Andrew Forbes talks about small town locales and Ontario’s Highway 7 as influences on his story “Jamboree,” from The Puritan’s Issue 25.
Highway 7 is a thin ribbon of asphalt extending from Ottawa to London, more or less, though it used to go all the way to Sarnia, and the part that skirts the northern end of the GTA is marred by too many stoplights to actually call it a “highway.” The part we need concern ourselves with today, though, is the stretch from Peterborough, where I live, to Ottawa, where I grew up, and where my parents remain. I drive this stretch several times a year, sometimes in a minivan full of children, sometimes alone in a sedan, and it’s a piece of road I both love and hate.
The hatred isn’t personal. It isn’t specific to 7; instead, it is directed toward those drivers behind whom you might find yourself stuck as they tickle and tease the speed limit without ever actually reaching it while you’ve got three impatient children asking how much longer, or when do we eat, or where’s the bathroom, etc. The hate is directed at that three-plus hour block of time required to get from my house to Ottawa, or vice versa. It’s directed at the monotony of driving at night, or in a snowstorm, or on dull, featureless days.
The love, meanwhile, springs from 7’s mix of pastoral scenery and gentle decrepitude: forgotten places, lonely Canadian Shield tableaus, and the seductive fictions suggested by such places—those stories unfolding just beyond the ditches and scrubgrass lining the highway. I have set a few stories along this length of road, including “Jamboree,” which was inspired by the traffic that clogs 7 on the weekend of the real Havelock Country Jamboree (“Fifty thousand people camping and drinking in a field, listening to country music”), as well as by the fictive allure of the Marmora Common Cemetery, which is a real place, on a hill just east of the Crowe River. There really is a grocery store next door, though it’s a Valu-mart. Rightly or wrongly, I associate Foodland stores more strongly with small Ontario towns, and I like the name better, so I invoked licence.
Among the other towns that dot 7 like pearls on a string are Norwood, Madoc, Actinolite, Maberly, Perth, and Carleton Place, and maybe I’ll have the patience and longevity to write stories that take place in each one of them.
Over the years I have driven the road, some structures along the route have been used, then abandoned, tilted, then slid toward oblivion, and finally disappeared. There was the strange house that was tucked in a gentle depression—a handmade sign called it “Baker’s Valley”—just to the north of the road, around a bend of trees, barely visible as you drove east, but which is anyway gone now. Near Perth, there is a quonset with a false front that sold antiques, but lies quiet now, the front door permanently ajar, the remaining contents only properly called junk (I checked). Abandoned motels. Collapsed barns. A restaurant turned religious outreach centre turned property perpetually for lease.
There are, I’m certain, stories to be set among those buildings still standing, too, such as The Log Cabin Restaurant in Actinolite—where the Greyhounds pause to discharge one or two passengers bound for Tweed, while the rest of the riders line up for the washroom, or to grab a snack, or suck on cigarettes before climbing back aboard and continuing the trip—which might as well have been dreamed up by David Lynch.
All of it suggests to me the role of fiction as a way of holding onto places, especially small, forgotten ones. To depict such places, and to populate them with characters, is to offer rebuttal to assumptions of innocence or cultural backwardness, of their being forgettable, simply because they are being forgotten by so many of us. It is to say that all of the things which make such places unfamiliar to urban dwellers are just surface. They mean very little. In these places, as in every other place, there is character, and story, and the ways in which people succeed and fail, and it’s all worthy of our attention.
When I think of depicting these places—whether rural expanses or small towns—I think of the open country of John Ford, The Badlands of Terrence Malick, the Montana of Richard Ford, places where desperation is quieter but no less corrosive or volatile. Add to that the smallness of a life suggesting the broader scope of life itself, as in Flannery O’Connor, as in Alice Munro, and I think what you get is a very potent set of possibilities for fiction set in passed-over, or out-of-the-way locales.
Highway 7, between Ottawa and Peterborough
Part of what draws me to such places as settings is an oppositional nature, to be certain. I have a general discomfort with stories set in Toronto, not because they aren’t frequently good, or because I hate Toronto, but because it often seems to me a setting of convenience, a place familiar to the writer, a place for characters simply to be, a kind of a blank canvas or, at the same time, an overstuffed city, a city devoid of sensory privation, a place where a writer or her character might find anything they could want to find, materially. It’s a setting which provides everything, whereas I wanted my characters to have access to significantly less.
Toronto does appear in the story, of course, fleetingly, as that place where a character tried his hand and failed, and as the place where the long gone girl remains, out of reach, but that black hole, which either spits you out or swallows you up, hovers dangerously and tantalizingly close to much of the rural world—it could be New York, spiritually, it could be Tokyo—providing both the promise and the threat of escape from forgotten places. For these characters, as for most people who live in the part of the world where I live and write, that black hole is Toronto.
So I see these other places, and the people who inhabit them, to be on an edge, to be cut off from certain things, or simply not have access to them, sometimes by choice, sometimes by happenstance, in ways that establish a friction which, when properly exploited, can yield interesting literary results. Because I think we’re shaped by, as much as we shape, place. Writes Linn Ulmann, “Place dictates who we are and how we see—this is true in life, as well as fiction.” So the question of how a certain place shapes the people who live there is the sort of thing that gets me to open a new, blank document and start making guesses.
And yes, to be honest, part of it is just that I love open spaces, and trees, and gaudy, jubilant sunsets with melancholic foregrounds, all of which Highway 7 and the spaces around it have offered me in abundance over the years. But I’m not fooled into thinking that sort of beauty is enough to sustain a story. Scenery isn’t enough. Nor do I look at these places and see Northern Exposure: a cast of quirky, plucky, independent souls, opening charming little cafés and counting their blessings when they consider all that space that greets them when they open the curtains in the morning. I don’t see rural areas as places where non-conformity is cherished. I don’t think rural people have more resilient characters. I just look at them and see a lot of history, and sadness, and places where good stories might reside. (But then, truthfully, I see those things pretty much everywhere.)
There is a danger, of course, for a writer to overindulge such tendencies in his or her work, and I’m conscious of that. I don’t want to engage in so much Canadian pastoralia that I’m lumped alongside W.O. Mitchell. I know I have to be careful to avoid being pigeonholed strictly as a romanticist of rural Canada (I have stories set in Calgary! and Pittsburgh! and Addis Ababa!), but neither can I see ignoring my urge to set some stories in these places.
The town of Kaladar, a little further east than Havelock and Marmora, is just about the halfway point on the drive from Peterborough to Ottawa, give or take. It’s an intersection, really, the crossroads of 7 and Highway 41, which will take you up to Cloyne or, further north, to Bon Echo Park, which is a lovely place. Kaladar has a gas station with a Subway. There’s a ball field, and a car dealership. There’s a provincial police detachment, and an abandoned motel. There’s also the old Kaladar Inn which, up until a couple of years ago, sat underused or empty for as long as I’d been driving 7. Then somebody must have bought it. They covered the windows and painted the whole thing black with orange trim, like a giant Harley logo, and then they opened a chip wagon out front. It’s a decent place to stop. I mean, the bathroom is a Porta Potty and the view isn’t much, but the fries are pretty damn good, and the portions are more than enough to fill you up for the rest of the drive.
Andrew Forbes’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Found Press, The New Quarterly, PRISM international, This Magazine, and Hobart, among other places. His fiction collection, What You Need, will be released by Invisible Publishing in the spring of 2015. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario. Visit andrewgforbes.com for more information.