It was 6:20 a.m. on Palm Sunday when I smelled smoke. I sat trapped in my chair by the open window, Michael nursing greedily after sleeping all night, and peered out at fog hovering in the yard. But was it fog? Or was it smoke? It sure smelled like smoke. I knew it wasn’t our house, because I know how well our smoke detectors work. So I returned to playing handsies with Michael, and the next time I looked outside, the haze had cleared, though the smell remained.
Finally the sirens started up. I relaxed; somebody got the fire department called, anyway, even if I couldn’t get it done. I braced for Julianna’s waking wail of terror, but it never came. Oddly, the sirens never came anywhere near our neighborhood.
By the time we left for church three hours later, the fire department had put out a release: an auto parts store was burning a mile and a half directly south of us. After church, as we prepared to exit the highway, we spotted the cloud of smoke glowering just over the rise. What do they do, I wondered, when they’re fighting a fire at a busy intersection? Do people drive by on the way to Sunday brunch and gawk? Or do they reroute traffic altogether?
It got me thinking how much drama plays out just off-camera in our humdrum little lives. Whenever people start discussing 9/11, they begin by talking about their own lives–where they were, what they were doing. It’s always something ordinary made unforgettable by what followed. My memories of that day, for instance, begin with a drive down the highway, and a feeling–that gorgeous-morning feeling, that feeling that anything is possible, in the best of ways. It was a school Mass day, and I remember a little second grader sitting at the end of the pew by the music area, his legs swinging, and I almost laughed out loud, it was so cute. Wholly ordinary. I had no idea that in a place I could reach in a few hours by air, people were dying and buildings crumbling.
We gravitate toward the dramatic, but as I navigate the blessedly ordinary paths of parenthood and work, I realize that the humdrum and the dramatic are separated only by a thread–a yard, a street, the passing of one second to the next. There is a home next door to that burning business, and a parent staring down from the patient tower of a hospital, her baby fighting for life as thousands of us drive by without sparing a glance. We are caught up in our own fears and broken relationships, our own worries, our own frustrations, until the moment our lives collide with the more dramatic events happening next door.
These stories, when people share them, are riveting, ordinary though they are. And for that reason, I am committed to finding a niche for the stories of ordinary people in my fiction writing. The collective wisdom of the literary world says no one wants to read those stories. We need bombs counting down and body counts climbing; we need fabulously rich and angelically gorgeous protagonists who act and in fact are larger than life.
And although those stories certainly entertain, surely I can’t be the only person in the world who also longs for fiction that uplifts and sheds light on my own life. If I can learn to write characters so real that you forget you can’t pick up the phone and have a nice long chat with them–characters you care about so much that you forget their problems are not yours, or those of a dear friend–if I can learn to do that, I am sure there will be room in the market for it. Even if there’s not a bomb or a sculpted Adonis anywhere in it.
What do you think? Would you read such a book? What is it that you want from your fiction?