My Novel Trilogy Isn’t a Memoir, Except …

This is tangentially related to my earlier piece, The Cottage We Loved and Lost, and was first published earlier this year in Mystery Readers Journal,

My first three novels are set in a small Michigan town called Starvation Lake. There is no such place.

But there is.

My parents bought a cottage in northern lower Michigan in 1971. The four-bedroom house sat on a green bluff overlooking Big Twin Lake. My two brothers and three sisters spent a lot of time on Big Twin as we grew up and started our own families. As much as I loved summers on the lake, I took a liking to visiting in winter, alone. I would build a fire in the morning and read and write into the late afternoon, when I’d walk the lake’s three-mile diameter. Once the crows retired for the day, all I could hear was the crunch of my boots on the snow.

Other times I’d take drives to nearby Kalkaska and Mancelona, skimming past the skeletal trees and the mobile homes with smoke curling from makeshift chimneys. I might stop for a beer at one of the towns’ taverns and watch the regulars sitting at the bar, often alone, nursing Miller Lites and watching soap operas on muted TVs. I didn’t know that I was preparing to write the stories that would make up the Starvation Lake trilogy.

My first novel had its start during a phone call with my agent in 2001. She had read 25,000 crappy words of a story that looked nothing like what I would later write. Knowing that I play ice hockey, she said, “Why don’t you write me a book about these middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night?” I immediately had an idea she liked. We turned to possible settings. I suggested the gritty steel town of Trenton just south of Detroit, where I had played some hockey as a kid, or a small burg in northern Michigan.

That choice was easy. I knew the fictional town of Starvation Lake better than the actual Trenton (although Trenton and its downriver neighbor, Melvindale, played roles in all the novels). I stole the name of protagonist Gus Carpenter’s hometown from a lake three miles north of Big Twin. There’s no town on the real Starvation Lake, unless you count the general store and the Hide-A-Way Bar and Grill. I have always loved the name for its evocation of death and darkness, the opposite of names like Crystal and Paradise so often attached to pretty bodies of water.

My made-up town was constructed of images, sounds, smells, and tastes I’d collected on my years of going “up north,” as we say in Michigan. For Main Street in Starvation Lake, I adopted M-88 as it runs through downtown Bellaire, about 20 miles north of Big Twin. If you stand on that street with the defunct movie theater on your left and Short’s Brewing Company on your right, you are seeing downtown Starvation Lake as Gus Carpenter does. On the left is his newspaper, the Pine County Pilot, in place of the long-gone Antrim County News, where I worked as a summer intern in 1978. Across the street is Enright’s Tavern, named after one of my high school hockey coaches.

Minor characters Elvis Bontrager and Floyd Kepsel are named for home builders who worked up north. The Pilot newsroom is an amalgam of the Antrim County News and the home of my first full-time newspaper job, the Argus, in the then-small town of Brighton outside Detroit. Details that I hope bring Starvation Lake to life — the click of melting ice in rain gutters, the jangling bells on the door at Audrey’s Diner, the tree where Gus’s cousin Gracie is found hanging — all bubbled up from my well of observed memories. The central mystery in the first book sprang from a dream I’d had of a snowmobile washing up on the frozen shore of Big Twin.

Write what you know, the saying goes. Some readers asked if the books were autobiographical, and I told them in all honesty, no. I’d never had a coach remotely like Jack Blackburn, never had a cousin found dead in a tree filled with shoes, never was related to a murdered nun. Unlike me, Gus Carpenter is short, balding, single, childless, a goaltender, and a disgraced journalist (as of this writing, I am not yet disgraced, as far as I know). I joked about how big my sales would be if the books actually were memoirs. James Frey would have nothing on me.

I was finishing book three, The Skeleton Box, in the summer of 2011 when the truth of the matter dawned on me. I had not plotted the books out much beforehand, hadn’t imagined at the start that I’d write more than one story set in Gus’s hometown. But here I was finishing what I now realized was the final arc in a trilogy that at its core is about the relationship between Gus and his mother, Bea.

My own mother, who started encouraging me to write when I was in second grade, died before my first novel was published. Once, at one of my readings, a friend asked what I thought my Mom would have thought of my books. I stammered in reply. The best I could come up with is that she would have deplored the bad language the characters use.

Perhaps I didn’t want to admit how autobiographical the books are, how Gus and Bea’s fraught but loving relationship mirrored the one between my mother and myself, how we kept things from each other, how we deflected the truth of certain family matters so that we could just keep going, how we both loved Big Twin Lake. Today I would tell my friend that my mom would certainly have been proud of me, while recognizing some of herself in Bea, and wondering how the two of us had fallen short in our efforts to communicate through the noise of our family.

Writing these words, I’m reminded of Mom on her hands and knees in her garden up north, whistling as she weeded, as happy as she could be. It makes me think Bea Carpenter may have been the realest single thing in the fictional world I created with my head and my fingers but that came, inevitably, from my heart.

My publisher offered me a contract for two more Starvation Lake books. I sketched an idea for a story that would have taken place a decade after the last novel ended, with Gus married to the elusive Darlene Esper and the town prosperous with natural gas fracking. My heart wasn’t in it, though; Gus’s story felt complete. I declined the offer and embarked on something new.

After my father died in 2011, the cottage on Big Twin Lake became the property of my siblings and me. We held onto it until the realities of taxes, upkeep, and distance compelled us to sell at the end of 2015. One of my brothers lives in another house on the lake, so I still visit, although not in winter, when the place truly came alive in my imagination. Starvation Lake lives there still, glistening white with mystery and danger.