Vision-Fragments and Personal Lost Worlds: The Deep Sources of “Diamondback Mountain”
Over a span of months more than a decade ago, a fragmentary vision haunted me. I’d been researching 17th century New England, and the vision’s genesis was probably in the primary documents I’d been reading—travelers’ accounts and captivity narratives—together with the fact that my daily rounds in southern Vermont often provide fleeting views of the Connecticut River. The vision was of a long canoe slicing upstream across the glassy surface of a broad, slow-moving river, under the power of multiple indigenous paddlers. Lying in the hull, bound and terrified, was a young English captive.
The vision-fragment never appeared in my fiction, at least not in its original form. But it did spark a number of unsuccessful attempts to dramatize it, and I have no doubt that in the end, it added fuel to the creative smolder that drove me to write my first published novel, Will Poole’s Island.
Similar vision-fragments have come to me over the years, almost always having to do with characters moving through spaces that I myself have moved through in the real world. My fiction is often motivated by them. In a sense, they’re like Edmund’s Turkish Delight in the Narnia books, luring me ever deeper into a story-world. Ultimately, I think they’re a key part of bringing about the nearly obsessive commitment I need to get through the grueling marathon of writing and revision it takes for me to create a viable fiction.
The late John Fowles used to talk about the psychological concept of the “domaine perdu,” an inchoate longing to return to a lost world of sensory completeness. The desire to bring that world back to life, he believed, is why writers are driven to generate passages of concentrated prose or poetry describing it. It’s an intriguing concept for those who study the craft, providing a hint as to why vivid descriptive writing is such a key element in what we might call “fictional transportation.”
“Diamondback Mountain” is unique among the stories in A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing in that it contains a remnant—the boiled-down essence, really—of a failed novel. The novel was set in the late 1930s, when my grandparents, like the main characters of “Diamondback Mountain,” were in their early twenties. The archival research for the novel included, among other things, half a dozen books on the early American ski culture, hours of digging through black-and-white photos in Dartmouth College’s Rauner Library, and a cover-to-cover read of every issue published between 1928 and 1942 of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s beautifully written and illustrated magazine about mountain adventure and exploration, Appalachia. The experiential research involved extended forays into real-world places analogous to the story’s physical setting: the winter backcountry of the high Rocky Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I was and am immensely drawn to this environment; it’s a place that teems, for me, with vision-fragments.
The novel failed for reasons beyond the scope if this essay, but the salient thing is that the process of writing it did put me in touch with a personalized lost world. Just the thought of Peggett’s Alpine Lodge and the surrounding terrain still stirs within me a deep sense of yearning, and although the events of the story take place three decades before I was born, that entirely fictional setting is as vivid in my mind as an actual remembered place.
Part of my motivation for salvaging the story from the wreckage of that failed novel, I think, was the hope that I might be able to capture or “bottle” some of that feeling—and that traces of it might waft up off the page whenever someone reads it.
TIM WEED’s short fiction collection, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing, made the 2018 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Shortlist and was a finalist in the short story category for the American Fiction Awards and the International Book Awards. His first novel, Will Poole’s Island, was named to Bank Street College of Education’s list of the Best Books of the Year. Tim is the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award, and his writing has appeared in Literary Hub, The Millions, Talking Points Memo, Colorado Review, The Daily News, The Writer’s Chronicle, Fiction Writers Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at GrubStreet in Boston and in the Newport MFA in Creative Writing. He’s the co-founder of the Cuba Writers Program and works as a featured lecturer for National Geographic in Tierra del Fuego, Spain, and Portugal.