Story Behind the Story #10:
A Place Called Ugly

A Place Called UglyMy parents had a retirement home on Shelter Island, a quite enchanting and rather unusual island (wild canaries, bamboo groves, and bays filled with oysters and clams) at the end of Long Island, New York—about a hundred miles from New York City.

It was around Labor Day one year that I, along with my family, had been visiting my parents. My youngest son was endlessly grumbling about the fact that he was about to end his summer vacation and needed to return to school. Could he not, he constantly begged, just stay with his grandparents in this idyllic place? Well, no.

The car was packed. We had said our good byes. My wife was in the car. My oldest son was in the car. I was in the car. It was necessary that we leave quickly so that we could catch the last ferry to the mainland. But—my youngest son was nowhere in sight.

The thought suddenly struck me: could he have run off and hid so as to avoid going back home and skip returning to school?

In the instant I thought about this possibility I had the plot of A Place Called Ugly. Sometimes, if a writer is lucky, the idea for a story fairly well leaps at you, whole and breathtakingly complete. It has happened a few times, but not often. This was one of these times.

As for my son, he popped out of the house. He had merely been to the bathroom.

We drove off, made the ferry and continued on home … and to school.

But I had the plot of my next book in my mind and, during that long drive, I worked out the details.

That said, when I submitted the book to my editor he turned it down. “Not good. Something is missing,” he said. “Find it.”

It was rather like my missing son.

I searched and found the missing piece.

Second submission. “Terrific,” said my editor.

So there it was, A Place Called Ugly. One of my favorite books.

It’s not your street address

Colorado Rockies

the view from my front porch

From a writing point of view, does it matter where you live? Cities, large cities, have been where, historically, and culturally, literature thrives. It is cities where multitudes of diverse peoples live, where you are bound to interact with folks not like yourself, where talk fills your ears, where emotions are street attractions and the hurly-burly urban world provides endless stimulation. Or, as Samuel Johnson put it, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Any large city might do.

I have lived in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Providence, Denver, Philadelphia, London, and Venice, Italy. It is mostly New York, London, and San Francisco, which have, I believe, had an impact on my writing, New York most of all—with some fifteen books or so set there. (But then, I grew up in New York.) Writing my forthcoming book, Catch You Later, Traitor (Algonquin), a NYC tale set in the 1950’s, released a host of complex and very real memories to create what I think is one of my better books.

Yet, having grown up in a city of eight million, I now reside high in the Rocky Mountains, in a community numbering thirteen, of which my wife and I count for two and the others are at least a mile away. (We are still looking forward to meeting them all.) Therefore, another forthcoming book, Old Wolf (Athenaeum) is a fable about old age and youth, set in these mountains. It is not something I would have written if I had lived only in cities. Indeed, last night, I was out gazing up at the vast Milky Way that graces our heaven and I thought, the darker the night the brighter the stars. Not a city thought.

But ultimately, it is what and how you see the world that shapes you, the writer, not your street address. Just reread To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.