Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts
I’ve given birth to two children by scheduled Cesarean section, so I never had to spend a moment in actual labor. Is it true that many women forget the painful hours they spent in natural childbirth? I read somewhere that nature created some mechanism in us by which women do, indeed, forget so that we’ll be willing to have more than one child. If it’s true, I think I could compare the writing of Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts to a kind of natural childbirth. Sometimes I look at that tidy book with its dark, evocative cover and wonder just how in the heck it got here.
There were so many disparate ideas that contributed to the novel: a storyline on a soap opera about a young woman experiencing a false pregnancy; a friend from my childhood who practiced a sort of witchcraft; a character from an Alfred Hitchcock film; Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. For me, novel writing is a kind of alchemy, a process that seems almost magical. I have no idea of how the words and ideas will come together when I sit down to write.
But there is one thing I know for sure about Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts: I couldn’t have set it anywhere except the city of Cincinnati.
Years ago, I took a graduate writing workshop about writing from place. Before my experience with the class, my stories might have occurred anywhere. They were nebulous that way, my characters tied to no particular location or background. They were lost. Now, my stories are so solidly a part of their settings that I couldn’t move them if I tried.
I was born in Cincinnati and lived there until I was seven years old. So many of my memories of my time there (I do go back frequently) live as shadows in my mind and in my work. What I hope I retained for the novel was the sense of mystery and wonder I felt about my surroundings.
Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts is the creaking floors and dim recesses of my grandparents’ small Oakley house, the bare trees in the small park not far from the house. It’s the square in Hyde Park, with its gracious shops and restaurants, and the large, equally gracious homes in the area that seemed so grand and inaccessible to my childish self. It’s the neighborhood catholic schools that my mother and aunt attended. It is St. Cecilia, the beautiful stone-hewn church where my parents were married, I was baptized, and out of which my grandmother was buried. Not one of these exact locations is in the novel, but they are there just the same.
When the adult Alice (we first meet
her at thirteen when the novel opens)--distraught after a brutal argument with
her faithless husband--is lying alone in her bed, listening to the traffic pass
her house, she is living one of my favorite summer memories. I would lie on the
couch in my grandmother’s solarium and drift off to sleep as my family stayed
up late on the back porch listening to the Reds’ game on the radio. The cars
and trucks passed on the road outside the front windows, noisy because of the
grooves cut in the road to slow them on the hill. Like Alice, I was lulled into
my dreams and fantasies by the road’s constant hum. (Unlike Alice, I wasn’t
thinking of a lover, of course, but of walking out into the night, exploring
the neighborhood, or even the stars overhead.)
I do know the geography of Cincinnati passably well, but in the novel I play with the names of locations within the city to suit my purposes. (I apologize for my liberties on the Acknowledgments page.) Grounding the story in bricks and mortar would put it at odds with its own fantastic nature. I prefer it tethered lightly like a child’s balloon, so that it might drift and soar and float through the reader’s imagination.
To learn more about Laura Benedict's work, please visit her website.