Research Notes · 12/13/2019

This Way to Departures

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Linda Mannheim writes about This Way to Departures from Influx Press.

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Anita and I were driving around the back roads near Key Largo, looking for the places where the characters in my story would end up. I wanted to describe those roads in detail, by name. I wanted to know exactly where Laura, the narrator of ‘Noir’, would drive.

‘I was driving us out of the city,’ Laura explains, ‘staying off the highway, down Old Cutler Road to Card Sound Road, the saw grass and dust edging the asphalt, and every now and then, a barely visible side road, overgrown, that would lead maybe to a lime quarry, or maybe just to beaten swamp and then the ocean again.’

‘Noir’ is one of the stories in This Way to Departures, a short story collection about people who have left the places they consider home.

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Laura, a journalist in 1980s Miami, has a man with her who’s fled war torn El Salvador. Miguel turned up in the newsroom asking for help to find his friends in Miami. And Laura, who lives with her boyfriend Sam, a film-maker, finds herself more and more drawn to him.

‘I reached up and touched his face; he took my hand. I turned off down a side road, held my breath as the Toyota navigated a rut. I had been here before with Sam, when we were scouting locations for the film. We’d driven randomly down the turn offs until we’d found this one, which opened onto an abandoned quarry. It was a good mile from the road, down ruts and mud, land punished by heat and heavy machinery, brambles and tall grass tangled like razor wire, stretches of barren sand, and beyond that, a rectangle as big as a field scooped of sand and filled with water, the blue and cool of it, as if someone had decided to build an impressive pool here and the mansion would be coming next, and beyond that, more distressed land, and then, the turquoise of the ocean. In Sam’s film, under the cover of night, this is where the couple dumps the body.’

‘Noir’ is a story about a couple — Laura and Sam — who love film noir, love old black and white films with hard-boiled antiheroes where everyone is double-crossed and desperate. But, during Miami’s most violent decade, during a year when the city counted 392 homicides, Sam and Laura find their own lives starting to resemble a film noir.

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Anita was pleased when I asked her if she was up for a road trip, and I was pleased she was willing to travel with me. We were unlike one another in many ways. Anita had a kind of confidence and ease that meant she could talk her way into anything. She was a generation older than me and had landed in South Florida when her family fled Cuba. She had short curly hair, dressed in mid-length skirts and button front blouses, looked wholesome like a photo from a Lands’ End catalogue. I dressed in cotton camisoles and shorts unless I was teaching or working with Anita in the university’s writing centre, when I wore tee shirts and skirts that were a little too short for the occasion, my hair some kind of mess or another.

“The femme noir is alluring but chameleon-like,” Laura explains in ‘Noir’. The femme noir’s identity changes depending on where she is: pleading and nervous with the hard-boiled detective, cool and hard when he spots her in a nightclub in the company of tough guys. Did Anita fit the description of a femme noir? I think she would have laughed at the idea. She’d been married to the same man since she was in her early twenties and they raised their children in one of those big Spanish-style houses that you find on quiet streets in Coral Gables. Her job as a writing tutor was the sort you got once the kids were grown. She’d stayed involved with the Boy Scouts even after her sons had outgrown it. The man she married had an Anglo last name that was so common, she must have been unfindable by anyone searching for her. And she spoke apple pie American English. But when she took me to Miami’s Little Havana during the Elián González crisis, she bantered with the protestors in Spanish, accepted the tiny cups of coffees that were handed to us, was someone who could slip into the crowd. And because I was with her, I — who wanted to see what was unfolding — could slip into the crowd too.

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Everyone liked Anita. She addressed people with a kind of cheerfulness that put them at ease, shook them out of their apprehension. I did not. So, when we went to Key Largo together, it was not just her expertise in that part of Florida that I wanted, and not just that she was happy to drive over in her big American car. I was sure that Anita would be able to talk us into any place we needed to go. And she did just that. Like Laura and Miguel in ‘Noir’, we walked around the marina in Key Largo looking for a boat. And when we found one that looked like a good fit for the one in my story, Anita turned on the charm. The taciturn captain who at first seemed ready to turn us away allowed us to come on board. He let us look around, let us gather material for the story, following us below deck and up again, Anita chatting happily away the whole time. A minor character in ‘Noir’ — a bearded, baseball-capped, crank — is based on the first suspicious and then accommodating man who showed us around his boat.

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Anita and I drove to my favourite restaurant in Key Largo after that. It was an Italian American place with a deck over the water, homey and friendly, the kind of place where kids ran out to feed pieces of Italian bread to gulls. Less than a year later, the friendship was over. I can’t remember the details anymore, but I do remember it was political, that soon after George W Bush became president, she seemed to echo her friends right wing proclamations more and more. We began to anger each other with our observations about the world, our approvals and disapprovals. I remember the relief I felt when we stopped spending time together, and also a real sadness about what it was we’d lost — an unlikely friendship filled with jokes and confidences. But on that day, we were still co-conspirators, figuring out what was plausible in a work of fiction, ending our day at a table on a wooden deck beneath south Florida’s setting sun. We waited for our dishes to come — I always got the eggplant parmesan there. We tore off pieces of bread. And Anita and I raised our glasses of house red and we drank to a day of good research.

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Linda Mannheim is the author of three books of fiction: Risk, Above Sugar Hill, and This Way to Departures. Her work has appeared in Granta, Catapult Story, Ambit and other magazines. BBC Witness and KCRW Berlin have broadcast her audio stories. Linda has been an exchange fellow at Kunstlerhaus Schloss Wiepersdorf in Germany, a journalism intern in Nicaragua during the Contra War, and wrote her first novel while she was a visiting associate at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for African Studies. She’s been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, an Authors’ Foundation Grant, and an Arts Council England grant. For many years, Linda worked with NGOs and community organisations to develop and fund new projects. She recently launched Barbed Wire Fever, a project that explores what it means to be a refugee through writing and literature. Originally from New York, Linda divides her time between London and Berlin.