On Knowing What You Write

Cote Smith

On Knowing What You Write

When you write a novel, people want to know if the events are true. Did this really happen? No, I say. That’s what makes it a novel. But some of the things in Hurt People did happen to me. That too is what makes it a novel.

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Hurt People is set in Leavenworth, Kansas, where I was born, a city you only hear about as the punch line of a joke, or as a threat. In some procedural TV show, a surly detective lowers his sunglasses, peers into the soul of a lowlife, and says, “Tell me what I want to know or I’ll send your ass to Leavenworth.”

People I know watch these shows. They want to know, What was it like growing up in a prison town? Were you afraid, like, all the time? No, I say, it was just my home.

Maybe I should have been afraid. As an exercise in what I thought would be nostalgia, I took my friend Mick to Leavenworth County to show him a few of the places that served as the settings for Hurt People. I thought it would be fun. On the way through town I would point to the hill my brother and I used to sled down during the winter, the bus stop where my wife was stung by a wasp as a child. I would pull up fond memories and let them wash over me, revisit the bad from a safe enough distance (thank you, time) that I wouldn’t feel any sadness, only an appreciation for how far I’d come.

This did not happen.

Mick, for his part, was a great sport. He took the pictures featured here. He smiled politely when I pointed out how my wife went to fifth and sixth grade in a school that was maybe one hundred yards away from Lansing Correctional Facility. And when I asked him, almost with a perverse glee, to photograph the houses that were directly across the street from LCF, as well as the homes that sat across from Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, he pointed the camera and clicked. Isn’t this crazy? I said. Mick nodded, but did not say a word.

Blue Tarp
Lansing Correctional Facility sits across from a Lansing home. Growing up, I thought this was unremarkable.
 
There is a new saying, one I am maybe inventing right now, that says, We talk about the past so we don’t have to talk about the present. Maybe that’s what I was doing, why, as we drove around some more, I insisted on pointing out which businesses were new, which changed, and which no longer existed. All this to avoid discussing the feeling creeping in.

In the novel, while the city of Leavenworth is distracted by the escape of a recent convict, two kid brothers meet a stranger at their apartment’s pool. When I was a kid, my brother, sister, and I briefly lived in a similar apartment with our mother. Mick and I visited this apartment complex, which is tucked away into the corner of Leavenworth, where no traffic can distract you from your thoughts. At this point, my naive hope for nostalgia had begun to wane. The loom of the prisons and the overcast sky had taken its toll. Still, I did not expect to feel as down as I did, for reasons I could not immediately explain. While I tried to sort out what I felt, I directed Mick. I showed him our apartment door on the third floor, outside of which there is a sign now, surrounded by Christian iconography, that tells visitors to stay away. I took Mick to the bottom floor, where as a child I ducked and covered while a tornado siren blared. Take a picture, I said, but what I meant was, Put what I’m feeling somewhere else.

We went to the pool. The fence was taller than I remembered, and more beat up. The pool itself was covered, dead branches sagging the middle of the tarp. Here, Mick needed no direction. He snapped photos of the pool signs that were there when I was a kid and had grown creepier over time. In fact, everything here took an ominous tone. In the novel, the young narrator describes the feeling of dread he used to get when his dad took him to the lake. How he felt so small and helpless, bobbing in the water. I wasn’t in the water; I was standing above it, but I felt the same. Why?

Pool Fence
A view from inside the pool fence. We lived in the apartment building in the background, behind the trees. In the foreground hang two eerie signs that could serve as alternate book covers for Hurt People.
 
Strangers have no problem asking if the events of your novel are true. Friends and family do. At least, that has been my experience. Instead, they ask those close to me. They ask my older brother, Brett. It makes sense. Hurt People is a story of brothers who hurt each other and are hurt by others. So it falls to Brett to serve as literary critic and family historian. Yes, we lived in an apartment like that. Yes, we went to the pool alone. No, we never met a stranger there. No, that never happened to me.

As I stood there, though, I wasn’t so sure. I knew which events were real and which I invented, but I felt them all. I felt the struggle of my single mother working at the golf course, earning a meager wage, trying her best to raise my brother, sister, and me in this run-down place. I saw the home-run derbies my brother and I had in the field next to the pool, hitting the ball into the woods and dreading fetching it. But I also felt the boys from my book. I saw the older brother meeting the stranger, Chris, growing closer and closer to him as the younger brother stood helplessly by. I saw the elder teaching the younger pool moves. I saw my brother teaching me. I remembered wanting to do whatever my brother did. I remembered writing how the elder pushed the younger brother away as he moved with Chris deeper into an adult world which the younger could not inhabit. It was overwhelming, feeling what was real and what I had created.

Blue Tarp
The apartment pool sleeps beneath a blue tarp. The woods loom nearby.
 
Afterward, we drove downtown, and a little bit of happiness returned. I showed Mick Gator’s Videos, an independent video store that somehow still exists, where I won a video game tournament in sixth grade. We went by the Landing 4, a tiny movie theater where I saw Uncle Buck and Beetlejuice with my mother and brother. As we ate at Homer’s, a tiny diner on Main Street, I told myself that what I felt at the apartment was ridiculous, and in a way, disrespectful. You did not suffer the way those brothers suffered. Claiming that you did is an insult to those who have. Your life wasn’t that bad.

And yet I did feel something.

Here’s a secret: My trip with Mick wasn’t my first time back. A few times before when I was visiting family, I drove by these same landmarks. But I never felt the way I did during this visit, after I wrote the novel. I never experienced that level of worry and sorrow. Hopefully it’s the closest I’ll ever come to the hurt I put on the characters of my book. Because although the cliché is to write what you know, what they don’t tell you is to be prepared to know what you write, to meet the characters you made suffer from the comfort of your desk. Look them in the eye. You don’t have to tell them you’re sorry. They wouldn’t forgive you anyway. But you do have to feel what you’ve done to them. In addition to the pain of your own history, you must carry a part of their hurt, too. This, I learned, is what makes a novel.

Hurt People

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IndieBound
Google
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Cote Smith grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas, and various army bases around the country. He earned his MFA from the University of Kansas. His work has been featured in One Story and FiveChapters. Hurt People is his debut novel. Smith lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

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  • Ken Church

    This is a very truthful essay, which means it begs to be read. I love your book, Cote, even though am only a third of the way through it. You have been competing with Mark Twain for my attention. Keep writing.