An architectural guide to Rome. Talking to Stephen Harby
Novel set in Texas (wacky, funny, and scary…) – plus author interview
16th November 2017
Why Stuff Matters by Jen Waldo – novel set in Texas.
Why Stuff Matters is the second book by Jen Waldo. I very much enjoyed the first, Old Buildings in North Texas, and was looking forward to the second. It did not disappoint – although, for me, the subject matter (a somewhat bizarre antique mall with a very odd and eclectic collection of senior citizen vendors) did not work quite as well as the urbexing experiences of Old Buildings. But I suspect this is very much a matter of personal taste. Both are more than slightly off beat, and absolutely none the worse for that..
The story is that of Jessica who inherited the mall, and its occupants, on her mother’s death. She seeks to make a few changes which are roundly condemned by the vendors – a dubious and crusty lot who don’t seem to really mind whether they sell anything, or not. They prefer things as they are – arguing how to split a gun collection when one of them dies, or revolting when Jessica dares tell them to remove ten year old filthy carpets from their booths. Many have other slightly nefarious businesses on the side… Then two events happen. First, Lizzie, the daughter of Jessica’s former husband by his first wife, is dumped on her for the summer – and second, one of the vendors (with a gun lent to her by Jessica for her protection) kills her own former husband who returns to the town to recover a collection of baseball cards. Jessica is involved in the disposal of the body (and a subsequent one as well…). Yes, it is a murder but yes, it is also a comedy murder. Jen tells the story with wry humour and deprecating wit. The police (in the form of an officer who fancies Jessica, and who Lizzie latches onto) investigate, but get nowhere. There is a conspiracy of silence. Authority is not welcome in the mall.
Why Stuff Matters is well and intelligently written. Jen is a keen observer of people and how they behave. It is a book worth reading.
Tony for the TripFiction team
JW: In Why Stuff Matters, there are two settings, broad and narrow. The broad is the town of Caprock, which is also the setting of Old Buildings in North Texas; and the narrow is the more intimate surroundings of the antique mall, where most of the action takes place.
The fictional town, Caprock, is based on my hometown—Amarillo, Texas. Amarillo is in the center of the panhandle, an almost twenty-six thousand square mile rectangle extending northward from Central Texas.
Having lived in seven countries over a thirty-year period, I’m often asked why I place my novels in a stark dry town in Northwest Texas. It’s because it’s the location I know best. Though the ex-pat life is enlightening, I don’t have other cultures in my bones the way I do Amarillo. I’ll point out that I say bones rather than heart. I hardly love the place. But its vernacular is mine and I comprehend on an intrinsic level the mindset of the people, who are stubborn, religious, big-hearted, abhorrent toward change, and suspicious of success.
In Amarillo, liberals are appreciated in the same way children are; they’re expected to keep their voices down and not touch anything. And, while outwardly the city appreciates the arts, it’s understood that any artist will be out of favor if he or she steps outside conventional societal boundaries. Also, if some performer or musician shows outstanding talent or ability, well, Amarillo as a whole wishes they’d take their genius elsewhere.
And though the population makes an effort to move forward, when it comes to cultural trends and economic development, they somehow manage to always be several years behind the rest of the country.
I’ve made Caprock a bit smaller than Amarillo—two high schools instead of five. One mall instead of three. This reduction creates opportunities for my characters to run into one another often, to know each other well, or to know everything about a person they’ve never met. This interaction and familiarity isn’t as likely to occur in Amarillo, a city of a hundred and ninety thousand. In Caprock there aren’t six degrees of separation; there’re two.
Another facet that makes the Texas panhandle so appealing to a writer is the bipolar personality of the weather. Why Stuff Matters opens with a tornado, which is the starting point for all that comes next. The summers are hot and dry with a sun so bright that faces are set in a permanent squint. In the winter there are snowdrifts that reach to the roofs. And the wind, an unwanted gift from the west, is a year-round whistling presence.
But Why Stuff Matters isn’t about extreme weather; nor is Caprock of great significance, other than its inertia and intractability being reflected by the characters in the antique mall. Why Stuff Matters is about relationships between people, and relationships between people and their stuff. Because the storyline deals with hanging on to stuff and acquiring more stuff, the antique mall setting is imperative to the novel.
The inspiration for Jessica’s antique mall is much further south, in Houston, in a musty building north of I-10, where gray people hover behind counters, rearranging and safeguarding old farm tools, yellowed linens, costume jewelry from the 1920’s, shiny knickknacks, incomplete sets of china, and faded Christmas decorations.
As to the origin of the vendors’ inventory, I tell myself this story: An old mother dies, leaving behind a houseful of stuff; and all her middle-aged children can think to do with the stuff is to hold an estate sale, where they sell the stuff at a cheap price just to get rid of it. And that’s how an item comes into the hands of a concessionaire, who places it in a prized position on a shelf and prices it at three times its value.
In Why Stuff Matters, the elderlies in the antique mall are paranoid, grasping, eccentric, and unfriendly. They bicker and gossip and hold grudges. They value material items more than they value people, and will do anything to keep their stuff. They’re also charming, entertaining, muddled, and wise.
The proprietor, Jessica, explains the mentality of the vendors in this way:
The reason these people gather these things, display them like they’re precious, and place such high prices on them is because they identify so closely with them. Out of date, replaced, worn, unclaimed, unappreciated, destined for the trash heap.
And that’s why she’s compassionate and scornful towards them at the same time.
A big thank you to Jen for her insights!
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