The Writer's Life: Paths to Possibility
Joan Schweighardt discusses what drew her to the plot and characters that became the basis of her latest novel in this month’s installment of The Writer's Life.
I was never homeless, so there may be a few appropriation warriors out there who will feel I’ve crossed a line by creating Ben, a homeless character, as one of the two protagonists in my new novel, Under the Blue Moon. I would argue that having learned as much as possible about homelessness through research, and having listened carefully to stories told to me by people who either spent some time homeless or had a loved one who did, I’ve earned at least a few creds. Also, when I first started Under the Blue Moon, I was on the board of directors for a local homeless shelter, and later I was a fundraiser for the same organization. This volunteer work did not put me directly in touch with the homeless population (unless you count the shelter residents I passed in the halls coming to and going from board meetings) but it did put me in touch with other people who care about homelessness, who are able to fit themselves into the shoes of that community’s members well enough to be able to say, No, This is unacceptable; this cannot stand. For all that it’s a drop in the bucket, Ben is my small way of doing something.
The other protagonist in Under the Blue Moon is Lola, a dog groomer and trainer. Lola has a home but has lost the people she intended to live with her in it. What she has left is her job, her best friend (who is in many ways a nuisance to her), and her grief, which she has learned to live with, the way you eventually learn to live with chronic pain.
Lola has only just begun to consider that maybe it’s time for her to explore the possibility of finding some happiness in her life when she is broadsided by another driver on her way home from a job. In the beginning the accident feels like the last straw; her car is totaled; and though the guy who hit her served some time for breaking and entering and has facial tats that suggest he may have once killed someone, she comes to feel that what happens to him post-accident is somehow her fault. You might think a situation like this would stymie her altogether in her search for a modicum of happiness; in fact, it creates such a rift in her circular thinking—such a need to expand her comprehension of the event so as to be able to examine her part in it—that it actually propels her further along on her path, like rolling a six on a boardgame.
As for Ben, he’s too low on Maslow’s ladder to even think about happiness. When we meet him, it is summer in Albuquerque, New Mexico—which is to say, hotter than hell. But autumn is around the corner, and he has got to change his living situation—currently he lives on a ledge under an overpass—before the cold weather sets in, if not for his own sake then for the sake of his eighteen-year-old cat, who is living with him.
Lola and Ben are both traveling, metaphorically, though not together. They are alone on their respective paths, which I picture as running parallel, but with a wide median between them, full of thick brush and towering cottonwood trees. Lola and Ben may be able to glimpse each other now and then, but neither can cross the median, except at intersections, which are highly infrequent and hard to spot anyway.
I’ve set them on a journey all but the most highly evolved among us are familiar with to one extent or another—and that is wanting more or wanting better than we have. Since Lola and Ben have lost more than most, they may need more than hard work and determination to generate change. They may need luck, or serendipity, or magical outcomes resulting from magical thinking—to get on their feet. I believe in all that stuff myself, and I rely on such assistance regularly—in addition, of course, to hard work and determination—and it hasn’t failed me so far, mostly.