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Traveling at Speeds Unthinkable

Buick_Flxible_HearseIt’s been a strange day of driving: I witnessed a wreck, and only a few miles later at a rest area, a hearse with pleated white curtains in the back window parked a few spaces away from my little shiny car. Driving unnerves me. We are lulled by the comfort of AC and the music of our choosing, easily forgetting we are traveling at speeds unthinkable even a century ago.

Today, the verdant hills of Ohio completed the first leg of a long journey. I’m headed to Vermont Studio Center in the small town of Johnson, Vermont, for a month-long residency to work on my novel. The audiobook keeping me company during my drive, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, has me entranced. 513xrXIeQ6L._SS500_This evening, when I stumbled from my car to the small-town hotel where I decided to stop for the night, I couldn’t stop thinking about Quentin Coldwater, the main character, and how he’s getting along at Brakebills, the American Acadamy of Magical Pedagogy where he’s learning to become a wizard. The ad in The New Yorker this week intrigued me–one of the blurbs compared Grossman’s book to the Harry Potter series. The Magician doesn’t start off with a bang like Philosopher’s Stone, nor does it have Rowling’s sharp sense of humor. By chapter two, though, I was hooked.

My own book project, a science fiction novel set in the Midwest after decades of drought, needs more flesh on its bones, according to comments from readers. Driving to Vermont is giving me time to think, to prepare for revisions. California Drought Dries Up Bay Area ReservoirsThe Midwest doesn’t look anything like I imagine in my book. Way too much rain has fallen in the past months for it to resemble the blighted, burnt landscape I’ve concocted. But driving, it’s one of those activities that frees up just enough of the mind so one can ruminate over the thorny questions that present themselves during revision. When I see an ominous black car on the interstate or a lonely grain silo near an overpass, suddenly I have an answer I didn’t even realize I was looking for.

When I was in New Orleans a few weeks ago, eating my way through that gorgeous, decadent city, a writer friend met with me to talk about my book draft. She suggested I read Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and The Passage by Justin Cronin. They are nestled in a canvas bag on the floorboard of my car, along with the Penguin Classic edition of Frankenstein, a paperback copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, Annalee Newitz’ Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, and a few dozen other books. That’s the beauty of driving to Vermont instead of flying–I can bring my inspirational materials with me. Like the half-dozen rocks I collected in the Ozarks in May, a metal box I bought in imagesChina two years ago that was once filled with Golden Throat Lozenges, and the clear feathery ornament two friends who married in England gave me last December.

The road has been long today and my hotel room is calling. I wanted to write about Mississippi, about the two handguns – one I held, the other I watched someone use to shoot a snake – about Charleston and the painful moments at a music festival in Effingham, Illinois, when a local band played ‘Dixie’ and ‘The South’s Gonna Do It Again’ … but I’m tired. Please accept my apologies and enjoy this song by Will Kimbrough, ‘Goodnight Moon’.