Stay close to home: that was the advice—more of a plea, actually—of Tillie’s mother. She’d been widowed when Tillie was sixteen, and when she was in middle age, where Tillie is now. Where the author of Blended is now. Write about what you know, advise some. And I do, in bits and pieces, with the rest culled from various sources. I know a bit about immigration, actually, because I’m an immigrant from the UK, of almost forty years. Despite that fact, I know something about staying close to home, especially in recent years. I am middle-aged…sigh. The rest of Blended emerges from bits and pieces observed—in some cases poached—from others’ lives, reliable if imperfect witnesses. The subtext of Blended involves that which everyone observes, or ought to, anyway. That’s the stuff everyone gets to think about.
Tillie Marsden, my protagonist, is not an immigrant, but she once departed from another culture. I write that comment as an assimilated Californian, as someone who has never visited Tennessee, Tillie’s birthplace, which she left behind to attend college as a late teen. Today, I—and a lot of Californians, I think—look upon states like Tennessee as foreign countries. It is the heart of Red-state America—red-stained America according to some. It is Trump country. Before it, Bush country, and before that, it was the battleground (or close to it) of the civil rights movement and confederate heritage. In my stereotyping mind, it is linked with provincial conservatism, and therefore it is the backdrop of Tillie’s reactive interests.
And yet, she hasn’t traveled that much. She hasn’t learned that much about foreign culture, exotic or not. She hasn’t had the adventures she may have pined for as a girl; the freedom she may have craved as a young woman. At fifty-two, she has found stability in genteel, suburban, not-quite foreign life. She has a husband of seven years—a man who seems to provide normalcy, even a benignly backwards mentality, in all matters. Bill Marsden, a stalwart Oregonian, has stayed close to home—perhaps too close to home—for he struggles to understand his kids’ separatist ways. He seems split between his parents’ divergent models: father a veteran and rogue; mother a hoarding, hypochondriac nest-builder. Bill’s tacit compromise is to vacation with ardor, but otherwise stay home. Keep mother happy. Keep wives happy.
A one-time divorcee (Tillie has failed at marriage twice), he has yet to get it right with women, and Tillie’s satisfaction is ambiguous. He is vulnerable, and she is at least distracted. There’s a sense in Blended that Tillie’s one-time aspirations, her fanciful dreams, got away from her, but she’s not quite done with them. Former adventures are un-finished; plans were aborted (don’t take that literally). She’s had a stop-start life, both in love and work. In play she has been more careful, though her friends, with whom she lives vicariously, are less so: her workmate, Gina, for example; Bahram, the Pakistani man whom she befriends through her current volunteer work. That volunteer job, seized in serendipity, is the residue of a one-time dalliance with social work: a life that got away.
The cover of Blended says something of her present life, blending iconic images of middle America with ominous clouds hovering above. On the back cover, in the back yard, so to speak, are the onlooking squirrels, symbolizing mischief, possibly menace. Judge it (the cover), for I think you’ll be impressed by the evocative art of my friend and collaborator, Philip Lawson. The interior of the Marsden’s American Craftsman is closed, but not boarded up or wrapped in iron railings for protection. Complacency and comfort, situated on the eve of disruption, is implied. Naivete or ignorance may be suggested also, but for that you’d have to look beyond the cover and read. Reading might be the best antidote to naivete and ignorance, but I don’t know, really. I don’t know anything about the refugee’s immigration, for example. Haven’t lived that. Can’t just read about that. So there. I don’t only write what I know.