Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Susan Sherman on the Significance of Place

In the 51st in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Susan Sherman, author of Nirvana on Ninth Street (Wings Press), likens a story's locale to a character.

In 1964, I moved into a small three story building in the back of an apartment house on Ninth Street in Manhattan. At the time, the neighborhood was a hub for artists and writers and musicians and filmmakers in what was then known as the Lower East Side (now the East Village). Although it was an ideal setting for the grouping of short stories that would become Nirvana on Ninth Street, it took more than forty years to write. I left Ninth Street in 1968, but the friends and neighbors who lived on it never left me. They were a home to which, through my writing, it was possible many years later for me to return.

The locale where a narrative takes place has always been of utmost significance to me as a writer. For me, the setting of a story speaks dialogue, conveys action, as much as any of the characters that live in it. I even included a chapter in my book titled “Ninth Street Tries to Get a Word in Edgewise” because I believe as essential as it is to make readers empathize with the characters in a story, it is equally important to make them feel part of their surroundings. I am reminded of the “Happenings” in the Sixties, the audience directly participating in the performance because it is not taking place on a proscenium stage, in front and above them, but is all around them. They are immersed in it.

van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters": No place like home
Therefore, I try to always remember the physicality of place that words can evoke. Vincent van Gogh wrote in his letters about evocative color in “The Potato Eaters” that the viewer should be able to sense the “bacon, smoke, potato steam.” Proust famously saw or more accurately smelled his past in a cup of tea. Likewise, I want my readers to wander the streets of my stories, to not be surprised if they bump by accident into one of the many characters that dwell there on their way to the neighborhood grocery store or Tompkins Square Park to play chess or buy fruit at the green market that lines the park on Avenue A on the last mild Sunday afternoon.

What do colors feel like? Is there a taste to shape? A sound to form? Our overemphasis on the strictly visual is written about at length by two of my favorite authors, Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space and the architect Juhani Pallasmaa in The Eyes of the Skin, and much of my inspiration in creating vivid imagery comes from poets like Pablo Neruda and Audre Lorde and Joy Harjo, novelists like Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison and the short stories of James Baldwin.

I also enjoy the way precise description allows one to go beyond the everyday and by doing so to enlarge and enhance it. I have just finished reading Martin Dressler for the first time. I was fascinated by the way Steven Millhauser’s description of Dressler’s shops and restaurants slowly and almost imperceptibly grows not only to encompass larger and more grandiose hotels but also to incorporate other more surreal levels of reality.

We writers are all magicians in our own way. For some of us, a piece of the past will come alive through a sleight of hand, for still others, our home is located in distant lands and epochs that we visit and inhabit entirely in our imagination. We all have our homes in different places. When I’m writing I try never to forget where my characters live. Not if I want my readers to live there too.