An interviewer asked how much of Better You Go Home (forthcoming October 2, 2013) is based on real life. From a publicity standpoint, it is a more marketable story if it is a “true” story, even better a “true family” story. Yes, there are real life events planted in my novel, but like plants, they grow and take on a form of their own.
The house. What to do with the house in Pisecna. The house I visited twice and described in detail in my Steno pad. The actual house was hidden behind brick walls thrown up in recent times to support a massive shed roof that covered most of the old structure (a cheap way of keeping the weather out when resources for more urgent repairs to the centuries-old farmhouse weren’t available). This wouldn’t do. The bricks, the add-on shed roof. No, wrong image. Then I saw a photo of the house as it stood originally. Perfect. Now the question was, show it as I saw it, or, show it as my character saw it. I wrote a description as faithful to the image as possible then discarded it. No feeling. No atmosphere. Not possible that my character, seeing his father’s house for the first time, would see it this clinically. But I wanted some narrative distance before throwing my character into the details. How would my character imagine the casual visitor would see his father’s old house? That’s the effect I decided to shoot for early in the scene:
A short way past the pond, near a bus stop, a side road bends under a tenting row of chestnut trees in the season of dropping their pods. We turn down that lane. The pods littering the road batter the Skoda’s undercarriage and the vibration I find surprisingly soothing to my swollen ankles. A bank of indigo storm clouds is piling up behind Zampach Hill. About two hundred meters along, a U-shaped enclave of buildings stands alone in a run of fields. The farm where my father grew up. A mammoth slate roof overhangs the farmhouse and its adjoining house and stalls. Low windows deeply set into logged walls peer out from under that overhang as though shy of revealing what’s inside… From a distance, the farm looks pretty grand. The notion that my father would walk away from all this simply because his lover was pregnant is obviously absurd.
There is the broad view. Closer, about to meet for the first time the man who is essentially living in his father’s house, the narrator observes:
Bright red geraniums planted in window boxes add a touch of zest… That enormous slate roof wears a sweater of moss. Where the plaster sags, gaps expose the logs underneath—“What was it?” I wrote in my Steno, “Bands of air, something like that”—and now I’m thinking of Milada and Fritz in that railroad car that might have transported my father’s neighbors to those terrible camps, and I see me alone on my couch with my beeper waiting for the phone to ring, and it seems too sad and lonely and pointless.
By focusing on those “gaps,” which on the actual house were certainly there, I felt I’d discovered the dual nature of the place. It could seem grand, but it would also reveal evidence of degradation, of struggle, of the harsh world that had had to be survived. Then:
We stop at a metal Quonset hut the size of a small airplane hangar. What I catch from his impassioned speech is that this milking barn was forced upon him by the SS. He agreed to run their dairy. It was that or enjoy more time in brainwash hotel…
This was real. Straight out of my notes. That Quonset hut was so out of keeping with the nature of the place I had to put it in. It prevents a nostalgic response to the bucolic nature of the place, a nature that had been scarred but not ruined by the Soviet decades. And finally:
Bedřich points to the fields to the south… “Toto je můj kus země! Toto je moje půda!” He makes a wistful sweeping gesture with his arm. All that was once the Dostal farm. All that land! The packed soil cleaves to the ribs in the soles of my Teva shoes. This would have been my father’s, most of what we see in this valley… A chilly breeze swoops down off the hill, pushing back the ammoniac smell of manure. Bedřich hasn’t had livestock in four years. Outhouse leavings? He looks up at the purple clouds over Zampach Hill. There’s a crackle in the air. “Pojd’te, pojd’te!” He motions for me to follow him back to the house before the clouds burst.
I could not take my narrator into that house. Not yet. I had already written a long scene in the interior, faithful to the actual details, but it mattered too much to the story to treat it casually. No, that interior material had to wait until I could find a way to transport my narrator’s father to his original home.
The place is more or less real. The characters are much more fictionalized, percentage-wise. This is the balance that works for me. Characters carry the weight of the story, but my belief in them depends on my belief (and it’s an illusion, I realize) that the places are real.