Monthly Archives: August 2015

Secondhand Steam

At odds with my environmentalist leanings, I admit that I have a soft spot for road trips and driving cars, preferably a five-speed junker from another era, a car with stories to tell. My favorite of these was a Volkswagen camper van I purchased in 1990 from its ninth owner that had already clocked over three hundred thousand miles and chewed up two engines, all under one coat of paint. By the time I got the van, the factory sunflower yellow had baked into Melba Toast umber, and the “Volkswagen smell” (anyone who has ever owned an old Beetle will know this right away) had ripened into a new odor, a mashup of a Rif Valley hashish lab masking a whiff of pine needles and vodka.

The van also came with a spectrum of stains on the carpet, rips in the seat, and, of course, a collage of stickers so thick on the back windows that I was positive people followed me just to finish reading them. They were a patchwork life story of the van in countless languages: stickers from camping sites, cities, beaches, almost everywhere it had been in twenty-plus years. I had some memorable times camping in orange groves, creek beds and beaches, cruising through Madrid, Lisbon, and St. Tropez, but I have always been drawn to the stories of the van before I got it, the ones I don’t know, yet the van produced them in my mind.

Books are the same for me, where the story takes me once my eyes trail off the edge of the page. What world has the composition and the color conjured in my imagination? What stories spin out from its orbit. How the town down the road that is never mentioned celebrates the onset of spring, or what sort of treasures I could find in the basement of the house next door to where the main character lives.

Jonesbridge was written under a layer of existing dust, within the relics of memories from childhood and dreams. I invite you to remove the cushions from that twenty-year-old sofa in the basement. See the crumbs and detritus, three generations of ink pens and fast food toys, wrappers, the unidentifiable snack remains, dried and petrified, some still moist, and coins of all denominations. Throw the cushions aside and curl up in the debris with a copy of Jonesbridge.

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I celebrated my tenth birthday ten years after the first lunar landing, a decade and change removed from the Summer of Love. By 1979, hippies had lost ground to gold chains and disco balls, and, though three in five boys still aspired to be astronauts when they grew up, the profession had suffered a credibility crisis when it appeared as though lunar missions were a thing of the past in favor of orbital surveys. I courted the idea of committing to astronaut training like my three best friends (one third grader had already chosen dentistry and another was destined for the family hardware store), but the summer before my fourth grade year, in between doodles of my inexplicable fascination with factories billowing smoke from giant chimney stacks, I settled on “writer” for my when-I-grow-up profession.

After I purchased (my mom purchased) my first typewriter at a garage sale, I hunt-and-pecked my way through a muddy mess of a “novel,” a disjointed wreck that only a ten-year-old can produce. With this accomplishment behind me, I determined that success as a writer would depend on whether I’d have my first novel published by my twenty-first birthday (insert moment for laughter to subside), an arbitrary line drawn as a subconscious method of forcing me to chose a more attainable goal like astronaut training.

I turned twenty-one at a bar in Southern Spain without a single thought of the great novel that never materialized. After a failed first attempt at college, a stint in the Construction Battalion, a hitch as a short order cook, construction of a zero-emission vehicle, a degree in physics, a career in software, over a hundred short stories, two books, three agents, countless rides on the publication roller coaster, and three plus decades later, my first novel has scratched itself to the surface, inspired by the doodles of my fourth grade year. And the smoke that filled the page in those drawings still lingers over Jonesbridge like a closed door to the sky. In the unlikely event that I had qualified for and endured the arduous program of astronaut training, I think Jonesbridge would still have bubbled to the surface, but perhaps with a little less rust.
I am often asked where my inspiration comes from. How do I choose what to write about. I wish I had a good answer for that question, but the smokestacks I drew as a ten-year-old have never let me rest. So began my circuitous path to Jonesbridge and its two companion novels, stories that I hope are seasoned with the same determination and survival instincts as the process they endured in coming to be. So, If you’ve run out of gas on a stretch of road where the telephone poles have turned to pillars of salt and you reach at last the intersection where history meets the future, take off your shoes, wade into the ditch, pull aside the carrion and you’ll find the way to Jonesbridge.

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