Jack Driscoll: Place Forms Character

Sep 6 2012
Published by under Art, Poetry and Musings
Editor’s Note: Today we are pleased to welcome Polly Atwell as a contributor. Polly is a writer, critic, and author of Wild Girls, a novel forthcoming from Scribner this fall. For more information on her work, please see our contributors page.

By Polly Atwell

Jack Driscoll’s name to a fiction writer, and you’ll likely get nods of
recognition and admiration.  Mention his name to someone who’s spent
time in northern Michigan and you’ll get the same response, perhaps with
even more enthusiasm.  Since his debut story collection, Wanting Only to Be Heard,
was published in 1995, Driscoll has been recognized as the chronicler
of that snowbound and still-remote country between Detroit and the
Mackinac Bridge.  His stories and novels mine the rural landscape,
producing characters that feel like people we know, whether or not we’ve
ever been north of Chicago.  In his new collection, The World of a Few Minutes Ago,
Driscoll’s flawless sense of prose rhythm, his well-trained eye for the
perfect and often humorous detail, and his deep compassion for his
characters make the stories a great pleasure for writers and non-writers

Driscoll’s compassion and sense of humor extend into the
real world, where they have benefited legions of students at the
Interlochen Center for the Arts and the MFA program at Pacific
University.  I was lucky enough to be one of those students, and
recently I had the chance to talk to Jack about his work, his life as a
writer and teacher, and what it means to tell stories of those small
rural communities at the 38th Parallel.  An excerpt from our
conversation is included below.

“I’ve lived now for thirty-seven years up here in the northern
provinces, long enough to have witnessed a literal transformation of the
place itself.  When I first arrived in 1975 there were, as I remember,
no full stoplights, and so at best we had to slow down a bit for those
blinking yellows, and the spaces between them mostly farmland and
uninhabited coastline.  Somewhat barren but not as if ‘creation had
stopped halfway through the third day,’ to pilfer from Whitney Groves. 
Because of the region’s great beauty, and the town’s gentrification, our
status as a destination—via the New York Times and elsewhere—has
coordinated an entirely new look.  Coffee shops on every corner, and
upscale restaurants, film and literary festivals, organic co-ops and
farmers markets, and the population during the summer months increasing
tenfold.  To varying degrees, cultural collision does occur, though
those inherent hostilities are not so directly confronted in my
stories.  The focus for me is always something else, by which I mean
that tension created by what a place/community offers and what it can’t
possibly provide.

“Here’s our standing
joke: we have three seasons in northern Michigan—July, August, and
winter, and in 2010 we endured an official 209 inches of snow.  Place
forms character.  Or, as Ortega y Gasset says, ‘Tell me the place in
which you live and I will tell you who you are.’  Up north this
protracted winter season overlays and outlines a terrain as gorgeous as
it is terrifying, empty, cut-off, unforgiving.  I’ve come to love such
extremes, and how these conditions conspire to define behavior.  As the
teenage narrator in ‘That Story’ says, ‘I’m eye-level with the
snowdrifts that the wind has sculpted, the temperature single-digit at
best, and it’s beyond me why I say what I say, but I do, inviting
trouble of a magnitude that we don’t need and yet sometimes covet.’ 
Eliminate this frozen landscape and the story ceases to exist.  It’s the
nature, I suppose, of a writer’s sensibility with a particular place,
where the characters’ inwardness is informed by all that surrounds them
in the actual physical world in which they operate.  Nothing comes more
naturally—and less self-consciously—to me than setting my stories here,
where I’ve now lived for thirty-seven years.  Not to mention the
wildness of such a terrain, which I’ve always, from the time I was a
little kid, craved, the woods and the waterways.  And why writers such
as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau have been so important to me.”

This feature will continue in a second part, with a selection from “That Story” by Jack Driscoll.



Apr 2024