found contempt for the familiar.  Not if it was truly familiar.
 

I was born and raised—and still live—in St. Louis, Missouri.  Most of my childhood I dreamt of being Somewhere Else.  Nothing seemed to happen in St. Louis.  It almost never came up in movies or stories (except a silly musical with Judy Garland, and how exciting could that possibly be) and it felt like all the really interesting stuff happened elsewhere.  Washington, Berlin, London, L.A.—in fact, anywhere but my hometown.
 
So I spent a lot of daydreaming time elsewhere, even elsewhen, and the destinations kept getting further and further away until I left the solar system altogether.
Writing science fiction seemed the ultimate in getting away from home.
 
But like all cliches, the truth is something else.  Contempt can stem from a facile, preconceived, assumed familiarity born of disinterest, of not taking the time or trouble to become honestly familiar with a place or a person.  It’s a pose, an excuse, a way to say you’re more dazzled by what you can’t have, by what is too far away or removed to allow you to become familiar with it...which allows a kind of laziness that masquerades as sophistication, of cool, of unearned cosmopolitanism.
The more I write, the more I find myself writing about St. Louis.  Even the science fiction.

One of my earliest stories, Reveleven, was set in St. Louis, though the city is not named.  But my first novel starts forty-odd light years away and then, presaging my own literary journey, came inexorably home to Earth.  Compass Reach, which was short-listed for the Philip K. Dick Award, ended with action in Istanbul.  Perhaps too close for comfort, since my next novel, Metal of Night, stayed well away from Earth.  But the next one in my Secantis Sequence repeated the homeward voyage with a return to Earth.  But Peace & Memory promptly left home again for farther fields.
 
In the meantime, I tried my hand at police procedural and wrote a novel set in the near future, about F.B.I. and Treasury agents working together to solve a mystery set in...St. Louis.  It felt simpler to do it that way.  I never intended to stay.  Realtime was just a short visit home, a brief stop on my way to more interesting places.
 But it seems that once I started really looking at my home town, the more interesting it became, and suddenly I found myself setting my next—my current---project, an alternate history, right here, in St. Louis.  But a St. Louis that might have been, a maybe city had certain historical occurrences not taken place.  What if Napoleon had never sold Jefferson all this land?  What if the United States had ended at the Mississippi?  What then?
 
That’s the sort of thing you do in science fiction, you ask those maybe questions and try to answer them, not to be predictive—prediction has never been what science fiction is about and it has a terrible track record—but just to entertain the notion of other possibilities, systems in flux, the why of things.  It’s what I enjoy about the genre and I no longer feel compelled to find distant cities, alien climes in which to set stories.  (Samuel R. Delany has said that no matter where his stories have been set, on distant worlds, far in the future, in other dimensions, he’s always writing about his home town, New York.  I understand that now.)
Once I started looking at my city and learning about it—becoming genuinely familiar with it—I found any shred of contempt vanishing.  Familiarity has done the opposite for me, made me more appreciative, respectful, and interested.  So I’ve written a historical set in the earliest days of St. Louis.  Not science fiction, at least not overtly (but go back in time and treat an era honestly, try to tell me you aren’t visiting another world, with aliens and exotic locales), but a sketch of our beginnings.  St. Louis began as a village, and for nearly three decades was home to a thousand people.  Not until Americans began arriving in the aftermath of the Revolution did the population start to increase dramatically.  In some ways, that village is still here, at the core of the many layers that have been added since 1763.  At one time St. Louis was the fourth largest metropolis in the country...and then, as if traumatized by the possibilities that implied, shock by its own boldness, St. Louis drew a sharp line around itself and cut itself off from expansion.  The county around it continued to grow, but St. Louis has become a kind of pocket city, an enclosed rete of associations grown from a long history of involuted transformations from village to metropolis to civic palimpsest.
 
Once I began seriously to write, I discovered Missouri’s literary heritage, which is considerable.  Obviously, Mark Twain, but also Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, T.S. Eliot, Robert A. Heinlein, among many others.  Names to conjure with.  It seemed a good place to be from (and as Vincent Price once famously remarked “Isn’t everyone from St. Louis?”) and as good a place as any to work in and write about.
 
Like my characters, I once thought to relocate, live somewhere more interesting.  But I am less and less inclined these days, having finally recognized what my home possesses.  All journeys start from home.  The best ones return us there.  Having returned, we may find that we never really knew the place.
 
Please visit Mark’s Website http://www.marktiedemann.com   As a multidimensional artist of the written word and photograph, his talent is worth exploring.

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