by Calvin Baker
Issue #75 • May 30, 2006•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
They ate the dead that first winter on the land, such was their possession by vile hunger, mean desperation, and who can say what else other than it was unnatural. Any decent history will vouch for the truth of that. And, according to lore, the majority of the graveless sacrificed were uneasy souls, who walked certain nights on top of the earth—haunting not just the ground of their defilement but all the contiguous lands—until they possessed the entire continent as surely as if they had been more fortunate in life.
Ould Lowe, one from that legion of unblessed, had prowled the wilderness since anyone could remember. Each Sunday he could be seen standing atop the hill on the southern side of the lake, ululating as any wild beast, or grief stricken man, from the first moments of Creation.
It was why the land was sold to Jasper Merian at all, because to put up a proper house there he would have to begin construction on the very spot of the ghost’s weekly sojourn. Surveying east and west; north and south—to the edges of the horizon in each earthly direction—Merian sought a better place, or some compromise that would give him access to his lands without disturbing the unburied. He could see no other way, though, so started digging where he was forced, out there on the very boundary of civilization and silent oblivion.
Calvin Baker was born in Chicago and graduated from Amherst College. He has taught at Columbia and Barnard and worked as a writer for People and Life. He is the author of Naming the New World and Once Two Heroes. His new novel, Dominion, which includes this story, has just been released by Grove Atlantic Press.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
CB: Dominion has been with me for a long time. It was inspired in many ways by my love of myth. All those ancient stories that frame origins- of people of nations, and the very basic as well as the most sophisticated interactions between individuals. It’s a wonderful, timeless interplay. America has very few of those stories, that I know of anyway. I wanted to make one.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
CB: Daring to.
HT: How does this story connect to the rest of your novel?
CB: This is the beginning, so it introduces the major motifs of the novel—time, the idea of civilization or civilizing, certain primary forces in nature as well as humans, etc. It’s like the moment in Genesis when God exiles Adam and Eve from Eden, telling them that as punishment they will have to toil for their survival, and know the pain of child labor. Adam, defiant even as he’s being chastised says, in essence, “We’re going to have babies?” The line, which bears quoting is, “And Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.”
Besides being wonderfully sly and funny it’s a moment of incredible transcendence, illuminating much of what follows.
HT: The narrative feel of this piece feels so authentic. Did you do much research to write about this time period?
CB: Thank you. This is my third novel set in the past, and certainly I tried to immerse myself in the language, the mores and the material culture of the period. However I think the creative imagination is more important here then the marshaling of facts. There are period pieces, mere historical novels, and then there are things set in the past for more complex and rewarding reasons. Anyone can do research; it’s the feel, the vision that separates pretending or playacting in the past from creating something alive and relevant. It’s where poets rise above critics and most of the historians. The Greeks, who understood the potency of art, give us our word for it from their verb to make. No matter what else we would have it be it always comes back to this. I think, despite whatever is in the zeitgeist at a given moment, there’s some deep realization that everything else is somehow false.
HT: How did you come up with the character of Ould Lowe?
CB: I tend to think there are things that must only be unfolded within the narrative itself.
HT: Why did you choose to have both Jasper and Sanne wrestle the ghost?
CB: It wasn’t really a choice as such. Once a story is enlivened certain things simply must be. I didn’t realize it would upset male readers. But one on of the first men to read actually became very angry. “It’s man’s work. It’s man’s work,” he insisted. My first thought was, that he was mad. Then I realized it wasn’t madness at all but, like one of Shakespeare’s clowns who has said something forbidden. In this case it was exactly how some people would will the world to be. Even in our stories and in our spirits. Even in our dreams.
HT: The novel Dominion, as well as this story, center around Stonehouses, which is the land and home that Jasper and Sanne are able to wrestle away from Ould Lowe. Where did you come up with the name, and why is place so important in the book?
CB: Jasper begins to call the place Stonehouses the spring after Sanne gives birth to their first child. Both of them, Jasper and Sanne, have lost their previous homes. They live in an inhospitable place, and have just survived a wretched winter, and their survival is still uncertain. It’s an oath really to seize shelter from that place, and create security. At least as much security as one can have.
The novel takes place near the beginning of the moment when the movements of persons becomes modern, and the world as such has shown itself to be unstable in new ways. Jasper is swearing a vow of permanence—in a manner Sanne fears is blasphemous. It’s a vow that their new home will be stable, and beyond that flourish.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
CB: So much that I was told turned out to be true, and so much turned up that no one ever told me. I find that everything and its opposite—albeit at different times—seem to be true, so perhaps it’s still early for that sort of summation. Or it might be because, from the moment I left school, I set out to go on a certain kind of journey—if I could—and to become a certain kind of reader, as opposed to a more usual path, that I’m wary of orthodoxy. That’s not to say I don’t have definite views, it’s just that they’re so unpopular I’d rather not spend my time and energy defending, or convincing people of, what’s obvious.
HT: What are you working on now?
CB: I’m not as prolific or efficient as it might seem. It’s just that I do a lot of the work many writers do in early drafts off the page, or in my head. When I start out I’m probably a little more certain of some things, though not all. It’s important for me anyway to renew myself as a writer from time to time, after every book really. There’s a set of questions I’ve been asking myself a long time. Some of the answers haven’t changed in a decade. Others have changed radically, and there are always new questions if one is open. Right now I’m working out certain questions that have started to disturb me. It’s renewing my faith in art on one level, but it’s also making sure I’m still taking on meaningful challenges. That I’m writing out of an essential vision and conversation, and not simply out of some dubious ambition or want. So, and this will sound suspect to many ears, which are more used to the language of professionalism in art, before I write something new I have to make myself a writer again. I’m working on making myself a writer again.