The cover of my novel, A Notion of Pelicans, might suggest it’s a romance. Bear with me. My interest here isn’t really my book. The novel does have romantic overtones. It weaves together sex, God, and guns—illicit sex, an elusive God, and a fear of guns. I was raised to be a good girl, with little notion of my sexuality. It was a jolt to realize, sometime during adolescence, that I didn’t want to be a good girl. I didn’t want to be a bad girl either—didn’t want to live out any sort of narrow definition. My hopes and desires were more complicated than that.
Now, this all sounds great—I had figured myself out and proceeded unflinchingly.
Not quite. I’ve spent my life as conflicted as anyone. But it is great in that I saw almost at once that I wasn’t alone. Writing is empathy, looking with another’s eyes. The inner turmoil we all live in, most without speaking of it, is fertile ground for a writer. I’ve felt called to explore that fertile ground, out loud, and not in a good girl’s voice.
The sex and God parts of my book are apparent right off. A group of women who attend the same church get into some complicated sexual situations and handle them differently. The gun thread in the book emerges more gradually. The issue isn’t guns—but gun violence. I set out to imagine it from inside the problem, from the perspective of the heart, not the head.
Here’s how I think about my art—it’s my job to imagine, to pose quandaries around our human conflicts. Thinking about those three broad threads in my novel: Its characters seek love and intimate partnership, and they mostly create a mess. They long for spiritual connection, but the day-to-day nature of life gets in the way. They’re torn between looking out for their own interests and looking after humanity’s collective needs—gun violence, for instance, isn’t a problem most of them know up close. It’s not something they think about.
What I offer readers of my fiction is room to sort out the story’s issues for themselves—to consider various situations up close and from different sides. I know personally, as a reader of fiction, that reading a story about human struggle can change a person. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill,” John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums”—just those three stories changed my life on my first reading of them, and they still haunt me. We get stuck in our growing. Living through a situation with a fictional character can help us see where we’re stuck and find our way out.
As a writer, I know that readers of my fiction will land, at the end of their sorting and weighing, in places unique to each one of them. Reading has been such a sacred experience for me that I stay out of the reader’s way when I write. It’s the wondering and changing we do in life that I find important, more than reaching some ideal answer.
When I write, I work slowly—periods of intense writing, interspersed with sometimes-long periods of thought. The writing of my novel took many years. By the time my husband and I moved into the peaceful house where I finally finished the book, I’d been wrestling with its issues a long time. The mix of problems I imagined my characters had to face kept me interested.
Out the back door of that house where I finished the book was a steep hill that swept down to a marshy wetland along the Mississippi River. The grade was wooded, pocked with deadfalls, and separated from our narrow back yard by a retaining terrace of rocks.
The house had been built into a grove of quaking aspens, known locally as popple trees. Once the trees leafed out, our view of everything below and across the river disappeared. The house was all windows, big picture windows. In summer, we looked out on a leafy wall of green. It was an ironic setting for exploring violence—to live somewhere so beautiful and safe, then spend my time there imagining the unimaginable.
Popple trees are messy, like a writer’s mind, in a way. They drop pieces of themselves with every breeze, and in the spring their seed bursts out in white pods of fuzz that eventually fall, turning the ground into a white carpet. Popples are messy, but beautiful—tall, slender. When a wind comes up, they sway and whisper.
On the day that my husband Bruce and I came as prospective buyers to see this house I finished the novel in, it was windy. A storm was moving in, but the sellers had left some of the windows open. It was a wise choice, because the trees were speaking. The house needed work, but those trees were so eloquent. It was the place we were looking for.
After we moved in, we took our first notice of one tree in particular, not a popple, a huge dead tree, still rooted, still upright, just down the slope and off the deck. Bruce said it was a cedar. Cedars have almost mystical connotations for me. The Bible mentions the mysterious cedars of Lebanon, and cedar was the only wood my father would use for the walls when he built his beloved sauna. As a girl still at home, teetering between who I’d been and who I’d become, I very much longed for a cedar chest—a box to keep dreams in, made of the one wood that would protect everything and keep moths out.
Once I’d spotted that dead cedar, I fell in love with it. It brought up deep feelings in me. Even a tree that has died can evoke melancholy. I don’t mean grief, terrible and painful. I’m talking about a meditation on life and purpose. Sitting on the deck, watching the play of sun and shadow across that cedar’s trunk and limbs, I felt the sensation of peace—the sense of life’s circle. We live inside that circle as we best know how and contribute to the world what we can.
Imaginatively, the cedar spoke to me about presence. It had lived on that descending slope for who knows how long, and had been dead for how many years? The cedar was bleached from rain and sun, and yet, it remained upright in the ground. That cedar tree was still being a presence in our world long after its own life had ended. Just looking at that tree, I hoped to live with even half as much presence, to leave something of myself behind when I pass on.
Our last autumn in that house, we woke one night at four a.m. to the sound of wind, a ravenous wind, roaring up through the woods from the river. Our popples were thrashing and shouting. We took our dogs and went to the basement. Through an egress window, we could see with each flash of lightning that the popples were being forced nearly to the ground. We held our breath. The storm was wild, then passed quickly. When the sun came up, we could see popple limbs and branches everywhere across the yard, but the trees themselves had survived upright.
Not the cedar, though. It lay in a heap of its own branches, and it was a hard sight to see.
For six years, the cedar had stood like a wise, calm soul behind the house while I finished my book. By that time, I had devoted a third of my life to its creation—going gradually deeper into its story of sex, God, and guns. Those last six years as I worked, the cedar stood quietly. In my writing life, I can say I’m doing well with the hope to live like that tree. I understand taking the long view now, and I’m trying to leave pieces of myself behind. When it comes to the question of who I am though—good girl, bad girl, something in between—there’s only ambiguity. But ambiguity, too, is a writer’s fertile ground. I just work with it.