ere’s me, interviewing myself, with some of the questions people have asked about the writing of The Floor of the Sky.
Did you grow up on a ranch?
No. I didn’t grow up around cattle or horses. In fact, I’m a lousy rider. When I’m on horseback, I feel like I’m on top of the Empire State Building. I’m a disappointment to myself, but I’d rather jump out of an airplane, where I’m in charge of pulling the ripcord on my own parachute, than ride atop all those pounds of uncontrollable muscle and hot wind. Not that I have ever jumped out of an airplane, but you see what I mean.
I did, however, grow up in western Nebraska. My family lived in the country until I was 10; then we moved to a small town. I haven’t lived there for a long time, but I return every year to visit family. For some of us, an early landscape leaves a strong imprint. I love the prairie, the rolling hills and big sky and tumbleweeds and weaving grass. I have a Minnesota friend who grew up with trees and forest who tells me that she feels frightened on the plains, as if she could fly off the face of the earth. I feel exactly the same sensation, only I love being untethered and free. I can visit the woods and appreciate the beauty, but eventually I feel claustrophobic.
So, did you write this book because you wanted to revisit the landscape?
Yes, in part. Also, because there are big changes happening in
rural America. I’m a city person now. When I visit my hometown, I
hardly recognize it. It’s easy, as a person in exile from home, to fall
into nostalgia. Once in a theological discussion about changes in the
Catholic Church, a friend of mine said, "I don’t want the church to
change. I want it to stay exactly the way it was when I decided to
leave it." That’s a common attitude, I think. When my daughters left
for college, they wanted their rooms kept as shrines so they could drop
into their childhood, but they no longer wanted to live there. So,
writing this book made me think hard about life in rural America today.
When I was a kid, my hometown was self-sustaining. We had small town
businesses up and down the street, and the owners of the bank and the
jewelry store and the implement company were the same people who were
invested in civic affairs. Now, everyone drives to a larger town
near-by to buy cheaper goods at superstores like WalMart. Is that a
loss? Or inevitable change?
When I delved into Toby’s past, I
found that things were not necessarily so great in the "good old days"
either. Certainly not for women. So that replaced the nostalgia with
something more realistic–definitely more complex.
Do you mean to say that Toby is a real person? That you found her historically?
No, not at all. None of these characters are real people from my
past. They may be composites of people I’ve known or heard about, but
they aren’t anyone I knew personally. But I was interested in how the
past influences the present. And when I set out to uncover Toby’s past,
it was filled with losses and tragic misunderstandings. As many lives
are. And that reminded me not to put a simplistic value on history.
At the same time, much of what is happening across our country is
taking place thoughtlessly. Or at least, without much consideration of
the long-range effects. This is true in our cities, too, where we tear
down and build until every American city looks virtually the same—the
same chain stores with slightly altered but equally fake-looking
facades. We are living in a time that leans heavily on short-term
profits. I think that’s a mistake. Like Willy Loman in Death of a
Salesman, I think "Attention must be paid." So, writing this book was
my way of paying attention.