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Authors and Their Hometowns

From 'To Kill a Mockingbird' to 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn', authors from all eras have pulled from their hometown experiences to create great literature. Hosted by Meredith Vieira, this program explores how the hometowns of great authors have influenced their writing and their stories.

AIRED: September 13, 2018 | 0:26:45
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Authors and Their Hometowns,

the companion documentary to

THE GREAT AMERICAN READ,

is made possible in part by

The Corporation for Public

Broadcasting,

a grant from Anne Ray

Foundation,

and by contributions to your

PBS station from Viewers like

you.

Thank you.

Hi, I'm Meredith Vieira,

host of The Great American

Read.

They say to write what you

know,

and what does anyone know

better than the town they grew

up in.

Great books can give us a look

at the hometowns of the

authors that we love.

Join us as we hear how authors

shine a light on their

hometowns in some of our

favorite books.

When we think about certain

authors we think about the

home towns they wrote about.

When we think of Charles

Dickens, we think of London.

When we think of the Brontes,

we think of the Yorkshire

Moors.

When we think of Jane Austen,

we think of what she described

as her favorite subject for a

novel: three or four families

in a country village.

Exactly the kind of place

where she herself grew up.

F.

Scott is going to make me feel

like I'm up Long Island.

J.

D.

Salinger is going to make me

feel like I'm around rich kids

in New York City in a way that

I probably am not super often

in real life.

I didn't write about Ireland,

my own country,

until A History of Loneliness,

which was my fourteenth book.

And, y'know,

that's two in a row now that

I've written set in Ireland,

so that's a change.

Why do you think that is?

I think in the early years I

felt that A,

I felt I didn't have a story

particularly that I felt

passionate about something,

and I also felt intimidated by

it.

Cause most Irish writers do

write about Ireland.

And my imagination just seemed

to be taking me away from

Ireland.

And I wonder was there some

sort of subconscious fear of

jumping into that

territory-would I be able to

do it.

I wrote 5 books that were not

about Long Island before I

wrote a book about Long Island

because to me,

I never thought about the Gold

Coast,

I never thought about the

Hamptons, it was just there.

It was the forest,

and I didn't see it because I

lived with it all my life.

But once you start thinking of

it differently then you

realize that this is

interesting territory.

Writers are really at good at

making places come alive

because places are where

writers first come to life as

writers.

And especially writers who are

writing about where they grew

up.

They are writing about the

places where they first became

observers of the real world,

and of the social world.

Pulitzer Prize winning author

John Updike best known for his

novel Rabbit Run emerged as

one of America's best known

writers of the 1950's and

60's.

The heart of Updike's writing

beats in his hometown of

Shillington near the city of

Reading in Berks County,

Pennsylvania.

Shillington was a very

important place for the first

18 years of his life.

This house was the center of

his existence.

His stories centered fictional

version of Shillington,

and it expressed the deep deep

nostalgia that Updike felt

about this area.

This was his ideal of a place

to grow up.

Even though he kept saying

that he was going to stop

writing about Pennsylvania,

he really never did.

He was just drawing back to

it.

In A Soft Spring Night in

Shillington,

this wonderful essay that

begins his memoir Self

Consciousness he walks around

these streets that meant so

much to him.

And he comes in front of this

house and he looks up and it

and he says as a successful

older person it seemed blunt,

modest in scale, simple,

but he also said it possessed

a precious mystical secret

that this is the place in all

of the world that the core

secret of his creativity,

his inspiration was located.

In looking at To Kill a

Mockingbird Harper Lee's book

takes place in a town very

much like she grew up in.

Her community was somewhat

based on people she knew or

again kind of an amalgamation

of that.

And I think what starts to

happen is for the reader is

that there is a sense of it

being true.

It may not be nonfiction.

It may not be perfectly

accurate but we can relate to

it and that that kind of depth

of knowledge comes through in

the book and we see our own

communities in that book,

we see our own hometowns in

how they craft their story.

And when I was in high school

I was assigned to Kill a

Mockingbird as most people are

in high school and I went home

and I read it in a night.

I could not stop reading it

was so fascinating to me it

was.

I grew up in St.

Louis which has an interesting

racial history and I just

didn't want to put it down.

It felt like somebody had

written about a childhood

experience that I could really

relate to.

Maycomb was an old town,

but it was a tired old town

when I first knew it.

.. There was no hurry,

for there was nowhere to go,

nothing to buy and no money to

buy it with,

nothing to see outside the

boundaries of Maycomb County.

But it was a time of vague

optimism for some of the

people: Maycomb County had

recently been told that it had

nothing to fear but fear

itself.

One of the fantastic things

about James Baldwin I think

especially for people who are

interested in New York City

or, who live in New York City,

who know it and love it,

is that he is the

quintessential New York City

writer.

Most of his novels actually

take New York as a specific

character with real life and

verve.

And also interestingly enough

James Baldwin was a person who

spent much of his life also in

France.

But he always needed to come

back to New York in order to

find that.

.. I don't know the way to say

it.

Maybe that root,

that Inspiration,

that source for him.

He needed to go back to

Harlem,

he needed to be in the

Village,

he needed to be in the streets

of the city,

but they always were sort of

overwhelming to him.

In Another Country,

he captures New York and with

such rigor it has this ability

to transport you into the

space.

And when I remember thinking

of you 'when I went to come to

New York when I want to move

here' my references are James

Baldwin.

The prose is beautiful,

but it's just like clear,

honest and very concise on why

we love New York but also like

why we can hate it too.

Also,

why we want to challenge it

and make it better.

In Another Country,

he captures New York and with

such rigor it has this ability

to transport you into the

space.

And when I remember thinking

of you 'when I went to come to

New York when I want to move

here' my references are James

Baldwin.

The prose is beautiful,

but it's just like clear,

honest and very concise on why

we love New York but also like

why we can hate it too.

Also,

why we want to challenge it

and make it better.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was

written by Betty Smith and she

actually did grow up in

Brooklyn.

And she did live in a tenement

where outside there was this

small tree that she watched

struggling struggling to grow.

And along with that story was

her own personal story of a

very difficult upbringing

including her parent's

alcoholism and joblessness and

things like this.

Her mother was really

struggling to keep the family

together.

Her father was struggling to

keep himself together,

and she the narrator was

really struggling to keep

everybody together and just

keep her head above water and

survive.

There's a tree that grows in

Brooklyn.

Some people call it the tree

of heaven.

No matter where it's seeds

fall,

it makes a tree which

struggles to reach the sky.

It grows in boarded up lots

and out of neglected rubbish

heaps.

It grows up out of cellar

gratings.

It is only tree that grows out

of cement, it grows lushly,

survives without sun,

water and seemingly without

earth.

It would be considered

beautiful except that there

are too many of it.

And that's why that image is

so part of our cultural

consciousness of this tree

struggling through the cracks

of the pavement.

And at the end we see it's

still there when she returns

and that is the hope that not

only this tree survived,

but it shows that this little

girl survived as well.

One of the things that we have

to think about,

and I've heard many different

writers say different versions

of this,

is that you have to conceive

of the whole world that you're

in first.

That you may be following the

lead of the characters you're

going to create in that

setting but there is some way

in which you understand the

world itself fully.

For my writing to be effective

and my characters to be well

realized I really need to

spend a lot of time

cultivating a sense of place,

a really complex multifaceted

sense of place.

So I can't write about the

people that I'm writing about

unless I understand very

deeply and intimately the

places in which they live.

For me setting has always been

one of the first things,

one of the first pieces that

come into place.

Well you want to write a book,

it doesn't really matter where

you set it.

The important thing is pick a

point, get started.

So I said fine, Scotland.

18th century.

So that's where I began.

Knowing nothing about Scotland

or the 18th century,

having no plot, no outline,

and no characters,

and nothing but the rather

vague images conjured up by

the notion of a man and a

kilt.

I would really love to live in

100 years of solitude.

It's in a jungle,

it's in a remote very remote

village.

And Macondo is the name of the

village.

When you go there there is

this really vivid cast of

characters, there is war,

there is love, there's music,

there's fighting,

there's making up,

there's so much drama and

intrigue and told every story

very richly and you just want

to go in there and walk

around.

The Call of the Wild written

by Jack London is a book about

a dog named Buck.

So Jack London was born in San

Francisco but he grew up in

Oakland California.

And in fact when he became a

young man and went was part of

that Gold Rush he went to the

Klondike,

he went to Alaska and was

digging for gold and had to

have seen lots of sled dogs

and the story started to form

out of that experience.

The sled was a quarter of a

mile away.

Dog and Man watched it

crawling over the ice.

Suddenly they saw its backend

drop down as into a rut and

the people with a howl hanging

onto it jerk into the air.

Mercedes screamed came to

their ears.

They saw Charles turn and make

one step to run back and then

a whole section of the ice

gave way and dogs and humans

disappear.

A yawning hole was all that

was to be seen.

The bottom had dropped out of

the trail.

John Thornton and Buck looked

at each other.

You poor devil said John

Thornton and Buck licked his

hand.

The setting of The Grapes of

Wrath is the Dust Bowl in

Oklahoma and then the travel

from that that devastation to

California which was kind of

the land of opportunity.

And their great hope for the

future.

And Steinbeck captures that

gritty day to day struggle so

perfectly.

Death in the Afternoon" by

Ernest Hemingway.

Very interesting about the

culture in Spain,

and so many of the rituals

that are attached to

bullfighting.

Death in the Afternoon by

Ernest Hemingway.

Very interesting about the

culture in Spain,

and so many of the rituals

that are attached to

bullfighting.

I really helped me when I went

to my one and only bull fight

in Mazatlán, Mexico in 1979.

Where the Red Fern Grows was

one of the most impactful

books that I read in my

childhood.

Wilson Rawls wrote about a

time in a place that he

actually experienced as a

child.

So he wrote about the Oklahoma

Ozarks,

which is where he grew up and

his family was forced to leave

that place and so he wound up

being pushed out of this place

that he loved,

and so it makes perfect sense

to me that he returned to it

on the page in a way that he

might not have been able to in

real life.

And if he had never been there

or had only been there for

vacation or something like

that there is no way he would

be able to tell that story of

use the landscape to tell that

story in the way that he did

and infuse it with long and

nostalgia and safety and fear

and all the things that the

book talks about.

Emily Bronte of the three

Bronte sisters was the one who

was the most impatient of any

kind of social convention.

She just wanted to do what she

to do,

and what she wanted to do was

her art.

And she found the Moors to be

a place that inspired her,

because they were full of

subtle drama and In Wuthering

Heights the Moors are a space

of freedom

I had this vision of Emily

Bronte and her family all you

know storming across these

Moors with their dresses

dragging in the mud and

sitting down in these cold

stone rooms writing furiously.

Wuthering Heights is the name

of Mr. Heathcliff's dwelling,

Wuthering being a significance

provincial adjective,

descriptive of the atmospheric

tumult to which its station is

exposed in stormy weather.

Some authors make settings

external expressions of how a

character is thinking or

feeling you know they might

have something take place in a

weird Gothic House because the

character is weird

psychologically unstable

person.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier,

it's one of my favorite novels

to recommend because the

setting is one gigantic house.

And you get it in the first

sentence.

'Last night I dreamt I went to

Manderley, again.

' You're like,

what is Manderley,

what is that,

what is going on.

And it's I mean Manderley does

become a character.

I know it sounds cliché to say

it that way but it does it's

this hulking dragon of a

place.

The house knows the truth of

what happened,

knows the truth of Rebecca,

knows the truth of Maxim,

knows the truth of pretty much

everything in terms of the

plot.

When you're reading it the

house contributes to the

mystery of the story and

that's how you know you're in

for something really good when

everything is working together

and nothing feels sort of

haphazard or random.

That appetite for seeing with

your own eyes that roof or

that view and that water makes

it even more real even though

it's a novel it's set in a

real place.

It's not necessarily a true

story and yet because when we

read them they're true for us

we want them to be really true

in the world.

And so seeing the actual

landscape where it took place

makes it so.

When a novel as loved as and

if Green Gables is known to be

in an actual place that

obviously builds a world of

tourism around that place and

people so many people that I

know have travelled to see the

actual place on Prince Edward

Island and to go to this sort

of little compound where you

can just love everything that

is Anne of Green Gables.

Almanzo Wilder roamed these

grounds as a farmer boy in the

1980s.

His childhood was immortalized

in a Little House book written

by his wife Laura Ingalls

Wilder.

The Wilder homestead is sort

of a second home.

Knowing that there is this

historic connection to

something that I was involved

in very personally.

..it's a special place.

The organization Literary

Libraries named the homestead

a landmark in 2015 Folks this

is the entrance to the big or

the middle barn as it's

referred to in the book.

The series,

the movies the books are part

of my life.

I'd like to have an impact on

seeing it be successful moving

forward.

As a Long Islander after

having read The Great Gatsby I

had a great desire to tour all

of the Gold Coast mansions.

20 miles from the city.

A pair of enormous eggs

identical in contour and

separated only by a curious.

.. Her to see bay.

..twenty Miles from the city.

A pair of enormous eggs

identical in contour and

separated only by a courtesy

Bay jut out into the most

domesticated body of saltwater

in the Western Hemisphere.

The great wet barnyard of

Long Island Sound.

I did actually have a really

cool experience recently where

I got to go see the house that

inspired little women.

So where Louisa May Alcott

lived when she was growing up

and it was walking through the

book.

You're walking through it.

And it made me love the book

that much more,

it made me appreciate the book

that much more it probably

elevated it closer to a

favorite than it had been

before because I got to see

Beth's piano in the corner.

I got to walk through the

rooms where the stories were

told,

I got to see Amy's paintings

on the fireplace and in the

rooms.

I got to see the desk where

Louisa May Alcott or Joe got

to sit and write her works.

It really it felt so real.

I read that book probably 20

times or seen the movie as

many times,

but to actually go there and

feel the texture and the space

of the place to be able to

walk into a book like that is

something really unique.

I was very very blessed and

lucky to get the opportunity

to travel to Devon on a tour,

and the thing that inspired me

the most about being there is

that it really does capture

your imagination when you're

reading Agatha Christie,

but also when you're there,

it really is almost a literal

translation of what she is

seeing.

She brings a lot of what I

feel as,

in terms of discovery.

I feel she brings a lot of

those experiences,

both as a child and as an

adult, into her writing.

From reading Into the Wild,

I decided i wanted to go on a

journey myself into the woods,

but what I learned is I wanted

to be prepared,

that is my personal

connection.

I am not going to be like this

guy Alex or Chris.

I am going to be prepared when

I start my journey.

Stephen King's The Stand which

Maine features as always in

his books in this great

wonderful way as the kind of

it's like the heart of the

book that people are working

their way towards.

I think so I'm only halfway

through.

It's my guess.

And it really makes me want to

go to Maine.

I've never been there since I

was a student and I always

think 'God I got to go back

there one day' whenever I read

Stephen King.

People talk about the idea

that a writer should write

what he or she knows or that

they should write from the

place they're coming from.

I think that that can be

great,

but I also think it's

limiting.

I mean I think that a writer

should be able to write

outside his or her own

experience in the same way

that a reader should be able

to read a book outside of his

or her own experience.

I've liked to read ever since

I was a youngster because it

was a way to discover new

worlds and I could do that at

my own pace,

and learn more than I can find

in just everyday living.

One of the things that I am

most jealous of that other

writers are able to do is to

create their own settings,

their own worlds.

Creating a magical world of

fantastical world is harder

than creating a world than of

your backyard.

So because anything can

happen.

And one of the things about a

fantastical world is reading

the book and being able to

live in that world let your

imagination expand it be a

part of it,

give it the color and depth

and richness that is as rich

as your imagination.

You can experience a totally

different world,

you can time travel In

Outlander you can go into

Charlotte's Web and feel what

it's like living on a farm

with this cute little pig and

this whole story of life on

this farm.

It could just remove you from

whatever you're going through

in your life.

One author that really has I

guess brought me to a

different place and kind of

transformed some of the ways

that I think about literature

was J.

R. Tolkien,

his trilogy The Lord Of The

Rings.

And he kind of just transports

you to a totally different

place and you kind of just get

absorbed in this world and

this struggle for the ring by

using poetry, music,

the use of his languages,

developing a whole language of

Elvish to kind of cohesively

bring the story of Frodo

Baggins and his adventures.

It's just a phenomenal

trilogy.

When we think about Alice and

Wonderland,

she's a little girl and she's

really bored with her lessons.

She' s imagining these

different places and she ends,

well we don't know that she

ends up falling asleep,

but she ends up falling asleep

and she follows this rabbit

that seems to hop by her

during her lessons and she

tumbles down a literal rabbit

hole and goes into a totally

different world.

And it's just a very different

thing to just sort of imagine

a different place and how an

author could come up with that

and I have to image I think

they do it for themselves in

addition for the reader.

Stories have the ability to

take the author somewhere that

they couldn't go before.

That's long been what stories

can do in a far off land.

This is a wonderful place you

can feel like you're in Mordor

or you can feel like you go to

Hogwarts.

Tolkien's sends me to Middle

Earth and George R.R.

Martin sends me to Westeros.

The fantasy in SciFi authors

that have put me in outer

space and in fantastic worlds

that only exist in their

imagination,

that they kind of let me in

to,

have always been really

important to me.

Tolkien's sends me to Middle

Earth and George R.R.

Martin sends me to Westeros.

I've always been a weird

awkward anxious person.

Way more comfortable with

characters in books than I am

with people in the real world

and any author who can make me

feel less lonely and less

weird and give me an escape

from like feeling so

uncomfortable in my own skin

is a person who as far as I'm

concerned is a magical wizard.

When authors draw from their

personal life and their

personal experiences you can

tell that there's a different

heart in there and there's a

different sentiment that you

can pull from it like that's

able to connect with the

reader in a way that that

books that don't have that

heart to it just don't.

Inevitably we're exploring

ourselves even if we're

writing about you know

Martians or people who live on

Jupiter that we're exploring

different parts of our

imagination and our and

different parts of our

personality.

I am gratified as a reader

when I see writers rigorously

engaging with what they know

A novelist writing about a

place they know and a place

they know in their bones will

deliver a better story because

they can deliver a better

place and the more that you

can make your reader forget

that they are on the page and

let them feel that they're

actually in that place the

better.

And when you are familiar with

the space you can rub against

it and create friction and

unpack different ideas.

And also it's a space that you

love too

In a few lines you can think

aha I totally get what makes

that place work and what makes

these characters act and feel

and live and love the way they

do.

Authors across generations

have drawn from their hometown

experiences to create great

literature.

It's the sense of community

and a profound sense of place

that ground every story.

I'm Meredith Vieira.

Thanks for watching.

Authors and Their Hometowns,

the companion documentary to

THE GREAT AMERICAN READ,

was made possible in part by

The Corporation for Public

Broadcasting,

a grant from Anne Ray

Foundation,

and by contributions to your

PBS station from Viewers like

you.

Thank you

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