I began my journey west by angling up through Northwestern New Jersey, climbing up and over the state’s highest spot. At the top, I could see the vista that awaited, rolling green hills, carpeted with mid-summer greenery. I followed the snaking Delaware River north into New York State, through Narrowsburg and Callicoon and Hancock, on a road flanked by cathedral pines, the slow-moving river at my left; and finally came upon the great wide valley of Binghamton, where the big roads meet. And here I picked up the Southern Tier Expressway, which becomes marvelously less hectic, less travelled, and more beautifully rural the further west you go.
This is the land that The Novice Master was set in, a part of the country that is very dear to me. Relentlessly rural (except for the shopping malls and pockets of sprawl), a quiet land that allows you to think, fall into contemplation. Big hills to climb and rivers to meander by. A big sky. I paused for a while in Owego (not Oswego), one of my favorite towns along the way: On the bus return to college, during those winter afternoons that turned to dusk at 5 pm, I would look out at Oswego’s tidy row of Victorian houses, encrusted with snow, drawn by the golden light glowing within each. Owego has a splendid used book shop, not far from the river bridge, one of those places that reeks (but in a good way!) of ancient paper and ink and leather binding, a play you can truly explore caverns of literature, and of course I had to buy a few more books to stuff into my overflowing bookcases back home. Then it was back onto the Southern Tier Expressway, all the way to Olean.
My alma mater seemed very different, and yet very much the same as when I was a student there. Arriving in the evening, I nevertheless set off to reacquaint myself with the campus, and had it all to myself on that summer Wednesday evening; I was the lone figure strolling about the old Florentine buildings and the path (now paved) through the woods. There are some new buildings, but there is my old dorm, almost smothered in ivy—as it was when I lived there, on the third floor. I paused by the library, where I would be doing research and writing for the next two days—the same library I worked in for four years as a student aide.
The only time I felt disoriented was when I tried to find the path to the river behind Francis Hall, which used to be the old seminary. It was indeed a seminary when I first visited this place, as a sixteen-year-old high school junior. I actually stayed in that seminary, where my uncle the Franciscan taught. He arranged to have a whole wing roped off just for me, and I had my meals—cooked by nuns!—with the priests and seminarians downstairs. Behind the building was mostly woods and wilderness, but there was a path dug into the field, along a little creek, that led down to the Allegheny River. Now there is a macadam paved path that winds around, but the creek seems to have disappeared, and I could not find the river! But I know it’s there somewhere.
So here I’ll be for the next few days, doing research and also working on my own book (edit, edit, edit!)—which I hope to do in my old favorite study spot, next to one of the little stained-glass windows in the library stacks. A few days of bliss before beginning my new corporate language school job and tackling the chore of promoting the new novel, which is my most well-traveled yet: Born in a monastery in Kentucky, honed in Las Vegas and in a Connecticut shore cottage, and now finished (I hope) in the very place where my literary dreams and ambitions were born.