Forging a relationship with a sister city in another country is just a small matter of municipal boosterism, right? Well, wrong, if you’re a character in Ian Woollen’s newest novel, set in the fictional Cave City, Indiana. During Election Day, re-approving sister city status for the Mexican city of Ciudad del Gruta has become a political hot potato.
Woollen’s challenge as a novelist is to make us care about the people in these geographically-separated places, and makes us care about the outcome.
Woollen is the author of Hoosier Life & Casualty, Stakeout on Millennium Drive, Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb, and Muir Woods or Bust.
I reached out to the Bloomington-based author for an email Q&A:
RITA KOHN: The cast of characters in Sister City evokes the transcendence of Tolstoy's War and Peace, the shenanigans of Puck within Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. For you, what compelled seeding seemingly inconsequential everyday stuff to grow into monumental?
IAN WOOLLEN: In fiction, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Still, the big-picture dimension must be, as you put it, seeded in the mundane, lived experience of the characters. Otherwise, it risks coming off as too preachy.
KOHN: And there's this thing about home. What's your glyph connecting us with Robert Frost? And, yes, I'm feeling reverberations from your recent Muir Woods or Bust.
WOOLLEN: Hometown, homeplace, homespun, hmmm. Other reviewers have noted this theme. Readers often pick up on things that an author is not fully aware of. I did consciously try to establish a highly localized sense of place. The plot uses uprootings, re-rootings, and the discovery of roots previously unknown, in a way that seems to generate a homing energy.
KOHN: Mythical is the linking thread; grab hold and the options for creative, disruptive, destructive actions are endless -- including the thread of an ongoing engrossing story. Is it plausible to imagine Sister City' as a pitch for a madcap, oh-so-relevant TV series?
WOOLLEN: Sure, absolutely, especially your point about the story as ongoing. The structure is very cinematic, from the CUT TO: device for scene changes to an explicit nod to the telenovela tradition. Each chapter has its own internal narrative arc, so the reader can feel and visualize a montage of discreet episodes. Also, in my youth, I worked for a couple of years as a script-reader and that definitely shaped my writing style.
KOHN: Metaphors come loping at us from all directions, and most pervasive is that of round vs. square-cornered places of human habitat. One of your strong suits as a writer is the off-hand comment that compels a reader to keep thinking. Here it's the shape of a living space, a horizontal zero? A clue? Power of built and natural environments from the origin of time?
WOOLLEN: I first heard about the round vs. square living space issue from a Shawnee woman. It caught me up and made me think twice about assumptions regarding "normal" living space. Likewise, the book’s cascade of metaphors hopefully, yes, compel the reader to keep thinking. Especially about our fixed assumptions on immigration and race and historical memory.