Sunday, October 25, 2009

Writing and Telling Stories: October in Wild & Wonderful West Virginia

Writers of fiction live multiple lives when they are working on a story – the reality of their own daily lives and the fictional lives of their characters. That dance in and out of fictional and real worlds can be a difficult balancing act, particularly if the writer is working on a novel. I seem to require large blocks of time to immerse myself into the world of the characters in the novel I’m writing, but it’s been difficult for me to find stretches of sustained time. I get up very early in the morning to write before going to my job, but I’ve found it easier to work on shorter pieces in these smaller bursts of writing time. My current goal is to figure out how to use these morning hours to finish my novel. I know it can be done; I just need to figure out how to manage it.

During fall vacations with my husband, which we’ve turned into creative retreats, I’ve made significant writing progress on my novel. A favorite October vacation spot is Babcock State Park in Clifftop, West Virginia, where there are thirteen secluded log cabins along Glade Creek. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, the cabins have electricity, fully equipped kitchens, and bathrooms – but no heat except for the huge fireplaces. In a different area of the park there are modern cabins with heaters and air-conditioning, but they are spaced closer together and we prefer the privacy and setting of the older cabins near the stream.

It takes planning and smart packing for those trips. The cabins are spaced apart from each other along the ravine on both sides of the creek, surrounded by woods and separated by walls of wild rhododendron among huge boulders. Paths and wooden stairs lead down to each cabin from parking areas at the top of the hill, so carrying in a week’s food and gear can be quite a task – particularly if that includes camera equipment, laptop computers, books and notebooks.

Our favorite cabin used to be cabin #13, until the steep steps down to it became a deterrent for my aging knees and Kevin tired of lugging all that stuff (okay, it was mostly my stuff) down to the cabin by himself. That, and the fact that a murder had occurred in that particular cabin. I was appalled to learn that someone had committed such a violent act in what had once been a special spot for us – in such a serene and beautiful place. From that time forward a different cabin became our favorite, for its high ceiling and sleeping loft, not to mention it had only half the number of wooden steps down to it, nor had it been a crime scene.

Babcock was a good and productive spot for us creatively. Kevin would spend his days out photographing and I would spend my days at the cabin immersed in my writing. He’d leave before dawn and come back after dusk, when we’d have dinner in front of the fire and discuss the progress on our projects. The photograph of me at the top of this post is one Kevin took (unbeknownst to me at the time) through the cabin window as he was leaving in the darkness early one morning -- I was sifting through research and settling down to write, still wearing my nightgown and drinking my breakfast coffee.

During one October visit it was particularly rainy, which didn’t bother me because I was cozy in front of the fire all day, fueled by hot coffee, typing away and exploring the fictional world of my main character who is having an emotional breakdown following the Loma Prieta quake – she has fled San Francisco for the New River Gorge area of West Virginia which was her childhood home. The rain was a bigger problem, however, for Kevin, who nonetheless trudged off in the pre-dawn hours every morning, hopeful that the weather and light would change for the better.

There’s a stepping off that happens in the writing process, a letting go that requires me to feel I’m in a safe place, particularly with this novel, given the fragile state of the main character who is in crisis as her world is literally crumbling around her those last weeks of October 1989 following the Loma Prieta quake. I need to be on solid territory when I enter her world. It’s not the kind of book I could write while sitting in a public space such as a coffee shop. But in the cabin, I could enter her world safely for an entire day without interruption and then transition back to the real world when the dimming daylight signaled it was time to wrap things up until the next morning. Then I’d turn on the radio and listen to NPR to ground myself with the day’s news while I cleaned up my writing space in the main room of the cabin, clearing the big wooden table I’d used as my writing desk so we could set it for dinner. Kevin would return and we’d cook our meal, open a bottle of wine, and talk about our day. It was invigorating to share our progress, to spur each other on in our creative pursuits.

Toward the end of that week, on yet another rainy day, Kevin came back to the cabin a little earlier than I’d expected. I was still writing and hadn’t transitioned out of that fictional world yet. He was acting very nervous as he set down his camera bag. I sensed that something was wrong and wondered if he’d been in an accident. He put the red tote bag he used for extra film and camera accessories on the table. Then he told me about the flying saucer he’d seen crash into the New River at Sandstone Falls. I didn’t know what to say as I tried to figure out whether he was joking or had gone off the deep end. He seemed serious. While thoughts raced through my head (such as, There probably isn’t a ranger at the headquarters building since it’s after 5:00 – how am I going to get help to take him to a hospital?), he said, “You’re looking at me like you don’t believe me.”

Now, you need to know that Kevin is the steadiest and most resilient person I’ve ever known. He can also make me laugh like no one else and always knows how to lighten things up with his humor. But, he seemed dead serious about seeing a UFO. As I tried to assess the situation, I asked him to tell me more. So he did. He proceeded to tell me a tale filled with every bad sci-fi movie cliché there is, about how he was sitting in his truck at Sandstone Falls waiting out a rainstorm and hoping to get a shot of the falls when he saw the UFO crash. Somehow those clichés served to make the story even more frightening for me. It was pretty much the same story all those nut cases tell that used to make the headlines, and he was beginning to remind me a little bit of Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. More thoughts raced through my head. (Really? It’s true that there really are UFOs?)

Then he told me about the alien. (OK buddy boy, this just isn’t fair to come in here before I’ve transitioned out of writing mode and tell me about witnessing some UFO crash. Now there’s an alien to deal with, too?) The alien had ejected from the crashing spacecraft, and while he was dying of injuries on the bank of the New River in the rain, he’d begged Kevin to save him by cutting out his brain so that his fellow aliens could retrieve it and rescue him. If they could take back his brain, they could restore him to life.

“Ummm, so what did you do?” I asked. He told me he’d cut out the brain, and that he’d promised to leave it on the porch of our cabin so that the dead alien’s friends could come get it that night. (Should I try to escape from the cabin and call the ranger from that phone booth in the parking lot up at the park headquarters? Unless . . . really? You mean there really are little green men from other galaxies? That’s not just made up? It’s for real?)

I was still trying to regain my equilibrium . . . but Kevin was making that difficult. My fight-or-flight adrenaline rush was not helping matters. I’d had a double dose of that adrenaline response, first to deal with a husband who’d lost his grip on the real world, and a second one to grapple with the aspect of aliens visiting our cabin around midnight to retrieve the brain of their dead little green friend.

Finally, I asked him where the brain was, and he told me he had it right there with him in his red tote bag, which he unzipped and reached into with hands shaking almost as much as my adrenaline-filled body. Then he pulled out a big green Osage orange. If I hadn’t been so relieved there may have been another Babcock cabin homicide. Those hunks of firewood make handy murder weapons to use in bludgeoning a spouse to death.

With the big Osage orange reveal, I was fully back in the real world. Mad, but wholly in reality. I had to forgive him – he’d been having such a lousy photography week. I’m sure he expected me to be amused and never dreamed I’d actually be frightened, even if we were in a remote cabin so close to Halloween. And I might have been entertained by his tale, had I not still been in the alternative universe of my own writing life. Until then, he had no idea what it was taking for me to truly enter into the dark world of my novel filled with earthquakes and disappearances and lost girls on the run.

We opened some wine. I made him pose for a picture holding his alien Osage orange brain. We turned on the radio and listened to NPR while we cooked dinner. We warmed ourselves by the fire after dinner and finished the wine. And that night before we went to bed, Kevin put the alien brain out on the porch, where it remained for the last few days of our vacation. And on each of those remaining mornings, I was just a tiny bit afraid that when I opened the cabin door I would discover it was missing.

Photo Credits:

Top Photo: Dory writing at dawn in cabin, copyright by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

Bottom Photo: Kevin with Osage orange alien brain, copyright by Dory Adams

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Graveside: Jack Kerouac, "The Railroad Earth"

October 21st will mark the 40th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s death. He’s one of those writers of an era, whose work stays with me over the decades. I’ve revisited his books many times since first reading On the Road in 1977. Jack Kerouac died on October 21, 1969 at the age of 47, and in May of 1983 I went to Lowell, Massachusetts to find his grave.

I’d traveled by train from Chicago to Boston to visit friends. Amtrak was having some sort of special fare. I don’t remember the details of the deal except that it allowed me to make several stopovers along the route so that I could also visit friends in Buffalo for a few days. It was a good enough bargain that I was able to afford a sleeper car roomette, a welcome luxury since most of the trip between Chicago and Buffalo was at night.

Cozy in my roomette, I watched out the window until dusk turned to darkness, amazed at how different the towns looked from my vantage point aboard the train – inside the lowered crossing gates with bells clanging and lights flashing where the tracks crossed streets and roadways. I had a new paperback with me, Joan Didion’s The White Album, and after it got too dark to enjoy the scenery I lost myself in those pages – reading about the power of water in her essays “Holy Water” and “At the Dam” while my train rolled along dark rails at the southern edge of Lake Erie. The tracks ran closer to the lake at industrial areas, where mills still operated at nearly full blast, although the Manufacturing Belt was already corroding into what would become the Rust Belt. Despite my cozy nest in the roomette, I don’t think I slept much that night. I was homesick for California, and reading Didion’s essays for the first time. She had me hooked from the very first sentence of the first essay: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She was writing about the end of an era, the end of the 1960s. It was the beginning of the 1980s then, and I was somehow saying goodbye to the 1970s on this journey as I headed further east, saying goodbye to California even though I’d left it behind the year before with the move to Chicago.

In Boston, I visited longtime friends Sherry and Jeff, who’d also lived in California for a few years after we’d all graduated from art school in Pittsburgh half a decade earlier. I’d been having a difficult time adjusting to the flatness of the Illinois landscape and needed a change of scenery. Needed to travel for a while. Needed hills and mountains. Needed to be near water that moved with oceanic tides. Chicago and Lake Michigan made me feel oddly claustrophobic, and I needed to escape the prairie land of the far southern suburbs where we lived.

Sherry and Jeff wanted to show me as much of New England as we could squeeze into a weekend drive, and we managed to see parts of New Hampshire and Maine. I saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time on that trip. It’s ironic that I would see the Pacific Ocean first, after having grown up living much closer to the Atlantic. Looking at maps during our drive back to Boston, I spotted Lowell and requested that we go there to see the town where Jack Kerouac had grown up as a boy. It was where he was buried, and I wanted to try to find his grave.

Lowell looked exactly as I’d expected it to look, with brick mills along the Merrimac River. Despite there being many cemeteries in Lowell, Jeff instinctively turned the car into the correct one. We found a caretaker who asked, “Who yer lookin’ fer?” When I said Kerouac’s name, he went inside his gardener’s shed and brought out a mimeographed sheet of paper with directions to Kerouac’s tombstone. It pleased me that enough fans came seeking his gravesite that they’d printed directions.

There may be a different marker there now, but the small flat stone in the photograph above marked his grave then. We stayed only a few minutes. I no doubt would’ve lingered longer had I been alone. But, it was getting late in the day and we still had to drive back to Boston. It was just one stop on our journey, a side trip really, before getting back on the road again.

Leaving Boston by train, I thought about Kerouac. I’d read most of Kerouac’s work while living in California. One of my favorite pieces was “The Railroad Earth” in Lonesome Traveler, about working as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad while he lived in San Francisco. In the essay, Kerouac reminisces about Lowell while he’s working in the rail yards and riding the trains between San Francisco and San Jose. There’s something about traveling that makes us think about other places we’ve been and about the people we were with there. I was missing my husband whose job had kept him in Chicago while I was on this trip. In New York City I would change trains and then travel west to Pittsburgh for another stopover before returning to Chicago – toward what was our home for a brief while.

When I was younger I mostly measured time by weeks and months; only long chunks of time such as school grades and birthdays were measured in years. Now, I measure time in decades. I was barely out of my first decade when Kerouac died. As we quickly approach the end of our first decade in the 21st century, I’m already in my fifth decade, having surpassed the length of Kerouac’s short life. Rest in peace, Ti Jean. Your words live on as I continue speeding through my own lifetime.

News and Updates:

• Photojournalist Clyde Hare died last week. Hare came to Pittsburgh to work with Roy Stryker on the Pittsburgh Photographic Library Project and then made Pittsburgh his home for the next fifty years. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news obituary includes several of his images of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Hare’s photographs are included in the collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art and at George Eastman House, among others.

• Congratulations to Jayne Anne Phillips whose latest novel Lark & Termite is a finalist for the National Book Award.

Carnegie Mellon University Press has announced the release of a new edition of Chuck Kinder’s The Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale as part of their Classic Contemporaries list. The new edition includes additional chapters and lost love letters which were not included in the original edition, as well as an introduction by Jay McInerney. Even though I have a signed first edition on my bookshelves, you can bet I’ll be buying and reading the new edition as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Photo Credit:
Jack Kerouac’s gravestone, copyright © 1983 by Dory Adams.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Abandoned and Reclaimed Things: Railroad Architecture

Michigan Central Terminal Main Entrance (photo copyright 2009 by Keith Burgess)

(Click on images for larger view)

Much has been written lately about the fate of Detroit’s Michigan Central Terminal, which was recently slated for demolition. Photographers drawn to the Beaux Arts style building in order to document its ruin have managed to capture traces of its lost grandeur. Why do we allow our history to crumble? What has influenced us to think of our buildings as disposable? Instead of restoring and re-purposing our architectural gems, we bulldoze and replace them with structures that can never compete with the beauty, craftsmanship, building material quality or architectural detail of the originals. We are losing our heritage and along with it our sense of place.

Interestingly, there has been some recent backlash about photographers misrepresenting Detroit and producing a biased perspective called “ruin porn.” The complaint is that photographers are framing shots in such a way that they omit well-maintained occupied buildings just beyond what is included in the frame. Thomas Morton makes the point that the buildings being shown over and over in the media are structures that have been vacant and in decline for decades, such as the Michigan Central Terminal (vacant since the 1980s) and the Packard Motor Car Plant which closed in the 1950s.

What is included within the frame depends on the story being told. Photographers tell their stories by using the viewfinder to frame and capture images; writers place a similar frame around their stories by choosing what to tell and what to leave out. Editors then sometimes reframe those stories and photographs by making deeper cuts. I would argue that the point of those Detroit urban decay photographs is that the ruined structures stand as omens, as prophecies of what may await other once-magnificent corporations unless they adapt with the times. We don’t like to be shown our mistakes and missed opportunities. There was a certain window of time when those buildings were still salvageable, but instead they were allowed to slowly slide into ruin over the decades.

Detroit’s Michigan Central Terminal is beyond saving. However, there are other historic buildings that could be saved, such as Buffalo’s Central Terminal. Since I first saw this building a few years ago, I have not been able to forget it. It was love at first sight. Standing on the front plaza drive and looking skyward to the clock tower, I was smitten by the Art Deco styling and details. It wasn’t hard to imagine the upper floors of the tower turned into condominiums, office space below, and shops and businesses located in the main terminal.

The Central Terminal Restoration Corporation (CTRC), a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization is working to restore and preserve the terminal. The first goal of the CTRC is to stabilize and seal the building from the elements. Many of the Buffalo Central Terminal’s interior details, such as light fixtures, ornamental detailing, and railings, were removed and sold by previous owners. Art Deco lamp fixtures ended up in a Hong Kong restaurant where they still remain, but the clock was bought and returned to the terminal after it turned up for sale in Chicago on eBay. The Buffalo Central Terminal property is owned by several entities. The CTRC “owns the main concourse building and baggage building. The now detached train concourse is currently owned by Amtrak. The mail building is currently owned by the City of Buffalo.” It’s estimated that it would take approximately 56 million dollars to complete the restoration.

Buffalo Central Terminal (copyright 2009 by Kevin Scanlon)

Whether it’s feasible to save a particular building and whether it’s possible to save the building are two different questions. Pittsburgh has managed to save two of its railroad terminals by renovating them for new purposes. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Union Station, later renamed Penn Station, in downtown Pittsburgh was transformed into The Pennsylvanian, a 13-story mixed-use building housing apartments and office/retail space. The apartments are located above what was once the main terminal, the concourse is now leased out for special events, and the rotunda has been deemed an historic landmark and is part of the National Register of Historic Places. The Amtrak station is still at that location, but is now housed underneath the old main terminal.

Pittsburgh’s Station Square is a complex of several buildings once belonging to the Pennsylvania & Lake Erie (P&LE) Railroad, including the freight house and the Landmarks Building which housed the Pittsburgh Terminal Train Station. The complex now includes a hotel, offices, shops, restaurants and night clubs, and the terminal is now home to the elegant Grand Concourse Restaurant.

Roanoke, Virginia is another city which has successfull
y renovated its historic railroad buildings for contemporary use. The Hotel Roanoke, originally built as a railroad hotel for Norfolk and Western Railroad travelers, has been renovated and expanded to include a conference center. Across the street is The O. Winston Link Museum, located in the former Norfolk and Western Passenger Station. Within easy walking distance is the City Market District, with restaurants, clubs, galleries, shops, and an open-air market.

Whether Buffalo will be able to rewrite the story of the Buffalo Central Terminal to include a happy ending is yet to be seen. If I could put my own story frame around that terminal, it might include a convention cent
er with hotels and restaurants. Or, the frame might hold condos above shops, offices, and restaurants. The efforts of the CTRC make that a hopeful possibility.

Buffalo Central Terminal Marquee Detail (photo copyright 2009 by Kevin Scanlon)

Photo credits:

“Michigan Central Terminal Main Entrance” copyright © 2009 Keith Burgess, used by permission

“Buffalo Central Terminal” copyright © 2009 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

“Buffalo Central Marquee Detail” copyright © 2009 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

Keith Burgess is a self-taught photographer who has twice won The Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s Creative Photography Gold Award (2007, 2009), and whose work has been exhibited at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, CA. Burgess strives to reveal the underlying emotion of what he describes as otherwise “everyday mundane objects.” The images in his series “Portrait of the American Landscape” and “Architecture of Decline” convey solitude, sadness, loss, and longing.

Kevin Scanlon was born in Pittsburgh and has spent the past thirty-five years documenting heavy industry and railroads across the country. His photographs have been exhibited at art museums and galleries, and have appeared in various railroad-themed books and magazines, and on the covers of literary magazines and trade journals. He is currently working on a series of industrial landscapes in the Pittsburgh area.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Appalachian Images: Fallout At The Greenbrier Hotel

The Greenbrier set isn’t exactly my crowd, if you know what I mean, yet I visited the Greenbrier Hotel twice last year. The first visit was to tour the underground bunker, built during the Eisenhower administration as a government relocation center for members of Congress in the event of a Cold War nuclear emergency. The second visit was simply to get another look at the hotel’s décor, particularly of the lobby bar for details I wanted to use in writing a short story.

The Greenbrier website describes the interior decoration as “décor unlike any in America.” I’ll say. All those bold Dorothy Draper and Carleton Varney designs stopped me in my tracks several times as I strolled through the hotel with my husband after we’d completed the bunker tour on that first visit. Occasionally I still have nightmares. Flashbacks. Not about the bunker, but rather about the décor. Those pinks and greens and large floral patterns provoke anxiety. And the green-swirl-patterned carpet of the lobby bar nearly dropped me to my knees with vertigo.

On that first visit we hadn’t taken our cameras inside the hotel with us, knowing we would not be permitted to take them on the bunker tour. The tour began at the West Tunnel, which was an entrance for vehicles behind a 25-ton blast door, and ended inside the hotel in the Exhibit Hall Foyer in the hotel’s West Virginia Wing where there was an interior portal. The bunker had been hidden in plain sight for more than thirty years, with part of it used as an exhibition hall (the 18-ton interior blast door was open and hidden behind a false partition), the hotel guests unaware they were walking into and out of the bunker area. The bunker housed a power plant, decontamination showers, a communications center which included a television studio, dormitories with rows of bunk beds, a clinic and dispensary complete with operating room and dental area, an incinerator (which could be also be used for cremation purposes), security and surveillance facility, cafeteria and kitchen, meeting rooms and an auditorium for the House of Representatives and Senate.

The existence of the bunker was made public in an article by Ted Gup of the Washington Post in 1992 when the facility had become obsolete. In fact, Gup makes a point that the usefulness of the bunker was always questionable. He writes, “Just how Congress was expected to reach the Greenbrier is unclear,” given that travel time from Washington, D.C. would have involved an hour by air or five hours by ground transportation, and would’ve been further complicated since the existence of the facility had been kept secret from all but a few key members of congress and “it would take far longer than that to round them up.” An even bigger question was whether Congressional members would actually go there since arrangements did not include spouses or family. How many members of Congress would actually be willing to leave their families behind?

Gup writes that at least once, “during the Cuban missile crisis – the Greenbrier facility was put on high alert.” I was in grade school during the Cuban missile crisis, but I remember well the anxiety of that era (including seeing homes being built with bomb shelters in the basements) and still carry that fear deep within me, as I’m sure most people of my generation do. We grew up with the threat of The Bomb, practicing duck-and-cover drills at our school desks and learning to be aware of which public buildings displayed Civil Defense Fallout Center signs. Somehow touring the bunker and seeing the absurdity and futility of that plan eased my old fears with the realization that there is no real plan – at least not for us regular folks. I was never destined to be part of the Greenbrier set, above or below ground.

However, one visit to the Greenbrier wasn’t enough. I had to go back – for research, for that short story. This time we took our cameras. We strolled around the grounds, which truly are gorgeous, particularly in autumn which was the season for our second trip. The outdoor infinity pool with the mountains in the background is stunning. The exterior of the hotel itself has always looked a tad institutional to me, though – and, in fact, it had been used as an army rehabilitation hospital during World War II. Inside the hotel, we splurged on lunch at Draper’s Café, where I had the best (and most expensive) fried green tomato sandwich I’ve ever tasted. Then we went in search of the lobby bar, to see if I could walk across that green swirl-patterned carpet without succumbing to vertigo. We walked through the upper lobby, which the Greenbrier brochures describe as “the Greenbrier’s living room . . . a series of lobbies and sitting rooms.” We got lost, wandering down hallways and rooms that opened onto other rooms. We photographed. I took notes. And we found the bar.

So, the story has been simmering for a while. I couldn’t get that carpet pattern out of my head, and couldn’t stop imagining what it might be like to try to walk across it after having a few drinks. I could envision someone having to crawl out of that bar on all fours. I’m a bit superstitious about saying too much before a story’s finished. Since there’s always a risk in talking too much about work in progress – of the story losing its energy before the work is completed – let’s just leave it that the details are in place. The characters are in the bar. The green carpet is swirling. And a photographer has just walked into that bar and started an argument between those characters.

Photo Credits:
Photographs of the Greenbrier Hotel copyright © 2008 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission.