Essay

Traveling Back to Schenectady

I come from Electric City.

For a long time, this was the first line of my novel, and even after I had switched to third person and therefore could no longer use this sentence, it haunted me like a stubborn and relentless piece of music. The truth is that the creation of this book began the moment I realized I hadn’t yet written about where I come from. I’ve written about Berkeley, where I live now and have lived for nearly thirty years. I’ve written about places in Europe where I’ve traveled and where my parents came from. But aside from a few poems, the deep dive into exploring the place where I was born and raised was something I’d been avoiding, perhaps because it was a place I was so glad to have escaped, and a place that for many reasons never quite felt entirely like home.

About eight years ago, I was sitting in the audience listening to a lecture given by James Houston at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He was talking about the importance of setting, the importance of PLACE, and I felt the top of my head cracking open. Schenectady! I thought. The place I left behind at the age of sixteen, traveling as far from home as I could get without leaving the planet. The place I continued to reject, during decades of visiting my parents who had remained there. The place I both knew and didn’t know. So maybe it was time.

As soon as I found out that one of the oldest nicknames for Schenectady was “Electric City,” the title of the book felt chiseled into stone. For a few years, the title was my favorite thing about the book, especially during the stretches when I felt the work-in-progress was a disaster. I loved saying the title out loud when people asked me what I was working on, and I loved seeing the looks on their faces when they heard the phrase. Every once in a while, someone would want to know more, at least a little bit more, and I would explain that it was about my hometown. “Home of General Electric,” I’d say. And they would say, “Ah.” As if they knew.

As it soon became clear, there was an astonishing (to me) and complicated history for my birthplace, much richer and more intriguing than I could have imagined. During an early-in-the-process phone conversation with my father, who seemed tickled by the idea that I was writing about Schenectady, he said, “Why don’t you write about Charles Steinmetz.” “Who?” I asked. “Look him up,” my father said. “You’ll see.”

I was intending at that point to open the novel on the day of the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, an event I could only vaguely recall because I was five years old at the time. I’d decided that my main character (my first-person narrator, originally), was going to be fifteen years old, so that her memories of the blackout would be vivid and significant. I gave her my own birthday of New Year’s Eve, except instead of being born on the last day of the 1950s, she would be born on the last day of the 1940s. I gave her the name Sophie Levine. And then I started reading about Charles Proteus Steinmetz.

Many novelists find that when they’re doing research for a book, nearly everything around them seems to conspire in the direction of the story — that is, the world of “coincidence” and “synchronicity” starts offering up perfect details and data for your use. When I read that Steinmetz was a dwarf and a hunchback, that he was almost turned away from Ellis Island for being deformed and sickly, that he floated up and down the Mohawk River in a canoe which he used as his office, that he wore a coonskin cap and smoked cigars — everything I learned about him seemed perfectly designed for a wonderfully eccentric, compelling fictional character.

And yet, I had plenty of inventing to do. I became as fascinated with what I could find out about him as I was intrigued by what I could not find out. I held imaginary dialogues with him inside my head, filling in the spaces between the so-called facts of his life.

As a writer who often works in fragments, following character and image more than plot, I am frequently in a state of “blindness” when it comes to the architecture of my fiction. I am fond of quoting E.L. Doctorow, who famously said that writing a novel is “like driving in tule fog. All you need to do is see a few feet in front of you, and you can drive all the way across the country like that.”

By chance, I met Doctorow while I was grappling with that state of writing in the dark, and in particular I wanted to ask him how he managed to handle real-life characters with so much grace and originality. I’d been worrying over the “real” Steinmetz and how to take liberties with his personality, his life.   Doctorow said, “I just treat them the way I treat my other characters. Think of it like being a portrait painter – you’re not necessarily aiming for pure realism but for an interpretation of the person sitting in front of you.” That was the reassurance I needed to keep moving forward a few more feet at a time.

Some of my most exciting discoveries happened when I closed my eyes and remembered my own childhood, scenes from that hometown I had always been so eager to leave behind. I wouldn’t be the first writer to be inspired by the emotional and geographical and temporal distance between me and my birthplace, realizing that I could only feel inspired by home once I had been away from it for many many years.

You can’t go home again, was one of the many clichés I held in mind as I wrote. Home is where the heart is. Home is the place where, when you go back, they have to take you in. Home is where I want to be. But my hometown was where I didn’t want to be. Except in my imagination, and except for the loves and losses of my characters, with whom I traveled on both literal and metaphoric journeys toward and away from themselves, from their birthplaces, and from one another. Writing (and completing!) ELECTRIC CITY transported me back into my childhood, allowed me to revisit my adolescence and young adulthood – until I reached the time in which I left behind my hometown for good. I learned, along with my characters, a truth both personal and universal: If we are lucky, we get to discover that home is the place we carry inside ourselves.

 

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