Please help me give a warm welcome to Fred Venturini, author of Blank Slate Press’ The Samaritan.
I’ve read, reviewed, and absolutely loved this book, in which we follow Dale from junior high through early adulthood, discovering what it’s like to be lonely, experience loss, first love, and most importantly, what life is like if you can regenerate parts of your body. You’d think that would be totally cool, and for the most part it is. But there are definitely some disadvantages to this gift.
I spent the early part of my childhood playing in big piles of rocks and sawdust. On one end of town, there were piles of gravel and sand, stored on a vacant lot, ready for roadwork that never seemed to get done. Mountains to a kid—big enough to sled on in the winter. In the summer, our clothes were dusty from playing King of the Mountain, the sweat mixing in with rock chalk, covering us with a gray paste.
On the other side of town, different piles—mounds of forgotten sawdust, clumped hard and tight from rain and neglect, abandoned by a logging business that had left town for greener pastures. You could wrestle and jump in the sawdust; it was like a corkboard playhouse. You could tear off chunks of your surroundings, big clumps of rotted sawdust, and throw them like Nerf balls.
When the piles weren’t enough to keep us busy, we’d ride rusty bicycles along the old railroad tracks—which didn’t have tracks anymore, they were just a vein of rock leading from one small town to a slightly larger one, a remnant of the bustle the town might have known those many years ago—a bustle we didn’t care about and never considered. Creeks and trees and holes and sticks waited to be exploited for entertainment purposes.
Why am I telling you all this? Setting. Notice that I didn’t mention the clouds or temperature in creating the setting of my early youth in the paragraphs above. I have read quite a few fiction workshop pieces (and quite a few published novels as well) that describe the clouds and the temperature (albeit, in startling and sometimes beautiful ways) and that’s about all you get for setting. I recall a funny George Carlin bit where he specifically complains about not caring what the clouds look like in fiction. I sort of agree. If I find myself describing clouds, I rein myself in immediately and rethink where a character is. I mean, if my characters care that much about the clouds, are they that interesting? Do you think that in the place I described above, would the clouds offer more character, or be more memorable, than those piles of stone and sawdust?
My novel is set in a variety of Southern Illinois towns. Small ones. Places like Vernon Hills and Grayson (which are made up names, but like all decent made up names, they probably exist somewhere). Places not unlike the small town in which I grew up. I’ve always enjoyed the big town, small town contrast. I’ve long been fascinated with Hollywood’s take on it in every single movie, which is to say, small town = good, big city = bad. I don’t want to pick sides on that one, but I do want to reveal how each place can do its fair share of damage in its own unique way.
Consider that in a big city, you may feel the physical threat of random violence happening in school or on the streets. You may be in a class of hundreds, and be easily forgotten, or worse, not noticed at all. The threat of invisibility is fearsome.
But what may be worse is the visibility of a small town, where embarrassing news can spread instantly, and often did, even before the Twitter age. How about everyone knowing your name and your business, your every success and failure magnified. How about that small town violence, which is often chivalrous—an old fashioned fistfight after school, sometimes with a hug right after it. But that small town violence can sometimes fester and grow, and the choice of targets is very, very small. Collateral damage is imminent. Violence in a big city may be random; violence in a small town is most likely personal. Big city violence is a gunshot soon forgotten; a killing in a small town is like a nuke going off, leaving a radioactive stain that never washes away.
I could veer into a rambling, writing essay about setting, but I’ll resist. I simply state that setting is more than just clouds and temperature, it’s a community, it’s a time, it’s a detail that only exists right there. It lords over the characters, impacting who they are and what they want to be. And in The Samaritan, I wanted to explore more than just how the characters dealt with strange and tragic circumstances; I wanted to explore small town, big city contrast, and how each place can shape and break the dreams of youth.
Setting, when done well, leaves an incredible impression on a reader. I’m interested to know—how important is setting to you, and which ones leap out in your memory? And the invitation is open . . . come on over, we’ll head to the rock piles and have ourselves a good time. At night, you can sit up there, higher than the streetlights (the ones that aren’t burned out anyway). Maybe crack open an ice cold beer and enjoy the night sky unmarred by smog. And if you listen close, you can hear what’s going on behind closed doors . . . and if you can hear it from the top of the pile, I promise you, it won’t be a good thing. But I know those parts of those towns. You’ll be safe.
A big thank you to Fred for the insightful post. This post is seriously vivid since we just visited the in-laws out in the lovely country of Central Illinois. I wonder if there will be any takers of Fred’s offer? I can guarantee that the night sky is breathtaking once you get outside of the cities and out into the country. Hmm, Pushy and I only live a few short hours away…
TLC Book tours and Blank Slate Press are offering a copy of The Samaritan to one lucky commenter on this post. The contest is open to residents of the United States and Canada for a paper copy. If you live outside of that area, you can win a pdf copy instead of a hard copy. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment below and tell us if you grew up in a sleepy small town or a bustling metropolis. Don’t forget to include your email address too so I can contact you if you’re the winner. The contest ends at 11:59 pm, March 14, 2011.
A big thank you to TLC Book Tours, Blank Slate Press, and Fred Venturini.