Novel set on Korčula Island, CROATIA
Talking Location With author Stephen Cox – NORTH EAST USA
30th March 2022
TalkingLocationWith… Stephen Cox, author of Our Child of Two Worlds – NORTH EAST USA
The seeds of Amber Grove
How I visited some places that do exist, to help me finesse some that do not.
My son was headed for uni, so 2016 could be our last family holiday with both our teenagers. They wanted to go to the US, and we settled on Niagara Falls, New York City, Washington DC, and I wrangled a bit of research time in upstate New York, including Seneca Falls. I needed to firm up an American town that seemed almost real to me but was not on any map – the charming backwater of Amber Grove.
The start of the book’s journey
I had binged two Ray Bradbury books, and the setting and characters came to me like a sudden storm. It was small town America, where Molly was sewing a Halloween costume against the clock for her son Cory. I knew how much they loved each other, how danger lurked, and how she and her husband Gene had to keep their child from the stars a secret. It was the year of Woodstock and the moon landings and a new President continuing the bloody Vietnam War. It was rich stuff, and it grew – a short story, then it became a novel, then two…
With odd confidence I decided it would be fine to set my novels somewhere I had not been. I have read prodigiously if erratically about the US, and in the UK, we live swamped with those images and voices. Google brings words, voices, and photographs beyond number. I had been to New York twice and Boston once, and I once took a rail trip up the Hudson Valley to somewhere near Woodstock and straight back. Now I gasp a little at my naivety.
Why the north-eastern US? It was the extraordinary colours of their fall… their churches and barns and historic covered bridges… the blazing summers and deep snow in winter. I liked their rich depth, history, and character. Upstate New York State felt within my imaginative reach. Amber Grove and Amber County swum into shape – but did they match up to the real thing?
Every novel fakes something
My two novels are a fantastic story based firmly on real things – like love, and compassion for a stranger, and friendship, and the debate over the War. When adding fantastical stuff, the real scenery and real trimmings help keep it on the ground. The books are scattered with tradenames, reminders of what using a payphone was like, those days where smoking was common and seatbelts were voluntary. Of course, there is also the music, so present it felt like a character.
Would I pick real places? Would I pick real places but give them some makeup and stage names? Casterbridge is Dorchester, and Derry in Stephen King‘s writing is pretty much Bangor, Maine. Renaming gives licence to flex local history and geography to serve plots and hide mistakes.
We liked upstate New York that hot summer. The car rental made a mistake and upgraded us to a monster burgundy pickup truck, which never failed to amuse us. There are details you do not pick up unless you are there… choices about house design and town planning that you realise much better on the ground.
Seneca Falls was charming and friendly. It seemed to be prospering, a long main street parallel to a waterway that drove an early industrial revolution.
We ate in a cheerful diner which was archetypal, and we could say hi all the people we had met that morning running the museums. There’s a Museum of Waterways and Industry in the Visitor Centre and the Historical Society where I could read local newspapers from the end of the Sixties. There is such humanity in local papers, such pride and concern for local life. A National Park links up the sites connected with the 1848 Women’s Convention, which kicked off American feminism. There’s a Museum of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – ‘Bedford Falls’ may well be Seneca Falls in party clothes. That film is a story of the cost of love and decency in a small town aided by an improbable visitor. Like my books, I guess.
I was seriously considering rewriting my Amber Grove to be Seneca Falls. It didn’t fly for a simple reason. Seneca Falls was too specific a choice, too interesting. Amber Grove had to be somewhere uneventful, somewhere rather passed over, where something truly extraordinary could happen. I think there is decency to be found everywhere.
Real and unreal
Elsewhere, I pull the Bedford Falls trick a few times, ‘Wynneville’ is Waterton, an army town towards the border, where the family must go, nervous of the soldiers. I borrowed the army base and the historic arcade. ‘Mourning Gull Bay’ is somewhere on the coast of Maine, naming a fictitious bay after a fictitious bird suited my sense of humour. In the right light, it looks a lot like Bar Harbour.
Of course, the White House is real, even down to the decoration of the rooms. At that time, the grounds were barricaded against anti-war protestors by parked buses.
New York and DC
I don’t claim unique insight into the world’s second-best great city, or the American capitol. The first time I went to New York, the biggest shock was that it felt so familiar – the cabs, the coffee shops, the skyline. I was robbed. (It’s not a dangerous city but I fell for something I would have seen a mile off in London.) My scenes I wrote there were not another planet.
The family enjoyed many of the city’s headline acts – the teens enjoyed the Empire State Building, the Rockerfeller building, Central Park, and the boat trip round the city. With teens you have to promise that things are not ‘educational’. We let them travel as a pair to go up the Empire State at night and managed to keep breathing those two hours they were late and not answering their phones. It is a strong theme of the books that loving makes you so freaking vulnerable. Youngest made us walk across the city for an IHOP which they’d found in a YA novel and was enjoyable.
There are scenes in New York and Boston in both books, mostly the nemesis of the Myers family, the ambitious Dr Pfeiffer, plotting his villainy. The United Nations building gets an airing.
Then there was the afternoon when we fell into a Stephen King novel… a town empty but for four teens on bikes and the most unfriendly diner in America… but that is another story.
New England/New York
The US does not count New York as being in New England because it was first colonised by the Dutch.
Our Child of Two Worlds by Stephen Cox is published by Jo Fletcher Books on 31st March, £16.99