Bus ride to Glasgow

An essay constructed from notes written in Scotland, March, 2013

The bus departs from the station in a belch of diesel exhaust. Only the locals board there. Tourists are oblivious to the city busses as they wait for their carefully mapped day excursions. Some plush coach that picks up at the Quaitch Guest House.

72415_10151514836280218_601959733_nQuickly multistory apartment buildings give way to squat stone cottages with neat white doors. A pair of bay windows on each, because light matters. Old mixed with new, sometimes gracefully, but the city’s growth at its far reach is an ugly gash of mud and large equipment. Power lines across a gray sky, bus shelter at the end of the world.

Norton House Hotel, Ratho Station. A guy boards with a short Mohawk and someone’s initials — perhaps his own — inked behind his ear. D.W. in script. Villages rise and fall beyond the bus window. They are stunted and napping, like villages everywhere. Towns don’t buzz like cities do. Cities never sleep. Towns keep hitting the snooze button. Continue reading

Sara Gruen on writing

These quotes were gleaned from an interview I did for a story in Mountain Xpress. You can read at article on the launch of Sara Gruen‘s new novel, By the Water’s Edge, here. Gruen is also the author of the bestseller Water for Elephants.

Photo by Tasha Thomas

Photo by Tasha Thomas

• It’s an extremely intense process for me, writing a book. It takes a lot, emotionally and physically. I get almost obsessive about the characters. I can’t sleep at night, [or] I dream about them. Sometimes I wake up and I’ve been working all night on a problem in the book; sometimes I’ll wake up and I’ve solved it.

• One of the things I love about the job is I get to find something that interests me and then spend a couple of years living it, researching it and finding out more.

• If it’s possible, I’ll go and immerse myself completely [in a place]. I like to approach my research sort of like a language immersion class. When I was in the [Scottish] Highlands, after I was finished for the day I’d park in the corner of the pub with my laptop. …I would eavesdrop. I’d pick up phrases. I’d be listening, absorbing the accent and the the turns of phrase because it’s a very distinctive dialect and I really wanted to capture that.

• Obviously I can’t live in WWII, but I did extensive research. The newspaper archives were helpful but equally helpful were the pamphlets that told women how to create new patterns for reusing the material from old dresses, or what to use if you can’t find shampoo. I got copies of the [Ministry of Food] cook books. I knew the rations so [my husband] and I tried to live on rations for a month. I think we lasted two weeks.

• I try not to let anything affect how I’m writing. Then I would be writing to please an audience and if you’re doing that, you’re second-guessing everything.

• I have to lock the door of my office and close the curtains. Everyone in the family knows that unless the house is on fire, don’t knock on the door. It takes me about an hour and half to get through my creative portal. That sounds weird. But to [get to] a point where I actually feel like I’m there, as opposed to here. Then I feel like I’m recording it rather creating it. I feel like I’m not watching a movie, but in a movie. That’s when I know it’s working.AT THE WATER'S EDGE_final jacket

• Starting the book, I have a vague notion of who I want to characters to be and what sort of roles I want my characters to play. Then I write them, and eventually they come to life. And then they take over. Any idea I had for them, they throw away. They change the plot, they turn out to be different people, they have different backgrounds, they fall in love with other people. Invariably I have to go back and throw out the first third of a book. That’s absolutely a given.

• I hate when I have to throw 30,000 bleeding, screaming words on the floor. I have a leftovers file, because if I had to delete things, I would never do it. The theory is I could recycle. I’ve never recycled anything, but it allows me the freedom to get rid of things.

• When I’ve finished a book, I have what I call a springboard book. It’s my second-drawer book. I start working on that book again and eventually, so far, and idea will hit me from the blue. Clearly [the springboard book] doesn’t have the same pull on me, because I’ve never finished it.

The bus to Glasgow

A rare sunny moment in western Scotland, 2013

A rare sunny moment in western Scotland, 2013

Leaving Edinburgh is an escape only for the sake of escaping, not because it’s a place to run from. Edinburgh is both immediate and eternal, with its tangled old city and, in its not-so-new new city, the spacious Georgian apartments, shoulder to shoulder, fused into tidy rows.

Still, there’s more of Scotland to see. It’s highlands and lochs, its dramatic scenery and gritty, student-filled cities. And there’s the two hour stretch between Edinburgh and Glasgow — a suburban no man’s land where people live the kind of lives that probably don’t involve tartans or soundtracks scored by bagpipes. Or maybe they do.

The bus departs from the station in a belch of diesel exhaust. Only the locals board there. Tourists are oblivious to the city buses as they wait for their carefully mapped day excursions. Some plush coach that picks up at the Quaitch Guest House.

Quickly multistory apartment buildings give way to squat stone cottages with neat white doors. A pair of bay windows on each, because light matters. Old mixed with new, sometimes gracefully, but the city’s growth at its far reach is an ugly gash of mud and large equipment. Power lines across a gray sky, bus shelter at the end of the world.

Cemetery behind St. Mungo Cathedral (Glasgow).

Cemetery behind St. Mungo Cathedral (Glasgow).

Norton House Hotel, Ratho Station. A guy boards with a short Mohawk and someone’s initials — perhaps his own — inked behind his ear. D.W. in script. Villages rise and fall beyond the bus window. They are stunted and napping, like villages everywhere. Towns don’t buzz like cities do. Cities never sleep. Towns keep hitting the snooze button.
A sudden slice of sun. A bulbous black cab muscles along a dirt road. In the distance, rounded hills sit, iced thickly with snow. Roadwork at Livingston. Traffic crawls. The bus driver has a shaved head with the ghost of a widows peak and a pale scar. Stands of pines and bare trees ring a snow lake. Fields of snow rest, undisturbed by traffic or sun.

Bathgate: smell of the bus heater, which is too hot. The guy one seat up blasts Bollywood music through his earbuds. Witburn, Falkirk, Newhouse. Ruins of an elaborate stone bridge. Small town of two-story sandstone buildings, all unembellished. It’s like a housing development, only hundreds of years old, and town-looking because it’s not trying to look like a town.

Robbie Burns (foreground) and Sir Walter Scott (background), both wearing seagulls as hats. High style for statues in George Square, Glasgow.

Robbie Burns (foreground) and Sir Walter Scott (background), both wearing seagulls as hats. High style for statues in George Square, Glasgow.

Signs for rooms with en suite, fish with chips. There’s always the option for less (a room with no bathroom, fish without the side of fries) because here you actually can have less. It’s a viable option. Smaller cars, smaller refrigerators, less personal space.

A church on a hill with its tall steeple and floor-to-ceiling windows presides over a rectangle of ruler-straight graves. The rows could have been planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Airdrie, Motherwell: a very old man in the front seat clutches a ruffle of newspapers. He’s dapper in his pocket sweater and striped scarf, occasionally smoothing his haircut with his hand.

Chapelhall, Holytown: The sprawl begins. Warehouses, factories, a clutch of suburban homes. New houses, all tan with red roofs. Billboards and exits. Skinny white birch trees, cows grazing 11 kilometers from Glasgow’s city center. Signs about everything and nothing. Industry is a dream, but not a satisfying dream. It’s the construct of the anxious mind rather than the restful vision of meadows and groves.

There are no more meadows and groves. Instead: Car lot, church yard, graves that run a mile alongside a housing development. The mingling of past and future dead.