Guest blogger, Amina Cain
In an interview about my work, another writer once asked me what I thought about the novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon, and I said that while I loved the book for many reasons, I was especially taken with its atmosphere. I described the book’s opening setting—a somewhat emptied university library at the end of a spring semester—and explained my attraction when I was in my early twenties to my own emptied college campus during the summers. I wrote: “I loved the feeling of riding around on my bike with hardly anyone else around. Summer allowed me to develop a quieter relationship to my school.” I felt close to the atmosphere of that campus, as well as to the one I perceived to exist in Chabon’s novel. Can one feel “close” to atmosphere in the same way one might feel close to a person or a character? I think so.
I see atmosphere in fiction as a combination of setting and consciousness. When I am working on a story, the physical and psychic space of it often materializes before anything else. Though I am interested in the turns the story might take, or the tenor of its sentences, I seem to be more attuned to its tonal and visual qualities, and the lines they draw. I say “seem to,” for I never set out with this in mind; it is simply what I’ve watched myself do in my texts over and over again.
Here is an excerpt from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë that illustrates quite beautifully an intensely physical, yet psychic/emotional space:
When I passed the windows I now and then lifted a blind and looked out; it snowed fast, a drift was already forming against the lower panes; putting my ear close to the window, I could distinguish from the gleeful tumult within, the disconsolate moan of the wind outside. Probably, if I had lately left a good home and kind parents, this would have been the hour when I should most keenly have regretted the separation: that wind would then have saddened my heart; this obscure chaos would have disturbed my peace: as it was, I derived from both a strange excitement, and reckless and feverish, I wished the wind to howl more wildly, the gloom to deepen to darkness, and the confusion to rise to clamour. Jumping over forms, and creeping under tables, I made my way to one of the fireplaces; there, kneeling by the high wire fender, I found Burns, absorbed, silent, abstracted from all round by the companionship of a book, which she read by the dim glare of the embers.
There is the drift, there is the window, and there is the moan of the wind. There are tables, fireplaces, a book, a person. All of it is concrete, and all of it is drawn in resolute lines. There is a strange excitement, confusion, absorption, silence; and these states too, even though they are harder to represent in writing, are strongly present. This is a scene in Jane Eyre I can’t forget, a moment in a character’s life in which she is connected to something vital and monstrously alive. Perhaps it is herself.
There is something to be said when a person or a character comes close to what is both beyond and inside her. I’m not sure I have any theories about these material/ethereal settings, just a desire to look closely to see what they hold. Where are we when we encounter them?
Amina Cain is the author of the short story collection I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009), as well as an upcoming chapbook entitled Tramps Everywhere (Insert Press/PARROT SERIES). Her writing has appeared in publications such as Action Yes, Denver Quarterly, and The Encyclopedia Project (F-K); is forthcoming in [out of nothing] and Sous Rature; and has been translated into Polish on MINIMALBOOKS. She is also a curator and a teacher of writing/literature and she lives in Los Angeles. You can find her at aminacain.com or aminamemory.
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Melissa Corliss Delorenzo
Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo is a writer, reader, yogini, mom, homemaker and the Associate Editor for Her Circle Ezine. She loves to cook and take long walks with her kids and is a woman who wants to meaningfully exchange and intersect with other women writers. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is at work on several novels. Melissa lives in North Central Massachusetts with her family.