I’ve been spending the past week doing Q&A at the Endicott Mythic Reader’s Group on Goodreads, and there have been some really thoughtful questions. One came in today, to which I just responded. And I’ve decided to post the question and my response here, too.
Q: Ghosts and eldritch kids in and of themselves aren’t that unusual in dark fantasy/horror. Working class backgrounds like that of Adam and his family aren’t often handled in books within the genre or outside it. Decaying cities are a commonplace but not the economic devestation of the city in your novel. In some ways the family and the city are more unsettling than death and the ghosts. Could you talk about how and why you came to make those as important elements in ONE FOR SORROW as you did?
A: Thank you for your question. How and why did I come to choose the rural small town and dying steel city important aspects of One for Sorrow? There are a couple of reasons for this.
One is that setting is a very important element of fictional narrative for me in general. I think it’s an especially overlooked element of narrative in the recent past. It seems we have a lot of narratives these days that could take place in Anywhere, America. Suburban communities without a lot of distinguishing characteristics, or else in the very large mega-cities, like NY and LA. Occasionally you come across books set in marginal communities, but in my experience, finding these settings in books has become an infrequent event for me as a reader over the past ten years or so. When I began writing One for Sorrow, which is my first novel, I decided I would set it in my own home region, where I grew up, because I had never encountered a novel or short story which took that place as its setting, and told a story that derived and was specific to that place.
The dying steel city of Youngstown, Ohio and the small rural communities that surround it are in many ways forgotten places in the American landscape. There are many forgotten places that the rest of America has no context to understand them. If you asked someone who was an adult and paying attention to the news back in the late 70s and early 80s, you might encounter someone who knows these places and without very much need for prompting will be recall the devastating economic disaster that occurred in Youngstown, Ohio at that time. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about it for his Ghost of Tom Joad album, which explored these forgotten and ignored aspects of American community. They are forgotten and ignored because communities such as Youngstown are working class, the underclass, and had no one of any articulate ability to speak for them, and to speak loud enough. In recent days, due to it being an electoral year, Youngstown pops up on cue in the political world, presidential candidates come here in those years to take pictures in front of decaying steel mills and factories that have been abandoned for the past thirty or forty years, and pretend as if they’re going to do something to help the people who live in these jobless, poverty-stricken communities. But if we count the years that have passed between the time Youngstown lost its steel economy to the attractive, exploitable third world, we know that they really don’t intend to do anything but use the place as a backdrop of the narrative they’re creating for themselves as politicians.
Ghost stories are about people who have something left to say, so much so that they remain alive somehow, supernaturally, beyond the grave. So along with the death of Jamie Marks, who has several things left undone in his life–friendships left unforged and unexplored with Adam and Gracie, relationships unresolved with his mother and father–there is also the character of the small town the characters come from, and the dead/dying steel city to which their rural community is a satellite, the nearest thing to urbanity. Settings are characters, too, really. A community itself has character, based off of the people who live in them and the values and beliefs they’ve chosen to live by. Youngstown is a community that, despite having died an incredible death of its former self, after having lost its identity, has clung to life despite all of that. At one time it had a population of around 175,000 people. Today it’s about 75,000 people. That’s an enormous loss. There are whole sections of the city that have fallen into ruin, houses abandoned, workplaces abandoned, blight is a common view. In the 80s it was evaluated as the Murder Capital of America. It no longer has that place, thankfully, but crimes of this sort are a natural occurrence in communities that have lost their basic foundation for survival. People begin to fight for resources; they’ll steal and plot and sometimes kill when they are desperate. The community now is small enough that the crime that occurred after that initial blow in the 70s and 80s has waned and enough people have left, realizing there are not enough resources for living here and that they must leave if they intend to have a better life for their families. And yet the city still lives on, and has in the past four or five years attracted national and international attention with a new plan to shrink itself in order to provide a higher quality of life for its citizens, rather than following the typical American city idea that you must grow, get bigger, take on more and more. So the city has begun demolishing whole neighborhoods, to get rid of blight, and old workplaces which we have finally accepted no work will come back to inhabit. Or at least not the sort of work that once inhabited them. There is a large group of young thirty and twenty somethings, a new generation, that have taken on an amazingly energetic community activist approach, and have tried to create bonds between various communities within the larger community, something that did not occur in the past, to make the place stronger. Revitalization is occurring, step by step, and though it is slow progress, it is the first progress we have seen in four decades, and people are taking some comfort and allowing themselves to perhaps hope a little harder than they once did.
It’s a place that is no longer the city it once was, but has decided to live somehow, anyway it can, the same way Jamie tries to live beyond his unjust and early death. And if there is a reason why I chose to feature working class characters in an economically devastated rural community and city, it’s because I come from this place and decided a long time ago, when I knew I would write, that I would attempt to become good enough at writing to say something about the lives we live here that a lot of fiction does not ask us to think about, or at least does not ask us to think about as often as I wish it would.