People pretend the idea of fact-checking fiction is hilarious and a paradox and maybe even scandalously bureaucratic and wrongheaded. But when fiction gets facts wrong, people care. If a novel claims to be about a real place, people say, It should at least get the street names right. If somebody writes a story about Manhattan, and he mixes up the streets, he’s expected to fix it.
When I first realized this, it worried me. If I ever wrote a story, I thought, it would be murder to go back and change the street names. Not because of their precious sonic qualities, the effect removing them would have on the rhythm of the sentences. But because likely I’d have done more than transpose street names. I’d have bent Broadway to intersect with Bowery so that my hero could stumble out of a Bowery bar and look up and be able to see Grace Church, for example. Moving the streets, shuffling them back or prying them apart, would ruin the effect.
Which could have been the fact-checker’s point—everybody has the real Manhattan in their head, and with it a host of associations. We love Manhattan; don’t change it. Years later, I wrote a book about my hometown, Tulsa. And after I was done I decided to call it A Map of Tulsa.
My father read it and sent a simple, complimentary e-mail. Which was the perfect thing. Then when I was home and we could talk in person and were alone for a minute, he mentioned that there was just one thing: I had gotten a few details of geography wrong in my book. For example, St. Francis Hospital being right by the highway.
Yes, I said, that’s right. I know.
Which amounted to: I did it on purpose.
There is a Chinese legend about a boy with a magic paintbrush. Somebody did a picture-book version, which I saw on Reading Rainbow. I guess I have never forgotten. The boy is given a magic paintbrush and he begins to paint and all hell breaks loose. He paints Chinese dragons writhing in the sea and they come to life. The water that he has painted floods his room. He has numerous adventures, and is borne to far-away lands, buffeted by the crazy fecundity of his own mind, the billowing hills and rushing whitewater. He’s a little bit intoxicated with his brush. But the real problem is that art come to life is essentially useless—it’s just reality. He can’t color or inflect it the way he could with art that stayed on the canvas. And so he finally develops a technique: if he leaves just one thing out, so it isn’t quite real, it can’t come to life. At the end of the story he’s leaving one eye out every time he paints a deer.
When I first got serious about writing a book, and got out a ruler and colored pencils and made a calendar for myself, reckoning that if I wrote a thousand words a day I could draft a novel in sixty days, I set that novel in an imaginary place. It was sort of my old college, except the landscape was razed of buildings; the same river flowed there, and I retained some sense of the same roads and distances, but it was more like a veldt, with some cottages where me and the other characters lived.
The second time I seriously got down to business I set the book in New York. But I felt uneasy about my rights to the city. I set a long sequence in the baseball diamonds of Central Park. I set a party on a roof in Brooklyn. I gave the hero a sunset meditation by the Gowanus. But I couldn’t seem to get my characters to go into any buildings.
Then my love interest got sent to the hospital. Maybe this could be New York Methodist in Park Slope? I took an afternoon off and went poking into all the hospitals lining the FDR in Manhattan, from Bellevue south to Beth Israel. I couldn’t even get into many lobbies, security was so tight. The truth was, I had already written the hospital scenes—the waiting rooms I had imagined already had definite volumes and dimensions, and I had to admit to myself I was trying to float this imagined, sprawling space into the smallish, fortressed hospitals of New York City.
I would like to know if it’s normal for novelists to scrap a draft and start over with a different setting—specifically, a different city. Maybe it’s a beginner’s mistake. My story only clicked when I set it in Tulsa. I didn’t want to write a novel about my hometown. But as soon as I realized I didn’t want to, it was obvious that I had to. And that floating waiting room turned out to fit perfectly in a certain big, pink hospital in the middle of Tulsa.
So I started to work from memory. I knew that a novelist is allowed to do this. And if I got something wrong, it was not a simple error: it would be a function of my own warped heart. Maybe I didn’t even know Tulsa, my hometown, as well as I should. All this was grist for a novel.
But now that it’s over I have to justify myself. I read in Leviathan—all too conveniently, just in the very first pages—that Thomas Hobbes thought all imagining was decayed sense-input—that is, faded memories. His example: “After great distance of time, our imagination of the past is weak, and we lose (for example) of cities we have seen, many particular streets.”
So misremembering cities is the essence of imagination. Sure, we can recombine memories, to produce fantasy—put a man on a horse and call it a centaur. Or, I’ve always lazily imagined the Hobbesian “state of nature,” which is so nasty, brutish, and short, as a combination Boy Scout camp and stage set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But most of what we do is go backwards. According to Hobbes, thinking is nothing but seeking, and trying to go back and remember where to start. If you want to someday be rich, you trace back to see what you can do now, to begin to get on the right track. The same way if you have lost something, you run back and remember when you last had it.
Maybe this is why there are so many first novels dedicated to left-behind cities. Hobbes says, “Sometimes a man knows a place determinate, within the compass whereof he is to seek; and then his thoughts run over all the parts thereof, in the same manner as one would sweep a room to find a jewel, or as a spaniel ranges the field till he find a scent.”
People ask: “Where do you find inspiration?”
I am like a dog that I left behind in Tulsa. When my memories rot just right, I come running.
People like to ask how you like different cities. It’s not okay to ask about the inhabitants, but the place itself is fair game. Two years ago I moved from New York to Chicago. People want to know if I like it.
“Yes, yes, it’s a great city. But I’ve failed to really explore it.”
When I was eighteen and moved to Boston I wasn’t so tactful. I called home from a payphone and declaimed to my mom how wonderful it was to have left Tulsa, to be in Boston and to see actual pedestrians on actual sidewalks. I remember a walk through Harvard Square with a group of six or seven other incoming freshman: as we explored and kept walking I began to straddle or sort of hop over every fire hydrant in our path. That’s how frisky I was. I don’t remember the route. I have always wondered—with wonder—where exactly we went. All the storefronts and landmarks we passed are faded. My memory has decayed. It’s similar with early trips to New York: later I wondered if Zinc Bar was the super-sophisticated-seeming bar where we got carded. I eventually found a bookstore that we definitely had been in, but to my surprise it was not on Broadway, but University Place. That discrepancy spun out a little extra room for me to recreate my memory in: not so much that I was disoriented but that I queasily added thirty degrees to the compass, for 390 total.
Alas, when we came to Chicago I was all grown up. I keep track of where I’m going. I don’t know the city well; I mainly stay at home and work. But the parts of the city I do know are part of my constantly retraced routines, and I know them cold.
Last week I met a journalist at Intelligentsia Coffee, one of the four coffee shops in Chicago I know and repeatedly return to. He asked me about A Map of Tulsa. He wanted to know why I titled it that. He also told me he himself had lived in Tulsa for a while, and it resonated with him, the way I described walks downtown, how I said that downtown Tulsa was so dead. He told me about a long, two-mile walk he took one Sunday morning after he had left his phone in a bar.
And it occurred to me then, after spending four years retracing these walks my narrator took through Tulsa, that I had never actually been on such walks myself, not in Tulsa.
I had been on them in New York. In Boston. In Paris and Venice and Istanbul.
When we were teenagers in Tulsa we all said: “I don’t know where I’m gonna go, but I’m definitely gonna go out of state.”
What an act of love, I hoped, to have transposed these kinds of walks abroad back onto my hometown. As a teenager I guess I had sometimes half-wanted to slow down my car, to get out and walk around downtown Tulsa. But I never did. Tulsa was a table of facts, laden with buildings. I only got sentimental when I went way up in elevators and looked down. I couldn’t always quite understand what I was looking at; the topdown perspective didn’t match my experience driving through it.
It was like when I first flew to college and solemnly looked down from the plane window, ready to say goodbye to Tulsa. I saw row upon row of generic houses, and then, zooming out, unknown boulevards and intersections. There was an eastside mall I’d never been to. A second highway and then a third striped beneath me. I spotted a Wal-Mart. In a few seconds we’d be through the clouds. The ground below blurred. I didn’t know what I was looking at, but I bent my head, and said goodbye anyway.
Benjamin Lytal is the author of A Map of Tulsa, which was published today by Penguin.
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