Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The True Stuff

By Cornelia

I'm working on a "Dear Reader" letter to be published with the paperback of A Field of Darkness this summer. My editor suggested writing about things in the book that are true/autobiographical, which is a tall order as there are a lot of little bits stolen from life mixed into the fictional stuff.

Here's a bit of a random list:

1. The character Lapthorne Townsend, my protagonist Madeline Dare's favorite cousin, is named for a sailmaking company, Ratsey & Lapthorn. Colin Ratsey was my mother's godfather, and crewed on the boat which won the 1958 America's Cup, the Columbia:

The company was founded in Cowes, and first supplied the Royal Yacht Squadron. They also have a sail loft in New York, and have made sails for America's Cup contenders since 1851.

When my mom drove us to the Oakland airport this last Christmas Eve, she looked at this beat-up old blue duffel bag in which my stuff was packed, told me it was made by Ratsey & Lapthorn in the early Sixties, and that she'd had the zipper replaced on it three times. In my family, we do not give up our luggage until it has completely disintegrated.

2. I really did "come out" at the Junior Assemblies in New York, in the winter of 1981, wearing my mother's deb dress with the "pointy-atomic boob darts," along with long white three-button kid gloves:

The buttons are a big pain to do and undo yourself, especially when you want to smoke. Mom showed me how to wad up the finger part and roll it up under the wrist of the glove, to keep my hands free. I have a big lump of rolled glove on top of each hand in all the pictures.

The dress was totally shredded by the end of the evening, because the fabric was kind of rotting and people kept stepping on the hem.

3. The pictures were taken by Jill Krementz, who went to boarding school with mom. She took them at a dinner before the actual party, and made a really nice collage of all of them for me. One of the pictures in the collage is of her husband, Kurt Vonnegut, who also came to the dinner party. This is not in my book. Jill is an amazing photographer, and usually takes pictures of people like Eudora Welty, so she was very kind to bring her camera.

I have lost the cord to my scanner, so can't post one of them. I did bring a tin of Copenhagen in my purse that night, however, at the urging of my mother:

4. Lester Lanin's orchestra played at the Assemblies, and also at the rehearsal dinner given the night before a cousin of mine got married, outside Baltimore that same year. An uncle tried to fix me up with a guy that night who was, some years later, convicted of serial rape.

Lester Lanin threw out cotton beanies like this, at parties (50,000 of them a year, supposedly):

He was said to have played "Night and Day" as his opening number at every party, so I used that in the book.

5. I changed the name of a lake outside Syracuse in the story--from Onondaga Lake to Lake Oncas. Onondaga Lake really is the most polluted body of water in the United States. The Solvay Process Company dumped 40,000 pounds of mercury in it. I changed the name of the company to Lapthorne, and had it run by Madeline's Great-Great Grandfather.

6. That man's daughter is supposedly on the maiden voyage of an ocean liner which burns at sea. I named this the Glamis Castle, after a David Austin rose which is itself named for the British Castle in which the Queen Mother grew up:

I have four of these planted here in Berkeley. They have terrible blackspot, year-round.

The real ship was the Morro Castle, which I've blogged about here before. My grandmother christened it, but no one I'm related to was aboard when it burned at sea.

7. Madeline's great-grandfather died in the fictional fire. In his memory, his wife planted hundreds of old garden roses in the family cemetery on Centre Island, including the two types found around the heads of the first two murder victims in my book, Felicite-Perpetue:

and Baron Girod de L'Ain:

The white at the ends of the petals, above, is called a "picotee edge."

8. There is indeed an old family cemetery on Centre Island, with a gravestone reading:

Behold and see as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now you soon must be
Prepare for death to follow me

But there aren't any rosebushes in it. There are, however, a number of slave graves. These are marked by little wedges of slate at the head and foot. No names or dates. The distance between the head and footstones is usually about four feet.

Here is what Centre Island looks like (between A and B):

You can see it from above if you're flying north out of Kennedy Airport.

Here's a view of Oyster Bay from Centre Island, painted by William Jonas, which is my favorite image ever from there:

The boat is Pete Seeger's Clearwater.

Here's the Tiffany version, from a slightly different angle:

The spit of land closest to the foreground in both images is called Cooper's Bluff.

9. There really was a Nazi gardener working for my mother's boyfriend on CI. He used to reminisce about drinking linden blossom tea, back in the Hitler Youth.

One year when I was in college he grew a bunch of pot plants in the vegetable garden. Talk about dirt weed.

10. There is mention of a portrait of Madeline's great grandmother, Dodie. This is based on a painting of Grandmama Read, which her children nicknamed "Nice to See Your Back Again." I don't have a color version, but her dress was bottle green. There's an emerald pin below her hip here which also makes an appearance, near the end of the book:

Unlike Dodie, Grandmama Read was not addicted to Chloral Hydrate, although she did have a chauffeur during the Forties who was a stone junkie. At least according to Dad, who was driven to school by the guy when he was little.

11. I mentioned the annual butter sculpture at the New York State Fair:

This is usually more than lifesize.

12. Lapthorne drives a 1984 Porsche Carrera with a whale tail, which looks like this, except black:

This one is guards' red, like the one I had between 2001 and 2004, which rocked. Except for the repair bills.

After I sold it, I drove one of these for a year:

which was a whole lot less fun. Especially going uphill. The first morning I saw it in the driveway instead of the Porsche, I said, "how the mighty have fallen." My daughter Grace replied, "but ah, how the tiny have risen."

On the bright side, the interior of the Honda did not fill up with water every time it rained, which was an improvement over the Porsche since we do not have a garage.

13. Meanwhile, my dad lived in one of these for about 13 years:

His was rustier.

14. The 1637 massacre of the Pequot tribe in Connecticut was led by an ancestor of mine and Madeline's, Captain John Underhill:

Between 400 and 700 people--almost all of them women and children--were burned alive in under half an hour. It has been called "the most gruesome act of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by European colonizers on American soil."

Here's the monument erected in his memory by an association of his descendants in 1911, in the Underhill cemetery in Oyster Bay:

As in the book, a bronze bas-relief at its base depicts Underhill reading to the two Indians laying at his feet. The words on the page he's reading from are "love one another."

15. Here is a photo of something which doesn't appear in the book anymore (edited out after early drafts). It is my Grandfather Read climbing into his autogyro, an early helicopter-esque thing:

This was shot inside the hangar he had built for it, a "Butler building."

A childhood friend of my father's died just outside, some years after this was taken. The two of them had been shooting strike-anywhere matches from slingshots, making them hit the concrete floor and catch fire. One of the matches bounced up and landed in a barrel of varnish, which blew up. Dad told his friend to roll on the ground, but the boy's sister convinced him to get up and run toward a nearby brook. I think they were about eight years old. Dad's parents never spoke to him about what had happened, just took him to their camp in the Adirondacks early the next morning.

16. I used that camp as a setting in Field. I think it is the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life. Madeline feels the same way.

This is a photograph of the walkway to the dining room, looking down from the main building:

The dining room is octagonal, built on a boulder at the edge of the water. Here is what the inside looks like:

There's a big moosehead over the fireplace to the right, which you can't see in this shot.

It was built in 1906.

Madeline goes up there for Dodie's funeral, near the end of the book.

The whole place gets burned down at the end. By the killer. Accidentally.

I write noir, after all. Which I guess isn't too much of a surprise, considering.


  1. That's a lot of true stuff, massaged beautifully into fiction. I keep saying, all I need for a story idea is one page from your diary.

  2. Wow. I loved reading this and remembering bits from Field.

    That story of your Dad's childhood friend is chilling.

    Great images. I love how you pepper your posts with photos and maps and cool visuals.

  3. Hey Cornelia,

    What a great read! Brings back so much from Field'. And that's a great read too!

    Great to hear from you - thought you'd gone MIA.


  4. Awesome post, Miss C ;-)

  5. Thanks for reading it, you guys--so glad you liked it! And Edgy, I just get enraptured with Google Images. I am also the sort of person who gets drunk and makes friends look at old family scrapbooks. I can be a real menace with pictures....

  6. Hey, I had a leaky Porshe too. I loved it, but it did have some, shall we say, eccentricities. After it died in smoke and tragedy I replaced it with a very sensible little Mazda, but I still miss that car.

    Someday, when I'm rich...

  7. Maybe we could both get half-rich and split a Porsche? I'll bring the baling scoop and the bucket...

  8. And I'll bring the hats and scarves for when the heater dies! I think we have a plan here.

  9. We just want to avoid the "smoke and tragedy" part-- though that may be as intrinsic to the Porsche experience as discovering you have a sudden genius for swearing in French when your Peugeot throws a rod through the oil pan.

  10. I had a writing prof once mumble this:

    "A good reader sees the reality in romance, while a good writer sees the romance in reality."

    Given that we were both piss-drunk at the time, hiding from Rice University campus cops after having broken into a closed girl's dorm on a 2 am search for human skulls, I didn't give the remark a lot of thought.

    Your laundry list of inspirations and influences makes me remember it, and for some reason all I can think of in response is Christopher Lloyd.

    "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads...."

    Drive on, Cuz.