Jeanne Matthews is one of my favorite authors. Her world-view, and subsequent wit, hit close enough to home to make me identify with her characters and are just enough off-center to make me see with with new awareness. I've often wondered how she does it, where that ability to perceive the commonplace with fresh clarity comes from. I asked her to write a piece for me and she graciously has provided a peek into her process.
While excavating my garage in an attempt to bring order to the midden I call home, I found a few disintegrating pages of a story I wrote in 1969 during a road trip from my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia to Seattle, Washington. The yellowed, handwritten pages lay moldering at the bottom of a cardboard box that had obviously provided shelter and nutrition to generations of mice and moths. I tried to remember how many garages in how many towns that box had been stored over the decades – too many to recall off the top of my head. In a misty-eyed glow of nostalgia, I sat down on a crate of old Betamax tapes and other relics of the past, and started to read. The first few lines yanked me back in time and mood. “We gazed out at the deserted highway that stretched across a barren waste into infinity. Time dragged, as if our little car were being pushed back by the relentless winds. When at last we pulled into the one-pump town of Bill, Pat said, ‘God, if I lived here I’d kill myself.’”
Pat was my traveling companion and the catalyst behind our odyssey across the country. Her boyfriend David, a second lieutenant in Uncle Sam’s army, had been stationed at Fort Lewis, from whence he was soon to ship out to Vietnam and he yearned for a summer of love before heading off to war. Both Pat and I taught school and had the summer free. I owned the most road-worthy vehicle, a ’68 VW bug. Pat owned the maps and AAA guidebooks. We decided to make the drive an adventure, taking in as many sights along the way as possible. We included on our zigzag itinerary Mark Twain’s old stomping grounds in Hannibal, Missouri; Will Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska; and Hunter Thompson’s home in Aspen, Colorado. At the time, Hunter was gearing up to run for Pitkin County Sheriff on the Freak Power ticket and he was also inventing a new writing style called Gonzo – exaggerated, wildly subjective, and shamelessly self-conscious. He’s the guy, by the way, who said that the only people who know where the edge is are the ones who have gone over it. In both his personal life and his writing, Hunter sought the dangerous edge of things and wasn’t afraid to dive off. It was his belief that the journey to the grave should not be a safe ride. He wanted to “skid in broadside, shouting ‘Wow!’”
As I reread my long-ago account of that summer of ‘69, I detected an undeniable strain of Gonzo. The landscapes smacked us in the eye with their transcendent beauty, or else pierced us to the heart with their desolate bleakness. The characters we encountered riveted and revolutionized. They didn’t just introduce us to some interesting new ideas. They transformed us forever. The action whipped along at breakneck pace from the Havasupai Indian Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the folly of Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley, and the dialogue was dense with exclamations of imminent peril and “kill myself” moments.
A charitable reviewer might describe the story as “fraught.” A less charitable one, well . . . a number of less charitable assessments come to mind. But don’t let’s go there. I was young. It was my first go at a novel and no writing is ever wasted. It’s a learning experience. Time brings perspective. It also brings less breathless verbs and histrionic adjectives. The days of Gonzo recede in the rear view mirror. Still I can’t help but feel a sort of wistfulness for those girls who drove 3,000 miles across the country looking for the edge, and for the wannabe writer who was so thrilled by the adventure that she skidded into her story broadside, shouting “Wow!”
Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin Mystery series; Bones of Contention, Bet Your Bones, Bonereapers, and Her Boyfriend's Bones. Read them in that order (if you're one of those people) (otherwise, have at it. You'll enjoy the books regardless of the order). She lives in Renton, Washington with her husband and enjoys traveling and learning about other cultures and their mythology. Along with authors Joyce Yarrow, Lisa Stowe, Jane Isenberg and yours truly, Jeanne is part of Women Who Kill -- a group of intrepid authors who visit libraries, bookstores and other venues (that are brave enough) to entertain and impart writerly wisdom to the curious.