Many years ago, in a writing class, I was told that I should try to make the setting, which was Birmingham, my city of birth, a character in my book. I have puzzled over this piece of advice for many years and only now think I may have an answer as to its meaning.
I was reading Alain De Botton’s delightful book, The Art of Travel. He maintains that when we travel, we adopt, if we are lucky, a traveler’s receptive mind-set. Somehow, we North Americans walking around Paris or Buenos Aires are much more open to what we see than if we were at home. We ask questions. We see these places with ‘fresh’ eyes and a sense of wonder. However, at home, says De Botton, we have become so habituated to our surroundings that we scarcely notice them.
So, how can a writer hope to make his own hometown an effective setting, given the predilection to seeing home as much less an interesting character of grit and sense of time? If we are blind to our everyday surroundings, the idea of seeing our home with fresh eyes becomes almost a moot point.
Perhaps the answer lies in the distinction between intimacy and familiarity. Intimacy with a lover suggests deep, unconscious involvement. Familiarity perhaps connotes staying on the surface with a case of borderline boredom. And so, intimacy with one’s home may suggest deep knowledge, not boredom.
I found a clue in reading Jan Morris, one of the world’s finest and most experienced travel writers. She gave the people of Toronto a ‘snapshot’ of their city in the early 1980’s. Here are some of the descriptive words she used. The people appeared calm, dispassionate, polite, determined, joyless, resigned and reticent. Wow! Who would want to visit us? Furthermore, the city is conducive to self-doubt and introspection. This does not sound like a great party place!
But she’s right, at least in part. Torontonians, on the surface, are notoriously reserved and polite to the extent of appearing cold, unfriendly and formal. But, as one who has lived a lifetime here, I’d argue that that is only part of the story.
If you’ve ever visited Birmingham you will know a bit about its. The city sits in a valley surrounded by mountains and overlooks where Iron Man, not the super hero, but an iron statute of Vulcan, stares down at the bustling city. If you are walking along Third Avenue, in the heart of the city comes to life in shall shops, Mom & Pop establishments and of course Green Acres for a 3-piece with extra sauce. The people are vibrant and the pulse of the city reverberates through the streets with a quiet resolve that dares you to act up, while all the while asking you to wait until your mama's back is turned.
I love this image. Within a very short distance of the sleek, glistening towers of the Alabama Theater, businesses, the snarl of traffic, all creating an extraordinarily highly, polished surface, nature runs riot.
Tus far, I only set one, maybe two books in my home town of Birmingham. The first was Thursdays in Savannah. In the story, our hero, a builder of new apartment homes or urban sprawl, worked diligently to help the city he loved, grow. Savannah, our heroine worked in the labs as a researcher for the same University which educated her, giving back to the city and shaping minds to come. It is also my Alma Mater, The University of Alabama at Birmingham.
So, yes, I think I understand how a city [the setting] can become a character and also influence the other characters and themes in a novel. I’ve been greatly affected by the central image of Birmingham with its sour history, sophisticated surface contrasted with what lurks under the bridges.