I write a lot about Maine.
Poeticule Bay, Maine shows in up in numerous stories. I have a detailed history of the ugly way the town was formed and a thorough catalogue of its many dangerous inhabitants. However, you won’t find Poeticule Bay on any map. You’ll find plenty of Poeticule stories in Murders Among Dead Trees. I have several books at various stages of production that all have references to Poeticule, The Corners and Maine generally. Maybe it’s the steady diet of Stephen King I was weaned on. I’m sure that was an influence. However, for me, Maine isn’t really Maine. I grew up in rural Nova Scotia. It’s about the place and time I grew up. It’s also about my dad.
My father is a natural storyteller. On car trips, he’d tell colorful stories and report in detail about outrageous characters he’d known. Fishing trawlers, lumber mills, hunting, the woods? It’s all there, showing up again and again in my work. We didn’t get a lot of TV channels, but we had dad.
He told me the rhyme that shows up in Season One once (about Squirrel Town, Mink Cove and Sandy Cove). The talk was about baseball teams. I didn’t care about sports, but that silly chant stuck in my head forever. He had lots of stories about fights and the time the cook threw the knife and the time his store burned down. In short, he had lots of warnings about stuff I’m glad I didn’t live through. He had a tough life for a long time before it got good.
And he has expressions that are memorable, too:
“You’re jumpin’ around like a fart in a mitten.”
“That smells so bad, it would drive a dog off a gut wagon.”
“His tongue has a hinge in the middle.”
“She’s got too much of what the cat licks its ass with.”
And you don’t have a cough. “That’s some cough.”
“Uh-huh. Some cough…”
The advantage of an anxious childhood
Though my family doesn’t have much of the accent, we talk fast, trying to get the words out before someone interrupts us. When I moved away, I found people from Toronto spoke with greater diction, their words formed right behind their front teeth while I machine-gunned from my throat. It took a couple of years for me to slow down enough so my girlfriend could understand me. (She understood me too late, after the love had kicked in and invaded the bone marrow. She’s stuck now. Ha! I win!)
The scenery in Nova Scotia is the same as Maine and we had some interesting accents, too. I don’t have a characteristic Nova Scotian accent and it was never strong, but a few miles outside of my home town in any direction sounds like Anywhere, Appalachia. I remember trying to talk to a guy from the South Mountain (a few miles away). I couldn’t understand him. A farm kid in my class once twanged at me that I was a “city boy”. My “city” at the time was merely 1,200 people, but I couldn’t wait to go where millions of people would ignore me. (Sadly, I found the most sure way to become invisible was to publish my first book. I digress.)
There was dry humor, but a lot of teasing and meanness, too. When a remark was too caustic, the burn was supposed to be eased with the words, “I’m just being honest.” That’s not a salve, of course. It’s salt.
There was the guy down the street who wouldn’t serve a black customer. That racist is a remnant that’s symbolic of my childhood. I was a child in the seventies, but, like a Rod Serling story, the place I lived seemed stuck in 1955 permanently. (That was great at Christmas with Bing singing on the radio and the snow gently blanketing the twinkling Christmas lights. Otherwise? Less than ideal. I’d say it sucked for minorities year round, but we hardly had any and I wouldn’t know how those few felt. Incredibly outnumbered, I imagine.)
School administrators were often tyrants who kept the dated sensibilities of their youth in the ’50s. They had some twisted ideas about fairness, like, “It’s the second punch that starts the fight.” So, in addition to being pricks, they were okay with victims suffering beatings, I guess. They’re probably very grateful to be dead now. (I’m not unpleased about that, either.)
Misogyny, alcoholism, violence or the threat of violence was constant and casual. Homophobia was rampant. Everyone knew everyone else’s business because, though I come from a small town, it’s really a village. When you know everyone that well, you see all the weaknesses an urbanite might successfully hide from strangers. The only escape from gossip and constant judgment is the road out-of-town.
I don’t set out to write a theme in my books.
I think sitting down to write with a theme or a lesson in mind is pretentious. You find out what your theme is after you’re done writing. It’s squeezed out organically. However, I’ve noticed a commonality. I write wrongs so my characters can right wrongs. They often don’t succeed or, at least, they don’t achieve their goals the way they thought they would. Who does? (Read my novella, The Dangerous Kind, in Murders Among Dead Trees. It’s drenched in this. The conclusion of This Plague of Days is not, I promise, a plucky bunch of gun-lovin’ Rambos goin’ zombie huntin’. In my zombie apocalypse, most of the Rambos died in the first wave of the Sutr flu.)
But one theme emerges in all my work.
No matter what I write, no matter the genre, it’s all about escape. Make that Escape, capital E.
Aside from the depression and anxiety, I was an insufferable little kid because I knew too early on I needed to escape to the city. Pretty much any city would do, but I needed to live far from haystacks and fish. Rural life is not for me. I need urban anonymity. I want to disappear into books, writing them and reading them.
Dad’s still there and loves it. He calls it “God’s Country.” For him, it is.
I go back there a lot, but only in the safe transport of fiction. Playing God is the strongest armour.