The Mystery of Place: Guest Post by Ben H. Winters
Ben H. Winters is the author of eight novels, including most recently World of Trouble (Quirk), the concluding book in the Last Policeman trilogy. World of Trouble was nominated for the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Countdown City was an NPR Best Book of 2013 and the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction. The Last Policeman was the recipient of the 2012 Edgar Award, and it was also named one of the Best Books of 2012 by Amazon.com and Slate.
Ben’s other books Literally Disturbed, a book of scary poems for kids; the New York Times bestselling parody novel Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (Quirk) and a novel for young readers, The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman (HarperCollins), which was a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2011 as well as an Edgar Nominee in the juvenile category. In July 2016 he will publish a new novel, Underground Airlines (Mulholland).
Ben H. Winters: The Mystery of Place
My about-to-be-published novel Underground Airlines is set in Indianapolis, where I lived while I was writing it. My next novel (the one I'm starting right now which as of yet has no title) is set in Los Angeles because that's where I'm living now. I'm one of those writers (are there other kinds?) who is deeply influenced by where he is—actually, I'll go further than that, and say that for me, an active physical and emotional engagement with where I am is a first step in the writing process. I can't imagine writing a book that is set in some place and not being able to wander around that place, checking out buildings, taking pictures, talking to people.
When I was writing The Last Policeman and its sequels I spent a lot of time in Concord, New Hampshire, where those books take place. I was living in Cambridge, Mass. when I started the series (yes, I've moved a lot), so I would drive the hour up to Concord and pass pleasant afternoons rambling around the city like a location scout. Oh, hey, there's a little playground—nice spot for a foot chase. This McDonald's bathroom seems like a good place for a corpse to be discovered. There's the hospital, guess I'll just go in there and see if I can find the morgue. Maybe I'll wander into the police station and ask if I could just take a look around (Answer: "Absolutely not.")
Because Underground Airlines is an alternative history, set in a version of contemporary America where slavery still exists, the Indianapolis of the novel (like the wider America of the novel) is significantly altered, but nevertheless recognizable. The old mansions of Meridian-Kessler; the bars and clubs of Broad Ripple; the black neighborhoods north and west of downtown. To get this stuff right, to understand these locations and render them faithfully, took living there for a while—getting a feel for the place—meeting people who had grown up there or built their lives there.
I hope that Indy readers will be interested in seeing their city transformed by my high-concept thriller. The most striking of these transformations is no doubt Monument Circle, one of the city's trademarks, an obelisk in the precise geographical heart of downtown that commemorates Indiana's Civil War dead. But because in my book there was no Civil War, there is no Monument Circle. In the downtown Indianapolis of Underground Airlines there is instead a statue of Lincoln, who was shot there in 1861.
When people say of a novel that "the setting was like a character," it's not just because a certain mood was as striking and memorable as the people in the story, but because there was something about the workings of that particular place, aesthetically or politically or characterologically, that meant this particular story could only be told there. Indianapolis has a very specific feel, which permeates Underground Airlines. There's a certain big-hearted midwestern gentleness about it (exemplified by the way people say"you're fine" instead of glaring when someone bumps into them) and also an urban grittiness, a rough, practical, get-things-done mentality. It's a city of cars and drivers, a city with a distinct urban identity that is nevertheless surrounded by farmland, a just-center-left city that is the political and cultural capitol of a deeply conservative state. All of these factors (and its particular history of race relations, which I learned about in a book called Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis 1920-1970), came to bear, consciously and unconsciously, on the novel I set there.
It would be hard to enumerate exactly how this is a "novel of Indianapolis," but I know that it is. I know that if I had set it in Cleveland or in Chicago, more than the names of the streets would be different.
I want readers to come away from my work with strong specific memories not just of the characters and story, but of the places—as I have come away from George Pelacanos novels with strong specific memories of his Washington, D.C.; from Richard Price novels with strong specific memories of his imagined New Jersey town of Dempsey; from Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels with strong specific memories of its various Europeans locales.
Part of why I'm proud of this book is that there aren't a lot of great novels of Indianapolis, The Magnificent Ambersons and The Fault in Our Stars being the two remarkable exceptions. Among my hopes for Underground Airlines is that some readers—maybe even some readers who live in the real place—will see it as another.