As fans who’ve heard me talk about my writing habits know, every story I create begins with a single character. The character will come to me, unexpectedly, when I’m mindlessly rolling along my everyday groove—showering, shopping, driving, cooking; getting the kids to school, the garbage on the street, the groceries in the fridge. From that character sprout other characters: family members, coworkers, neighbors, even pets. The story grows the way a sapling becomes a tree: the trunk widens; the bark thickens; limbs proliferate, bearing leaves and flowers, then fruit. Squirrels and birds move in; the occasional cat prowls through in search of a meal. Each of my novels, by the time I’m finished, feels like a complete and self-sustaining cosmos—but I never forget the seed, the sproutling, that one character who seeped into my consciousness. I may even remember precisely when.
Percival Darling, the eponymous hero of my new novel, The Widower’s Tale, came to me on a late winter’s night in January 2005. After twenty-four years of living in New York City, a fellowship had lured me and my family north, to my native Massachusetts. My parents were still living in the house where I grew up from age nine, and I decided to rent another house nearby (by happenstance, the former home of my best friend from junior high, its rooms and sprawling lawns familiar yet now, three decades and many occupants later, strange).
So there I was, after more than a quarter century’s residence elsewhere, living again in my childhood town—a place that’s astonishingly rural for a community just half an hour’s drive from Boston, where houses both historic and modern are tucked into thick woods or command views of bronzed hayfields and placid ponds. Through all my holiday visits home, the town had seemed reassuringly unchanged—though I was aware that real estate prices had soared, and if I looked closely, I noticed how many of the rustic, crooked edges on the landscape had been straightened, how the patina of things once left to the anarchy of time and weather had been scrubbed and polished. The Victorian town library where I’d spent hours as an underpaid worker bee, a building both stately and frumpy, had received a Disneyesque makeover from a renowned architect. Tumbled stone walls had been disciplined; trees that once formed shaggy tunnels above the roads had been tamed; some of those roads, once narrow and chaotically potholed, were wider and smoother now.
But not till I’d lived there, as an adult shopping and picking up my mail at the quaint P.O., as a parent with children in the local schools, did I see how very much more had changed beneath the surface—and deeper in the woods than the eye could see. The politics of the town, due to its pumped-up wealth, seemed to be both more liberal and more conservative, the new-age idealism of raw milk cooperatives and compost incentives canceled out by gas-guzzling SUVs huffing in the line of cars at my younger son’s nursery school pickup. The political correctness of the conversations was stifling. I stumbled on new developments of houses, tucked deep in the woods, that looked like country clubs, complete with in-ground sprinkler systems and surveillance cameras Instead of local teens mowing lawns or painting houses, platoons of Hispanic workers shuttled back and forth on flatbed trucks with squadrons of lawn equipment. Some of the changes I saw on my return to this town were simply a sign of the times, but some of them felt like a sign of the decadence portending a fall.
And here’s something that particularly amused and annoyed me: The abundant wildlife attracted to the ample woods and swamps, something I took for granted as a cause for celebration, had become, to many new residents, pure nuisance: the deer that dependably ate all the tulips (if you were foolish enough to plant them); the raccoons that would raid your garbage cans; the barn swallows that, having set up house in an open shed, would divebomb your dog and your car once fledglings were hatched; the fishercats that would snatch any house cats left out after dark. A new neighbor of my parents complained that wild turkeys enjoying the warm tarmac in front of her garage were constantly preventing her from parking. Dog owners now lobbied to have horses barred from the miles of conservation trails—unless their riders picked up the manure!
I was appalled, even vaguely offended—as if I owned the place, as if its citizens had any obligations whatsoever to preserve the town as I had known it, my personal snowglobe of lazy days reading in tall grasses, surrounded by Joni Mitchell songs, rotary mowers, rusted Volvos, the reassuring self-righteousness of Eugene McCarthy era outrage. (When I was eleven or so, in the late 1960s, a perfectly stenciled peace sign, two stories high, appeared on the side of a barn.)
So there I was, having lived in this familiar yet disturbingly different town, for five months when a spectacular blizzard hit. It snowed for a day and a night and most of another day. That second night, after my boys were in bed, I bundled up and went for a walk down a long, wooded lane—now a tunnel of weighted boughs and tall bright banks of snow made blue by the darkness, undulating among the black trunks of the pine woods growing to the edge of the road. Deep in the woods to either side, the houses glowed. Here, I thought, was the town I knew, its differences erased by the elements. Yet if I looked closely through the windows, I could see the newfangled prosperity responsible for everything I despised.
I recognized myself—not for the first time, I should add—as a premature curmudgeon: not yet fifty, railing against a kind of change that is, at least on the surface, harmless (selfish and myopic, perhaps, but in the global scheme of things, laughably benign). I stood still in the middle of the deserted, barely plowed road, glaring into a blindingly lit, far-too-large, granite-appointed kitchen, and I pictured myself as a cantankerous, fossilized old-timer, a man who can no longer stand how fast the world is changing around him—mostly because it’s leaving him behind. And I knew that this man—an alter ego of myself—would be at the center of my next novel. Why a man, not a woman, I didn’t know—nor did I stop to question this. I began to think a lot about the nature of change: what it gives us, what it wipes out, what happens when our youthful selves, which yearn for it constantly, begin to fear it.
The title of the novel came to me as well: I’d call it Everything Must Change. In the end, I changed my mind about that, but never about Percy. The tree, that night, on that road, in my beloved but irreversibly altered home town, had begun to grow.