Monday, February 23, 2009

How to Get Lost

by Mindy Friddle

"I like to believe that imagination
transcends boundaries of geography.
If you think it up, you can make it better."

There’s a parking garage in downtown Greenville, South Carolina that makes me feel trapped in the surreal staircase of an Escher painting—I drive around and around, stuck on the same level. But then, I’ve never had a strong sense of direction. Using a compass? Reading topography maps? Yikes. That navigation badge in Girl Scouts always eluded me. These days, despite the modern wonder of GPS—with that nice lady telling you where to exit—I still veer off course. “Recalculating route,” the GPS lady repeats, with a certain edge to her voice.

Maybe that explains why one of my favorite parts about writing fiction is taking a familiar setting, tweaking it, and making it my own. Or—more accurately—a character’s own. You won’t believe how liberating it is to depart from a map, wander away from the grid of streets, and imagine a slightly skewed version of a place. Two novels I’ve written are set in “Palmetto,” a thinly veiled Greenville, SC (my hometown). But the resemblance isn’t so much identical as fraternal. Familiar landmarks have a way of appearing in my fiction—a little warped.

For example, my forthcoming novel, Secret Keepers, includes a place called McCann Square, "the first temperature-controlled shopping center" in Palmetto, which once “dazzled the fickle town like a mistress” and lured away downtown’s department stores:
From the moment it opened in 1968, McCann Square’s long passages of indoor shops and artificial lighting, the acres of asphalt parking, left the town smitten. Suddenly, downtown Palmetto, with its paved-over trolley tracks, old-fashioned tattered awnings, and stand-alone three-story brick buildings, seemed shopworn and tired, and a little embarrassing. Who wanted to brave the elements anymore for a pair of socks?
(McCann Square is based on the history of a place here in Greenville called McAlister Square--one of those one-story malls from the 1960's. No matter where you live, you probably have--or had--one of those starter malls in your town.) My grandmother actually remembers pre-mall shopping. On Friday nights--this was in the post-war boom of the 1950's--she headed to downtown Greenville after work, strolling along Main Street, shopping at the crowded department stores and browsing in the new dress shops. If you needed gloves or shoes or curtains, anything fashionable—downtown was the place to go. I can imagine just how liberating a little “walking around” money felt after a decade of economic depression and a world war. Finally the sounds of noisy commerce had returned to Main Street: coins rattling, cash registers ringing, and downtown trolley bells clanging.

In the next decade, my mother’s generation took shopping inside. When McAlister Square opened its doors in 1968, it was the largest mall in South Carolina, anchored by Ivey’s and Meyers-Arnold, department stores that shuttered their downtown locations. In 1982, when I had a driver’s license, a part-time job, and a penchant for a little retail therapy of my own, McAlister Square included shops such as the Record Bar, where I’d buy REO Speedwagon and Styx cassette tapes. I put a dress on lay-away at Casual Corner, and bought my first Member’s Only jacket at Ivey’s. By the 1990’s, in the face of increased competition from Haywood Mall, McAlister Square began to lose its stores, and its fate looked grim, until it was rescued and reinvented. These days McAlister Square is anchored by Greenville Technical College.

But I remember McAlister Square in its heyday, and I find strolling through it now a little disorienting. As I recently walked through its eerily quiet corridors, passing government offices, classrooms, a lone restaurant, and a pipe shop, I was unprepared for a twinge of nostalgia. The same cheery lights overhead, the familiar tiles underfoot, the empty stage in the center, on which countless school choruses had sung. Same structure, but a different place entirely.

In Secret Keepers, McCann Square is rescued from abandonment when investors turn the place into a “faith-based commerce mall.” Renamed Crossroads, it attracts stores such as Hole in the Sole Shoe Repair, Pray and Pay Title Loans, and Testamints Candy Shop. One character in the novel, Dora, harbors an uneasy attachment to the revamped shopping center. In her wayward youth Dora frequented McCann Square, but now she is trying—and failing—to forget her past and reinvent herself. But try as she might, she still sees McCann Square winking at her behind the veil of Crossroads.

The old house that figures prominently in my first novel, The Garden Angel, was originally based on a boarded-up residence off an old highway here, White Horse Road. By the time I finished drafting the novel, the house had sprouted cupolas and spires—a composite of architecture from Earle Street and Hampton Pinckney—moved across town, and gained a family cemetery in the backyard. In other words, the city-swallowed, once-grand estate in the story had come into its own. Still, some folks want to know where the “real” house is. They want to visit it, to see a solid structure, perhaps to compare it with the house they pictured in their heads. As for me, I like to believe that imagination transcends boundaries of geography. If you think it up, you can make it better.

“I created a cosmos of my own,” William Faulkner said about Yoknapatawpha County, the setting for most of his novels and short stories, patterned upon Faulkner’s actual home in Lafayette County, Mississippi. In his 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! he even included a hand-drawn map of his “apocryphal county,” signing it, "William Faulkner, Sole Owner & Proprietor."

I don’t know if I’ll ever go as far as sketching a map. When people tell me they loved getting lost in my book, it pretty much makes my day.

Mindy Friddle's second novel, Secret Keepers, will be published in May. She is author of The Garden Angel, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Visit to read excerpts. And visit her blog, Novel Thoughts: Random Musings from a Novelist and Gardener on Reading, Writing and the Earth. And friend her on Facebook.


Anonymous said...

That cover is extraordinary. Can't wait until it comes out.

Mindy said...

Thanks. I actually took the picture--the boots are on my porch. But that's a whole different blog :)

Elise said...

I know which garage you are talking about! I do the same thing...very disconcerting. CAN NOT WAIT for the new book, Mindy. Thanks for the teaser...can't wait to get lost in Palmetto again.

Karin Gillespie said...

We have one of those faith-based malls in Augusta called the Masters Corner. It has a restaurant called Honey From the Rock, and a couple of other shops.

Funny because I also used the mall for my wip, changing the names. For some reason, I thought only Augusta had such a place. Journalists covering the Masters Tournament (or tunamint as its aclled here) always make fun of the place as it is right in the middle of the Masters action.

Mindy said...

too funny, Karin. I've actually never come across such a place--except in imagination--but just knew there was one somewhere.