Today’s guest blogger is Lee Zacharias, author of the book Across the Great Lake, a haunting novel of nautical adventure, love, ghosts, and tragedy.
I’ve never written from an outline. My first novel, Lessons, began as a short story about a sixth grader whose mother signs her up for the school band. But as the story grew so did my sixth grader. The adult Jane Hurdle becomes a classical clarinetist, and to research the novel I audited a year of music theory and attended a summer’s worth of orchestra rehearsals at the Eastern Music Festival, where each day I lunched with the musicians, immersing myself so completely in their world that when I finished I was shocked to realize I can’t play a note.
My new novel, Across the Great Lake, grew out of research for an essay about Frankfort, Michigan, which still bills itself as the home port of the Ann Arbor railroad car ferries, though the ferries stopped running long ago. As a girl I had visited Frankfort once. Coming as I did from the industrial Calumet Region at the bottom of Lake Michigan, I thought it was the most beautiful place I’d ever been.
Though at twelve I thought my life would be perfect if I could only live there, more than forty years would pass before I visited again, a short detour on my way from my mother’s house in Hammond to Traverse City, where my husband’s cousins were holding a reunion. There was the beach, just as I remembered, the house where we had stayed, the restaurant where my family had eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The only thing missing was deep, evocative call of the foghorn. I bought a copy of Ninety Years, the history of the Ann Arbor railroad car ferries, and was plunged into a world of tricky currents, fierce storms, and ice, so much ice. Soon I was reading everything I could find about the lake, the ferries, the history of the area. I finished my essay but couldn’t let the material go.
The first sentence of the novel, “We went to the ice,” came to me without a clear sense of who was speaking or when. In the first chapter I learned it was a five-year-old girl whose father was thecaptain of a railroad car ferry and that he was taking her with him because her mother was dying, but I didn’t know her name, which I found as I sat on the porch at Wildacres Retreat in North Carolina tossing names back and forth with a friend until we both said, “That’s it!”
I chose this adventurous little girl, Fern, because everything aboard would be new to her. The narrator couldn’t be one of the crew because I didn’t know what his story would be, and I panicked when I realized I had no idea how sailors talked among themselves. “Just have them tell Ole and Lena jokes,” a former student from Wisconsin suggested, and as soon as Axel began a joke I’d found online, his voice—their voices—seemed as natural as if I’d been listening to them my whole life. I settled on 1936 because it was one of the coldest winters on record. No radar. Things came together. I finished the book. But the world I’d lived in for the last three years wasn’t mine, and I felt its loss nearly as acutely as Fern feels the loss of her childhood home. To write a novel is to create a country for yourself that you will one day leave with the homesick backward glance of an exile.
Lee Zacharias is the author of four previous books, including The Only Sounds We Make and Lessons, a Book of the Month Club selection. Her work has appeared in the Best American Essays series. Born in Chicago and raised in Hammond, Indiana, she is professor emerita of English at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Read more about Lee Zacharias at www.leezacharias.com.