When author Michael C. White teaches classes in the MFA Creative Writing Program he founded at Fairfield University, he always emphasizes the importance of telling a good story and developing interesting characters.
In “Resting Places,” his seventh novel – and the one he will be talking about at the Rancho Santa Fe Library on April 20 at 10:30 a.m. – he accomplishes both.
The book revolves around the idea of descansos, a Spanish term which literally means “resting places,” and which has come to describe the handmade crosses you see on the sides of roads to mark the spot where a loved one died.
In the novel, Elizabeth is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the mysterious death of her son. Her relationship with her husband is strained, she’s lost interest in her job as a lawyer and she realizes she’s drinking too much. When she stops to check out a man on the side of the road who is talking to his dead wife at a descanso, he inspires her to embark on a cross-country journey to the site of her son’s car accident to try to find some answers.
According to White, the term “descanso” originated hundreds of years ago when people used to carry the deceased from the chapel or cathedral to the burial ground. Because it was often a long walk, they would stop to rest and put the coffin down for a little while. They would then leave stones where they rested. Over the years, the ritual evolved into the handmade crosses which now dot roads all around the country.
White first became interested in this tradition seven or eight years ago when he noticed a roadside memorial near a quiet highway in New Hampshire that he had passed several times before.
“As a novelist, I’m motivated by the questions of ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ so I finally got out of my car and walked up to it,” he remembered. “I was amazed at all the things I saw on and around the cross. There were the words, ‘Rest in peace, son’ and also ‘Rest in peace, honey.’ There was a fishing reel and lures. It drew me in because it really told the whole life story of the man who had died there.”
White started wondering about the sort of people who would put up these memorials and began researching descansos. He even took a cross country trip from Connecticut to New Mexico, following the route Elizabeth takes in the book. He took pictures of hundreds of descansos, and was deeply moved by many of the stories.
“One of the most profound was a spot that had two crosses, one large, one small,” said White. “They had the same last name and the same death date but the smaller one didn’t have a birth date. It finally dawned on me that the woman was pregnant when she died.”
Despite being part of the Hispanic culture for centuries, it’s only over the past 20 years that descansos have become a familiar part of our American landscape.
“It could be we’ve gotten to be really bad drivers,” joked White, going on to explain his real theory that death has become so sanitized that people need to find a way to grieve more intimately than through the formality of a funeral. They want to do something more personal and less institutionalized, and they sometimes claim they can feel the energy of their loved one at the place where they actually died. As one of White’s characters says, “Cemeteries are where people are dead. This is where my wife was last alive. This is where I come to talk to her.”
Although the cross is most commonly used as the symbol of a descanso, it doesn’t necessarily represent a specific religion. It’s more spiritual than that.
In fact, White – who has written two books about Catholic priests – admits he’s “a non-believer. I’m more like Elizabeth, who is very skeptical. I guess I’m drawn to characters who are dissimilar to me. I try to understand why they believe what they do.”
White has written three historical novels and three contemporary ones. He just finished a novel about a middle distance runner named Max Grossman and it’s set in 1936 during the Berlin Olympics, with Max going back and forth between Germany and the United States.
“I do like the idea of a journey,” said White. “I like to put characters on a quest.”
White will make his own journey to San Diego for the library appearance, accompanying his wife – a radiologist who will be speaking at a local conference – and visiting his brother and a former student turned friend while here.
He will then return to Connecticut where he spends four or five hours a day writing in a converted chicken coop.
A collection of White’s short stories, Marked Men, was published by the University of Missouri Press. He has also published over 50 short stories in national magazines and journals, and has won the Advocate Newspapers Fiction Award.
For more information about the event, visit www.rsflibraryguild.org or call (858) 756-2512.