Poeticule Bay, Maine is a familiar, summer place. It looks safe, but you don’t want to live here.
If you did, nasty secrets would open up, enfold and swallow you.
They’ll get you like they got me.
It’s not too late for you. Lock your car doors, roll up the windows. Don’t look back. Drive fast.
It’s a tribute to familial love that I am still alive. My parents must have been awfully tempted to drown me in a bathtub and start over with a new kid who wasn’t so…”saucy” was Mom’s word for it. As in, “I don’t need any of your sauce!” My problem was that they lived in Middleton, Nova Scotia and I hated living there. I wasn’t too shy about saying that life would begin once I escaped, either. Bright lights and the big city beckoned me away from my small town and telling people about my escape plans didn’t endear me to anyone.
I was reminded what a colossal pain in the ass I was when I attended Bonnie Burnard’s reading of Suddenly at London’s Central Library last night. In a sidebar after the reading, the author said she saw her fiction as a defence against common prejudices about small town life. Truthfully? It sounded to me like she wrote an awfully boring book to assert that small towns aren’t boring. Of course, all small towns aren’t boring to everyone. Before I started writing books, I was the author of (much of) my teenage drama and trauma. I wasn’t interested in sports. I did and do make new friends about as easily as Samoa launches rockets to Mars. The world I could see on my television seemed to be where most of the good stuff was happening. The world I could see around me in small town, Nova Scotia was the heart of drudgery: work I despised lifting heavy things in a dark warehouse; a school in the ’80s with a ’50s set of ethics; mowing lawns and cleaning out the garage over and over. There were some elements that were great. It wasn’t all bad. But the way my brain works, I remember the bad with an eidetic memory. Worst, for me, was dealing with authority and having no alternative but to be told what to do. I was not good at being a powerless kid. If I’d joined the military, I’d be the guy who goes nuts one day and lobs grenades into the officers’ mess.
And yet, I return to the scene of the crimes again and again through works of imagination. The substitute for my hometown in Nova Scotia is a place called Poeticule Bay, Maine. In writing about home, I burn it down, repeatedly. I curse it and blame it and cast aspersions. But through fiction’s lens, I can see now that my hometown was not a boring place. Since plot is all about conflict, a small town is often a good setting for dark stories. Some quirky residents with twangy accents should have gone to jail. The guy who owned the gas station wouldn’t serve blacks. The kid next to me in math class was killed in a stupid hunting accident. The Atlantic drowned a schoolmate and almost killed two more when the Bay of Fundy’s tide filled a seaside cave. My father’s store was burgled several times and we did call the police, but not before we headed down to the store on our own armed with shotguns, half hoping we’d catch the thieves first. A childhood playmate grew up to be, at 16, the school’s tough (and nearly the only) black kid. He didn’t make it to 18. He was crushed under a car he’d been racing. At the funeral, the kids who’d been with him — I wouldn’t call them friends — all signed the label of an empty bottle of vodka. Drunk, they handed it to his brokenhearted mother at the graveside. There was no shortage of awful, real-life stories.
Conflicts and intrigue among a small population who stick their noses into each other’s business: That’s what a small town is. Mostly familiar strangers and a few friends vivisect each other’s lives in claustrophobic proximity…or in my case, captivity. I soaked up all the stories. I don’t report them. I don’t retell history in my fiction. But I do draw on the sensibility (and lack of good sense) I saw around me to craft new disturbing, twisty and twisted stories.
It’s no surprise the theme that often emerges from my fiction is Escape. When I wrote my short story, The Dangerous Kind (available now on Smashwords, soon to be on the Kindle for only 99 cents, by the way), I was writing about home. Geographically, Poeticule Bay, Maine resembles the village where our cottage was: Greenfield, Nova Scotia. Some characters are composites from my hometown of Middleton, Nova Scotia. I felt trapped and impatient and I yearned for adventure in far away places. So does my protagonist. Joe is young, but we think much alike. When I was Joe’s age, I wanted to go somewhere no one knew who I was so I could begin again, scrubbed of the known and fresh for new possibilities.
Am I fair to Middleton? No, but that’s not my job. I’m not a journalist anymore. I’m a fiction writer. Living in Middleton was difficult for me, though, speaking fairly now, I might have felt the same wanderlust no matter where I was. And I wasn’t alone. Very few of my high school classmates stayed around Middleton. They spread out and went where the jobs were. Middleton is largely a retirement community now and the town that I skewer again and again in fiction only exists in my memory and imagination.
I’m keeping the old town alive, if only to kill it repeatedly. Is my fiction my psychotherapy? No, I don’t believe that. That’s too easy a conclusion to jump to and it demeans the work. We all have childhood trauma and everyone struggles against the biting bonds of our childhood era. Unfair things are done to children. Assaults we would never tolerate as adults are commonplace (though, I hope, at least a little less so now.) We’re all in a big hurry to grow up. Middleton became my Poeticule Bay because that’s where the drama is. I know the terrain. I’ve scouted it and know the actors on my stage. Anybody who didn’t fit where they were and survives high school, wherever they grew up, has enough rich stories on which to draw for the rest of their lives.
This isn’t an apology. It’s an explanation. For good and bad, my childhood experiences in a small town in Nova Scotia formed me and continue to inspire more stories from Poeticule Bay.