Research Notes · 09/14/2018

Across The Great Lake

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Lee Zacharias writes about Across The Great Lake from University of Wisconsin Press.

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Writing Out of Season

The late George Garrett once observed that most American novels written in the second half of the twentieth century were set in summer because so many writers had found employment in academic, and that was the season they had to devote to their own work. Indeed I remember from my teaching career longing for those three months. For the other nine, even when I could block out a few hours for myself, I had to retrieve the rhythms of my characters and my stories from a back drawer in my mind, the front ones all being filled by the issues that plagued my students’ characters and stories. How vividly I remember sitting at a typewriter on my screened porch, fan whirling overhead, to work on my first novel, though its setting was not confined to summer, for it covered a period of 25 years.

Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book while staring out his window at a snowy pasture in Brattleboro, Vermont. Out of sight of the sea, Herman Melville sat a desk in the grandest room in his house imagining the tight quarters of a ship and a mad captain in pursuit of a white whale. The upstairs room where Nathaniel Hawthorne stood at a wall desk to compose the dark tale “Young Goodman Brown” was bright and cheery, its windowpanes inscribed with playful messages he and his bride cut into the glass with her diamond engagement ring. I have always wondered whether he thought of that room later, after his health had failed and he could no longer write, or did he remember only the gloomy night forest where Goodman Brown loses faith? If it is true that academics set their novels in summer because they could conjure no season beyond the one in which they wrote, it seems to me that what George Garrett noted was a failure of imagination.

The main event in my new novel, Across the Great Lake, takes place on a frozen Lake Michigan during the brutal winter of 1936. I chose that year because it was one of the coldest Michigan winters on record. I began the novel in spring and finished a first draft a year and some months later at a summer retreat in the mountains of North Carolina, writing year round since I was no longer confined to an academic schedule. In researching the novel, I traveled to Frankfort, Michigan, home town of my narrator, whose father was captain of the railroad car ferry that makes its slow way across the icy lake, almost always in early September, when the leaves were barely beginning to turn. I would have liked an opportunity to visit in winter, to see for myself the ice-crusted escarpments of the breakwaters and snow-streaked face of the bluff, but the logistics of getting there — of flying or driving my little Honda Fit through the deep snow — seemed if not impossible, at least inadvisable. Where would I eat in a town whose amenities for tourists largely shut down after Labor Day? I steeped myself in histories of the long-gone railroad car ferries, which crossed the lake year round and often got stuck in the ice — in fact, much of the available literature focuses on the perils of those winter journeys and the extreme measures captains and engineers took to free themselves and navigate the windrows, those mountains that the wind heaves up when it shoves ice sheets together, forcing chunks up and down through the cracks into thick walls ten and fifteen feet high and as deep as twenty-five. I wrote of those windrows while outside my house impatiens drooped in the heat and the humidity rarely fell below 90. This summer several readers have weighed in with generous advance reviews, and I am grateful for them all, though the comments that have pleased me most came from the readers who expressed their surprise at looking up from my pages and wondering why their windows weren’t frosted over.

When a novel is really working, both writer and reader live in two worlds: one involves dinner and laundry and the weather of the day; the climate of the other is whatever the writer chooses to make it; if there is dinner, if there is laundry, those are the characters’ chores, not those that wait outside the book’s pages. The book casts a spell; its illusion is that there is only one world, that of the book. The other is forgotten, until one puts the book aside, and the mundane tasks of the real world beckon. But if a novel is as fully textured, as fully imagined as it should be its spell carries over. The reader weeds her garden and plucks a ripe tomato from the vine, startled by its smell of summer because she is still haunted by ice.

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Lee Zacharias is the author of a collection of short stories, Helping Muriel Make It Through the Night; three novels, Across the Great Lake, Lessons, and At Random; and a collection of personal essays, The Only Sounds We Make. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, North Carolina’s Sir Walter Raleigh Award, Southern Humanities Review’s Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award, Prairie Schooner’s Glenna Luschei Award, and a Silver Medal in Creative Nonfiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (the IPPYs). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and been recognized by The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essay, which reprinted her essay “Buzzards” in its 2008 edition. She taught at the University Arkansas, Princeton University, and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she is Emerita Professor of English, as well as many conferences, most recently the Wildacres Writers Workshop. Find her online at leezacharias.com