In a 2013 study Ohio was found to be the state that led the nation in the use of expletives. This fact was recently presented to me at a child’s birthday party by an acquaintance who used it as justification for the content of my first novel, Blue Flame. It was posited that in its liberal use of colorful language, my newly published book is not only about Ohio, but is fundamentally of Ohio. This point was driven home to me when my attempt to downplay the novel’s language was met with the suggestion that we hand a random passage to the birthday girl to see how long she could read aloud before coming to a word she wasn’t allowed to say.
That night, after confirming the acquaintance’s claims (the study was done by the ad firm Marchex, which also found my state to be the nation’s most discourteous—Whoo-hoo!), I was left with a thought: How can a process as deliberate as writing and editing a novel reveal information about an author that is unintended and unrecognized? I don’t necessarily believe that my characters curse as frequently as they do because their author was enculturated into the norms and values of a particularly potty-mouthed region of the country. However, I can’t say that this isn’t the case. Maybe if I’d been raised in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, the racist steel worker antagonist of my novel would suffice to make his bitterness known through language that would seem tame to my heathen breed.
I suppose it’s the suggested lack of control in my acquaintance’s interpretation that I ultimately found disconcerting. Given the legion of conscious decisions that are required of the writing process, it’s strange to consider that in some ways I’m as much a passenger as I am the driver. If I’m the architect of the world within those pages, my depiction of reality must still come unconsciously from what I know to be reality. Not only do most of the major characters in this novel curse like sailors, but I notice in retrospect that all but one are smokers. Does the country still smoke, or does that only happen here…? If I seek out other novels by Ohioans, will I find similar traits in their characters?
Ultimately, I settled this issue for myself by recalling my 300 and 400 level literature classes in college, those whose curriculum required five page essays on the symbolism of Updike’s use of Ked tennis shoes in the opening scene of Rabbit, Run. In the back of my mind I always suspected that there was nothing to those critiques; that Mr. Updike was looking down at us as we searched for meaning that he never intended, laughing to himself. Still, when you looked for it, you tended to find it. Maybe that’s true of all literature. Maybe the relative success of any novel is due to a shared trait of every novel: The written word is interpretive and as such has the potential to be tailored by the reader in ways that are specifically and personally relevant. Maybe the interpretation offered by my acquaintance was true for him, but only for him. Maybe I didn’t inadvertently reveal unintended aspects of myself through the process of writing this novel. Or maybe I’m just hoping that’s the case…
A final note about my acquaintance: Before I left the birthday party, I asked this person about a scene in the novel that I consider to be the best writing in the book. It’s a memory the antagonist has while lying in a coma, a recollection of a real event that took place at the 1972 Ohio State Fair. My acquaintance, himself a native Ohioan, responded, “Oh yeah, I did like that part. It was f____ing crazy.”