One Thursday per month, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their stories. Here’s one from the intimidatingly talented Elizabeth Reeder.
Fremont was published by Kohl.
As Utah tosses and flips deciding how she’ll be in the world, Rachel can’t find the hall for days on end and sits in another unfamiliar room and weeps. Sounds of her children playing somewhere in this house come to her, but if she tries to follow them back to safety, she ends up in yet another oddly shaped room where she looks out the window and doesn’t recognize the view.
Finally, she sits at the kitchen table, amidst a mess of papers and maps she’s dragged down from the turret, and tries to find something that will root her in this next girl. The kids harangue around her, setting up and knocking over dominoes, making sandcastles, moats, and cliff-edged coastlines out of all the sand that accumulates daily. Arizona is in a bouncy chair and she bounces bounces bounces until she falls asleep, and it’s in this stillness that a map catches Rachel’s attention. It’s a map of the Great Salt Lake and the directions are all wonky with north facing west and west south and the edges of the water lack distinction. It’s basically useless as a guide. Right away she knows it’s a body of water that can’t actually be mapped because its shoreline changes so dramatically year on year. It’s foolish to even try. So many of us are foolish.
For writers, decisions around thievery and influence can engage the deepest emotions: from Bloom’s anxiety to Lethem’s ecstasy, (which he applies with such finesse to his 2007 Harpers article on artistic theft). I’m definitely more on the ecstasy end of that particular discussion.
The thefts in my novel Fremont are too numerous to detail but I’ll start with the eponymous name of the family and the book. John C Fremont was an egotistical and rogue explorer (and keen self-aggrandizer) who traveled west in the 1840s and 1850s in a bumbling exploration of the burgeoning United States’s western expanse. Often cavalier with the lives of his men, he was a keen botanist and cartographer who had a habit of naming most things he ‘discovered’ after himself – plants, places, and even an ancient, lost tribe of native Americans out in Utah are named after the Fremont River and became known as The Fremont People. At some point in his illustrious career, John C was convicted of mutiny and military misconduct (after which he ran for the presidency). His wife wrote most of his autobiographic journals, journals with names like The Life of Colonel John Charles Fremont and His Narratives of Explorations and Adventures. These texts are wild things, often beautifully written, almost sentimental:
“The view here is truly magnificent; but, indeed, it needs something to repay the long prairie journey of a thousand miles. The sun has just shot above the wall, and makes a magical change. The whole valley is glowing and bright, and all the mountain peaks are gleaming like silver … And at our evening halt on the Sweet Water the roasted ribs again made their appearance around the fires, and with them, good humor, and laughter, and song were restored to the camp. Our coffee had been expended, but we now made a kind of tea from the roots of the wild cherry tree.”
The influences for Fremont continue: from the pick-pocketing of ‘sweet water’ above to the idea of a man stealing maps from an archive library using a thin, flat razor secreted in the hem of his trousers. This idea comes from Miles Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps, a beautifully constructed book with torn paper pages, which has a page-turning quest for this map thief, George Bland (who had a knack for disguise), at the very center of the book. The book came in the post from my dad, who knew I was looking at maps and cartography for my novel and who consequently was talking to his cardiologist, who then sent him the book to send to me. Theft travels.
Fremont has this huge imaginative canvas and the influences are often quite embedded. I discovered the idea of ‘types of water’ in Craig Child’s The Secret Knowledge of Water, which led me to write quite a long list of kinds of water I’d read about and many of these became linguistic sources within the book.
Wanting to create a narrative swing, I often turned to the rich, thick language of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (that I could temper into a telling that suited the longer form of the novel) and a lesser known contemporary fairytale novel, If I Told You Once by Judy Budnitz (a darkly foreboding tale of a controlling grandmother). I also listened obsessively to Everything But the Girl’s ‘Protection’, both for the rhythm and the obvious themes of bullying and protection. There are so many others: from Rachel’s last name, Roanoke (rumors and echoes of the lost colony of Roanoke) to ‘toroweaping’, which is my word-creation based on a geological layer of stone in the Grand Canyon, The Toroweap Formation, which is pressed between Coconino Sandstone and Kaibab Limestone. Utah, as a character, is like a magnet to the face of the compass of the family in part because in one book on Utah (Terry Tempest William’s stunning Refuge) there’s a map of the great salt lake in which north faces west. I love this idea of directions being subject to altering and how disorientating that is and how full of possibility (and this idea that we can choose directions has, in turn, influenced the title of the collection of lyrical essays I’m working on).
In the end, I enjoy the reverberations that the real, the historical, and the procured create in a work of fiction – this faint shadow of the familiar and of significance they build into a text. Readers experience those resonances in the work and, if it’s important, if the primary source is worth seeking out, I like to, as a writer, leave enough clues for readers to follow back to the source.
Fremont is published by Kohl.