Better You Go Home: A Tense Novel by Scott Driscoll

In January I met Scott Driscoll, a Seattle author and creative writing teacher.  I welcomed the opportunity to talk with him because of our common interest in the Soviet bloc countries.  Scott has written a novel set mainly in the Czech Republic, titled Better You Go Home.  I read the novel eagerly last month.  It is powerful.scott driscoll's book

Better You Go Home tells the story of a Seattle attorney, Chico Lenoch, visiting the Czech Republic a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.  The Czech Republic is the homeland of Chico’s father, and Chico has become aware that he has a half-sister here.  He looks for the woman partly out of desperation: Chico, a diabetic, is in kidney failure, and perhaps this sister could be the genetically matched kidney donor that he needs.  Yet as he searches for both this woman and the truth about what happened in his family, he unearths the pain that his family endured . . . and inflicted.  More and more, Chico’s quest goes beyond his own immediate medical need and becomes a drive to do the right thing for the sister who was left behind.

The book is sharply written in a close first-person narration, and the reader feels Chico’s diabetic weakness and dread as he walks this darkening path of generations-old hostilities.  The novel is driven by the tensions of family secrets (based in similar events from Scott’s own family history), political corruption and medical emergency.  This book is not light entertainment.  The chain of cause and effect is complicated, and the characters are not always easy to interpret.  But as I told Scott in an email to him after I finished the book, the complicated characters seem very real.  Even the ones that appear most reprehensible have at times done helpful deeds, and the sympathetic characters have had their moments of caving in to despair or compromise.  This conveys the stresses of people who have lived under Nazism and then communism.  In my readings on Hungary, I have encountered similar stories of moral ambiguity.  Sometimes we have to ask not only whether the characters (whether real or fictional) did right but also whether they felt they had any choice.CIMG0779

Scott’s comments about the writing of this book were illuminating.  “It was family matters that encouraged me to set out to write this story to begin with,” he said.  “What I especially wanted to know was what people thrust into a pressure cooker of politics, history, and geography (that was central Europe and the Eastern Bloc countries) did to keep their humanity alive. What I discovered was that there was no easy way to judge either side. There were consequences for my family.  But I didn’t write this for them. I wrote this for my generation, the generation whose parents suffered the worst of these events. The generation whose upbringing bore the weight of unresolved conflict among parents, many of whom were forced emigres.”

Better You Go Home is a deep and beautifully written book. Read it. But don’t read it for escape.  This is a novel you have to think about—and that’s a compliment.

Here is the Amazon link for the book

 

Writing Historical Fiction: The Challenge of Vivid Details

When I decided to undertake writing historical fiction, I thought that the hardest part would be finding all the facts I needed and getting them right.  That actually turned out to be doable, though very time-consuming.  More difficult has been finding the small details that make a setting or a scene ring true.

Garden outside a house in the Hungarian folk park of Nyiregyhaza

In some ways writing a scene is like painting.  When you paint, you work with the subtleties of light; you see something, and you show it to the viewer.  When you write a scene, you work with the subtleties of sensory detail, inviting the reader not only to see but to hear, touch and smell.  Doing this well is challenging enough, even when you’re working with a setting as utterly familiar as dinner in your own home.  In writing historical fiction, the difficulty of this amps up like crazy.  Say you’re writing a dinner scene set in Puerto Rico a hundred years ago.  What are your characters eating?  How did they cook it?  What room are they in, and how does it look?  What are they sitting on?  Etc.  Many, many details like this will not occur to you while you are reading the history books that are a large part of your research (and even if they do, you probably won’t find them there).  The need for these details will only surface as you write.  You find out to your dismay that the research you thought was finished . . . isn’t. 

The fiction I am writing takes place in Hungary between 1944 and 1951.  So I am writing about a place I have never lived in and a time period before I was born.  I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Hungary in 2006 and 2007, and this was essential:  you just can’t get a feel for a place without going there.  But during these all-too-short visits I couldn’t see the whole country, let alone absorb it all.  I took as many notes and photos as I could, but the time came when I just had to go home and try to create scenes with what information I had.  This was not easy.  I found that the more I wrote, the more I discovered I didn’t know.  So often when I opened a new scene, I wasn’t sure what to picture.  Even if I had been living in Budapest for twenty years and the city were seeping into my pores every day, I would still have difficulty knowing what to picture on each of its corners during the time period of my novel, World War II and its aftermath. 

Village church with separate steeple in the Hungarian folk park of Nyiregyhaza

But when I realized that my writing was deficient in sensory details, I became determined to make up for this in whatever ways I could.  I looked at all the photographs I could find from that era, if not from Hungary then perhaps from Poland or Germany, and I scrutinized details in them:  wagon wheels, window frames, clothing, anything.  I read and reread memoirs and novels.  These helped to fill in details not mentioned in history books—things like food availability, common expressions, weather.  I took copious notes on things that would bombard my senses if I were in Hungary during and after the war.  Even if I didn’t know exactly which buildings were burning, could I still describe a smoky sky?  How did it smell?  What would I hear?  After the war, what would it be like to wait at one of the few functioning stretches of railroad track, try to squeeze onto an impossibly crowded train car, and then climb onto the only place there was room—the roof?  What would the view be like from up there?  What would I see growing (in spite of all the destruction) in the fields between towns?  

Image of King St. Stephen on the Basilica of St. Stephen in Budapest

Even aside from the changing setting created by a war, I found that by really watching for details in Hungarian novels and memoirs and (less easily available) appropriately set movies, I could create scenes of European rooms, markets, farms, shops.  It has taken an enormous amount of attention, however.  I have to remind myself constantly to create a vivid setting—because the milieu of a place I don’t live in will not arise in my work unless I intentionally call it forth. 

But that sense of exploring a different world is part of what makes historical fiction so satisfying—to readers, yes, but especially to the writer.

 P.S.—–BTW to readers:  if any of you can give me information on WWII damage to specific buildings and areas in Budapest, I would love to hear from you.  Thanks!