Essays, Interviews & More

How It Came To Be This Way

by Robert Goolrick

The first line of my new novel, Heading Out To Wonderful, reads like this: “The thing is, all memory is fiction.” To explain what I mean involves a story because, for me, for most southerners, everything always involves a story. The story can be about something that happened at the post office or the hairdresser’s this morning, or the story, equally fresh and enthralling, can be about how your great-great grandmother’s rejected suitor cut off his finger with a gold crested signet ring on it and sent it to her in the mail, which actually did happen in my family, but the telling of that story would take us so far afield we might not get home in time for supper.

I grew up in Lexington Virginia, an academic town where teaching schedules were politely light, vacations were long, and summers were hot. The principal pastimes seemed to be drinking bourbon and telling anecdotes, often about friends and relatives who had been dead for more than a hundred years. In these anecdotes, they came alive and walked the earth for a time, real and vivid. One of my father’s favorites was about the time he caddied for Gloria Swanson. He could go on about this experience for hours. Later, I saw a newspaper photograph of Gloria Swanson on the links in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where this momentous event took place, and there was, of course, a caddy and the caddy was clearly not my father. The important thing is that my father truly believed he HAD caddied for Gloria Swanson, and no photograph in the world could have dissuaded him of this truth.

Things happen to us, and many of these things become the stories we tell, at parties, to new friends or lovers, and these stories become who we are, even if they are only who we would like to be.

When Princess Diana died, a friend called and said it must be especially hard for me, since Diana and I had had such a good time at a dinner several years before. I informed my friend that she was in error – I had never met any the princess, had probably never been in the same city as Diana, much less intimate across a dinner table. But Karen was so insistent, so vehemently did she believe in the existence of the friendship between the Princess and myself, that I wavered. I thought, well, maybe it DID happen and I was just so dazzled by it I have suppressed the memory of it. And I think about it often. If I live to be 100, I am certain that I will sit a new friend down and discuss with a heavy heart the intricacies of my friendship with the Princess, and my special burden of grief when she died. And I will believe it.

As a novelist, I believe the stories I tell. I believe my characters are real people. I have to, or I could never make you believe for a minute that they were real. And, in the case of Heading Out To Wonderful, the story IS true. It actually happened, exactly as described in the book. Or so I think. That’s what I tell myself.

Forty years ago, I lived for almost a year on a small Greek island, Paros. It was a joy and a delight unlike anything I’ve ever known. The island had 15,000 inhabitants, only 19 of whom were foreigners, so I had to fit into the local culture pretty fast and pretty well. I made many close friends and even learned to speak Greek, and Greeks, like Southerners, love to tell stories. My friends were a butcher, a barber, a grocer, two enraptured and politically fiery students, a woman named Eleftheria, which means freedom, a jeweler and a painter, and a couple, Niki and Agapitos, which means beloved, who were so old it was hard to imagine how they functioned. They stayed alive principally, I think, by yelling at each other.

One day, a tourist stole a book from a bookstore. The whole town was up in arms about it. Giorgos, who was my neighbor and my barber, was shaving me one morning soon after, and he said that it was the only the second crime ever committed on the island. I asked about the first one. He told me to ask Lambis, my friend who was a butcher. He said Lambis saw the whole thing as a child. When I asked him about it, he refused to talk about it. But I was persistent, and after a few days, he came to me and said he would tell me the story, but that there were certain rules. He would only tell it once. When he was finished, I couldn’t ask any questions, and, once he was done, it would never be mentioned again.

We sat down in a café and for two hours he told me the story of the only other crime that had ever happened on the island, a story in which he was a principal figure, a shocking and heart-wrenching story. When he was done, I  honored his request and asked him no questions, but I remember thinking to myself, “This is the best story I have ever heard in my life.”

That was forty years ago. Lambis is an old man now. And I have thought about that story ever since, and I still think it’s the best story I have ever heard. It’s the story of a disastrous love affair, a love affair in which a four year old boy acted as the fulcrum of every event that happened, a four year old boy who became the inheritor of what became legend on that tiny island, a story told over and over, father to son, mother to daughter, from that day to this. And the awful sadness and the terrible beauty of that story has never faded from my mind for a day. I knew the facts from the beginning, but the truth, the mysterious truth of the story took me forty years to figure out enough so that I could write it down and tell it to you.

And memory is fiction. I’ve told the story at dozens of dinner parties, and thousands of times more, to myself,  as I did the laundry or grilled steaks for friends. And, with every telling, the real truth of the story has changed and become, I hope, more clear, more truthful than mere facts can ever be. I hope I have stuck to the truth, but the truth is as ephemeral as my dinner with Princess Diana. My friend Karen will go to her grave knowing that she knew somebody who knew Diana.  I know differently. Or, most days, I think I do.

So, if I tell you it was clear and cold, it may have actually been warm and rainy. If I say her eyes were green, they may, in fact, have been black as coal. The truth is not in the facts. The truth is in the memory of these events, and the tangible reality that memory has miraculously transformed the bald facts into. I live alone, and I have had ample time to uncover the truth behind the facts of a story that actually happened, to real, living people, some of whom I knew, more than half a century ago. I knew Sam, from the book. I saw Boaty many times. I saw, for myself, the profound effect that living through these events had had on my friend.

I say I live alone. I think all writers, even writers with spouses and children, live alone. We live with the characters in our books. We live with these people who don’t always do what we want them to, who surprise us every day, and who do not return the love and affection and thought we lavish on them. My French publisher said a brilliant thing to me, when I was having trouble finishing this book. “You don’t have to be nice to your characters,” he wrote. “You just have to be honest with them.”

The book is about the things that obsess me – goodness and redemption, the tsunami of human affection and sexuality, the fragility of childhood and the end of innocence. These things are what my life is about. It is what I have to say to the world, It is why I was born.

Finally, Heading Out To Wonderful is my love letter to the Shennendoah Valley of Virginia. The Valley becomes a character in the book, and, in the Valley, I have found a character who does, in fact, love me back. I set it there because it is the place in this world that moves me the most,  that sustains me most strongly. I didn’t want to complicate a tragic tale with an attempt to get the details of a culture I don’t know any more exactly right. Passion, in this novel, is very much connected to a specific place, like all passion. It does not happen in a void. I put the characters I loved into a world that has formed and fired my imagination for sixty-four years.

Thank you for listening to me. I am honored. I hope you come to love the characters in the book and forgive them their sins. They were once real. They got up in the morning and put their clothes on and did the best they could. They did what I hope I have done. They paid attention. And together, they and I have told their story. I hope you like it. You will read my book and move on. But their story, like the valley in which it takes place, will never die.

The last lines of the book read like this:

There is in this valley a beating heart. It is always and ever there. And when I am gone, it will beat for you, and when you are gone, it will beat for your children, and theirs, forever. Forever. Until there is no water, no air, no green in the spring or gold in the autumn, no stars in the sky or wind from the north,

And when you cannot speak, it will speak for you. When you cannot see, it will be your eyes. When you cannot remember, it will be your memory. It will never forget you.

And when you cannot be faithful, it will save a place for your return. This is a gift to you. It cannot be taken away. It is yours forever.

It is the narrative of the world, and the scrapbook of your own small life, and, when you are gone into ash and darkness and the grave, it will tell your story.