WHY I WROTE THE MEMORY OF BROKEN THINGS
We are all profoundly shaped by the place we call home, the place where we were born and raised, where events and people have marked our lives forever. And most of us, as the years pass, feel the pull of home, the desire to revisit the scenes of our formative years at least in memory, if not in a literal pilgrimage. F. Scott Fitzgerald states this idea at the end of his novel The Great Gatsby when, likening aging to a sea voyage, he says, "so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
I wrote the stories about Amsterdam and the Mohawk Valley that comprise The Memory Of Broken Things primarily because as I've gotten older, the memories of my youth have come back to me with the increasing frequency that Fitzgerald's metaphor describes. Yet the irresistible siren song of the past is not the only cause of my writing fiction set in the Mohawk Valley. I have three other reasons for creating these tales. One is very personal and specific to me, while the others have to do with the natural geography of the Valley, and the experiences that successive generations of people have endured on this land.
First, the personal. I've always felt the need to create tangible objects in response to memories of people and events I've been a part of, or witnessed, or just heard about. For much of my adult life, this desire led me to pursue painting as an avocation: I did portraits and landscapes of people and places that represented important influences on the ways I looked at the world. Yet those visual representations never satisfied me for they failed to capture the energy of life and seemed just inanimate copies of real individuals and actual events. Fiction writing, on the other hand, allowed me to recreate the past in a way that painting did not. In fiction, I feel that others live again and places spread out before the eyes of recollection not exactly as they once were, but enhanced and refined by subsequent experience. So, perhaps, the imagination works in all who reflect upon times gone by. The remembered words and actions of others played out against a long past landscape become what Albert Camus calls, "the lie that reveals the truth" of human experience.
Beyond this personal reason there is a geographical fact that makes the Mohawk Valley an important locality in my life and writing. This area has a unique physical character I've found nowhere else in New York State. The landscape here doesn't afford the observer the level panoramic views stretching to the horizon that characterize western New York. It doesn't present the dramatic mountainscapes of the Adirondacks and Catskills, or resemble the broad rolling vistas of the Finger Lakes region and the Southern Tier. Instead, the Mohawk Valley's poetry of place lies in the horizon's nonthreatening closeness to the observer. The hills that rise up from the river do so not in steep escarpments, but gently, their sides covered with stands of evergreen and hardwood trees or washed over with the greens and browns of pastures close cropped by herds of dairy cattle. That sheltering and, at certain times of the year, lush intimacy has always made this valley a source of creative inspiration for me.
A last reason for my writing about Amsterdam and the Mohawk Valley follows from its geographical characteristics and has to do with its people. Long before the coming of the railroad in the late nineteenth century and the interstate highway system of the twentieth, the valley presented the only practical way of facilitating our country's westward expansion through the Appalachian mountains. And when the railroad and the highway did arrive, those methods of transportation followed the river valley. Economic prosperity came to the region, especially during the early years of the twentieth century. With money came people. Many, including members of the family I would be born into, were newcomers to the country. The populations of small mill cities like Amsterdam grew, not so much with the wealthy and influential, but rather with swelling numbers of immigrants and their children. They became the shopkeepers, mill-hands, and railroad laborers who made up the core of life in these small towns. The everyday lives of these commoners, these "splendid nobodies" as the novelist William Kennedy calls them, celebrated the hopefulness of prosperity during the first half of the twentieth century. In the second half this population endured a decline in economic and spiritual fortune I believe was as profound if not as dramatic as that of the post-bellum South.
Gone now is much of what these people built. The towering mill buildings, the shops, neighborhood groceries and bars, the small parks and picnic groves that were the scenes of labor and recreation have passed with the years, leaving only the slowly dying memory of sight and sound. My writing is driven by the desire to recreate those sights and sounds. I'd like my characters to feel again the cool shadows cast by the carpet mills looming over Shuler and Willow Streets on hot summer afternoons. I want them to smell the sourness that wafted from the gin mills along East Main and the sweet aroma of cheese and produce that surrounded the groceries whose doors were always open to the street except on the coldest winter days. I want them to walk the streets of downtown at night, when the shop windows glowed like many colored gems in the sheltering darkness. My fiction explores the lives of these ordinary people. My purpose is to illustrate their meanness as well as their magnanimity, their dignity as well as their despair. It is this common, everyday humanity whose stories I want to tell. This is why I wrote The Memory Of Broken Things.