Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Where Stories Come From: Guest Post by Russell Hill

Today I welcome back Russell Hill, a three-time Edgar nominee. His new Novel, Tom Hall, due in early 2015 from Pleasure Boat Studio (New York) takes place in 1945 in the tuberculosis sanitariums of New Mexico and Los Angeles. The 12-year-old protagonist endlessly rides the electric streetcars of Los Angeles in search of meaning in a life turned upside down by a terminal disease.

"Where do your stories come from?," readers ask.

And my answer is always vague, incomplete, and unsatisfying. Some readers insist that I must use my own life as a basis for stories, but often my characters murder or commit unspeakable violence, so that can’t be the answer.

Our house is on a hill that used to suffer power outages in the winter. A storm came, and the lights went out. We learned to call together our neighbors and gather food that would perish in refrigerators that were without power. My wife and I had gathered, over the years, a number of oil lanterns, so they assembled at our table, the house lit with the soft light of the lanterns and my gas kitchen stove, unfazed by the power outage, warmed the food.

John Osborn, the writer who wrote a best seller about his first year as a doctor, and then began to write other television scripts lived just up the hill from us.

I remember one night, his wife turning to me and saying, “Whatever you say, John will remember it. And chances are it will become part of the dialogue in one of his stories.”

Annie Lamont told me that she keeps three by five cards on which she jots down bits of speech she hears on the bus or at a church gathering. The cards become a file for pieces of stories.

A neighbor died recently of cancer. He had cancer of the colon and they took out part of his colon and gave him chemo-therapy, a hideous treatment that left him debilitated, engulfed in an overstuffed chair while I brought him his morning papers and we had coffee and talked and sometimes I made an omelette, but mostly we talked because he had no appetite for food. And then, suddenly, the cancer was in his brain, at the back of his head, spidering down into the cortex, and he wasted away, grew faint of voice, and we talked of old things, memories of the North Fork of the Yuba River where he had spent his teenage years. He measured his words as if each was in a teaspoon, tipping each word carefully into the conversation. Measured. Separated by pauses while he filled the teaspoon again. He kept his wood stove burning, and the heat radiated, filling the room.

I remembered my great uncle in his eighties, wearing a wool cardigan sweater on a warm day, a fire in the fireplace. I wanted to throw open the doors but he said, “I’m cold. I’m cold all the time.” and once he said that it was this cold in the trenches. And wet. And there were lice. It was the only time I heard him talk about the Great War.

Now Gary sat, his frail body buried in the overstuffed chair, a blanket over his legs, the wood stove glowing. Earlier I stood at the chop saw on his patio, cutting wood blocks for the stove. He found them at Fairfax Lumber, a pile of discarded timbers, each block two or three feet long, six by eight inches, end cuts from some construction job, and he brought them home in his truck. In the grey morning, I cut each one in half or thirds on the chop saw, the blade spinning, and I was careful, remembering Frost’s poem “Out! Out!” where a boy loses a hand when they are cutting wood in the Vermont fall.

When I came up the path that morning, the stones were slick. There was rain, the first wet morning in months. That night I got out of bed to stand on the deck in the rain, feel the drops on my head and shoulders. The rain would stir the steelhead, and they would move upstream, and the following weekend when I stood on the edge of the Trinity River perhaps there would be a fish that took my fly. Or perhaps not.

Perhaps I would stand among the rocks and cast and cast again, and the river would pulse in front of me, empty, the same pulse that throbbed in my chest and was less positive in Gary Teply’s chest. He was, like his river in the late summer, slowing, the eddies curling among the rocks, and there would be no winter storm that would fill him, make him spill over into another year.

My memory of the North Fork of the Yuba was different from his. I pictured a small cabin overlooking the river and small trout in a tiny creek that tumbled into the river. I could see breakfast on the table at the window and hear the rush of the Yuba all night long.

Gary repeated his story about the coyote. He had told it so many times that I had come to feel that it was my story, too.

On his last day, he lay, mouth open, asleep, and when I came to his bedside and grasped his thin leg beneath the blanket, he opened his eyes.

“It’s Russell,” I said, but there was no hint of recognition in those eyes. “No coyote this morning,” I said. His eyes closed. His head had not moved.

A coyote came up the stairs to his house one morning as he sat in the kitchen. It came into the greenhouse that he had fashioned from old shower doors, scavenged at the San Rafael dump years before. The greenhouse was filled with orchids and geraniums and grasses. The coyote stood at the door to the kitchen, looking in at Gary. It was, Gary said, mid-morning. Ordinarily the coyotes were only sounds in the darkness of early morning, trills and yips from the ridge at the top of Toyon, sometimes eerie howls. But this was a bright mid-morning. It came up Gary’s path and climbed the steps to his greenhouse and carefully stepped inside to pause and look at him, sitting in his kitchen with his coffee and newspaper.

Gary told the story again the previous morning, his body sunken into the over-stuffed chair, his measured words soft so that I had to lean forward to hear. I looked out at the greenhouse, the red tiled floor and the profusion of plants and I could see the coyote, ragged and dog-like, looking in at Gary, who was not frail and sunken in his big chair, but sat upright on the couch in the kitchen next to the huge fireplace he had built years before.

And he told about the great blue heron that came down into his yard, threading its way through the trees to stand at the edge of the pond he had made. A spring came into his lot at the top, and he had channeled it into three ponds that cascaded down toward Oak Road, each one made of chunks of concrete cemented together. Goldfish swam in those ponds, eating the mosquito larvae, and the heron came to feast on the goldfish. I had never seen the heron, but as Gary told his story again, I felt that I was there and that it was becoming my story.

So some of the stories in my head are borrowed. I have appropriated them, much the same way that street people with shopping carts latch onto old aluminum cans or cast off clothing found at the curb. I am no longer sure which stories are mine and which are stories that I have heard and taken as my own experience, stories that are now part of who I am. I wrote a story about coming across the carcass of a bear that had been killed by a train in the Feather River Canyon. It was, in fact, not my discovery. It was a story that my oldest son had told to me. He had come across the remains of the bear on an early morning fishing trip, crossing the narrow railroad bridge that spanned the Feather River and when I told that story, I had come to think of it as my discovery. I had found the smoking remains of the bear and could hear the long whistle of the engine and what had happened to the bear had become part of me. I could see the remains of the bear underneath the bridge, and I stepped carefully around it and the river rushed below me ,and I could see the bear in the darkness of early morning on the railroad bridge and the on-coming train. The headlight flashed, turning in circles and the long wail of the diesel horn sounded, and I could see the engineer in the cab and the bear rising up, unable to turn and run. Unable to do anything but face the oncoming engine, and then there was the impact and that was what I wrote, as if I had been there, watching. And it was my story, not Geoffrey’s, not the bear’s story or the engineer’s story. It was mine.

I am haunted by stories.