It may be that passport photos are the true record of my existence. I’ve moved around a lot in my life, and I realized recently that later this year, I will have lived away from Seattle for longer than I lived there. How can I say, as I am wont to do, that I’m “mostly from Seattle?”
I’ve been blogging about place, and setting as character recently, about how where you are or where you come from expresses itself through the individual—either broadening horizons or constricting opportunities; about how it informs and effects a person’s outlook, influences or dictates perspectives. It’s been much on my mind. My latest thriller is Bastard Verdict, set in present-day Scotland against a backdrop of a potential second referendum on independence. (It debuts on May 18, 2023.)
Structural linguists will say that language “writes you;” that is, it’s a pre-existing construct which influences you more than you can change it.
Is place like language, then? And where am I from? Does one spot on the map have the greater claim on forging who I am? I’ve fetched up on the banks of the Delaware, with no marked accent, an inability to spell properly (“colour” looks wrong, but then so does “color”) and a manifest infatuation with proper football.
But can I write about Scotland? In Bastard Verdict, which takes place primarily in Glasgow and Dundee, I’ve brought to the page a compelling story that weaves high stakes and low politics, and realized a vivid ensemble cast. My alter-ego and recurring protagonist, FBI Agent and elections specialist Imogen Trager, is a visiting scholar at University of Glasgow. As the story opens, she’s looking for a little peace and to do some research, while she sorts out what to do next and where she might go.
I lived in Scotland as a boy–twice. In the UK taken together, I’ve spent a little over four years, plus countless visits. I’ve lived a great many other places too. I approached the story with a little more humility than I might otherwise have done. I worked with the editor Alan McMunnigall of Thi Wurd, to help with my tortured prose as much as to make sure descriptions and characterizations rang true.
I lived in Seattle for 21 years, until recently, the longest I’d ever been in one place. But I was born in Chapel Hill, NC (my parents were in graduate school at UNC). When I was two, we moved to Madison, WI, and my father’s first faculty position. He was hired “ABD” and the family moved to Montevideo, Uruguay, for six months to finish his dissertation work.
Three years later we decamped from Madison for Edinburgh, Scotland, and then Colchester in Essex. A year after returning to Madison, we moved to Iowa City. Four years after that I returned with my family to the UK, this time to Edinburgh (Morningside) for the full school year.
We moved to Seattle when I was 15, staying there for 21 years (though I had one blissful semester abroad in the southwest of France in the small town of Villeneuve-sur-Lot the first semester of my senior year).
I graduated high school in Seattle, got my Bachelors and an MFA there. Got married—twice!—and all three children were born there. And then we moved, just 8 weeks after our son, the youngest, was born.
My wife will say that despite my time in the Pacific Northwest, I’m a Midwesterner, that it offends me to the marrow when people don’t properly shovel their sidewalks after a snowfall. But I haven’t lived there since 1979 (though through the magic of Facebook, I still keep up with friends from those days; and funnily, Alan and I bonded a bit over IC, as he had spent a semester there at the University of Iowa.).
We left Seattle in the summer of 2000, and since then we’ve lived in State College, PA; Highland Park, NJ; and now Philadelphia. In that time, we also spent two separate school years in Oxford (2011-12, and ’15-’16). My younger daughter’s high school Spanish teacher was convinced that our family was in the witness protection program.
So how do I answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ Because the question also seems to ask: what part of that place have you carried here? Our eldest child still lives in Seattle, but the other two don’t remember it all. So, saying they were born there means as little as my claim to Chapel Hill. And the subtext curl to the question reminds me of publisher’s need for “lived experience as [fill in the blank].”
One constant, I suppose, is academia, which is Imogen’s perch in the novel. My father was a political scientist, now retired, and it was for his work during the first 18 years of my life that we moved so often. I have an MFA, and I taught English at community college for three and a half years. I married an academic, also a political scientist (I’m sure Freud would have much to say about that!) But my three-year stint teaching English comp notwithstanding, I’ve always been at the periphery of university life.
In Edinburgh, we lived on Cluny Avenue, and my brother and I attended South Morningside Primary School on Comiston Road (the same school I had attended 5 years earlier). My brother and I both picked up Scottish accents, and we refer to the summer we returned to the US as “the summer of ‘what’?” No one, it seemed, could understand us. It was strange to be “back home” in Iowa, among our old friends, but still neither fish nor fowl–our Scottish friends had heard only our American accents, and our Iowa friends couldn’t penetrate our Scottish accent. But on the great plains, our cadence gradually (re)flattened and words like “skint” and phrases like “didja aye?” faded. But not my memories of how the place felt, the smells, the weather, the people.
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James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector, Dark Network , and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.
His next book, Bastard Verdict (out 18-May-2023), is a noir political thriller set in Scotland. His current, work-in-progress is a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, called Witness Tree. Bastard Verdict is available to reviewers through NetGalley
A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.
For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out his Events/About page. And follow this blog!
His most recent short fiction is below. The first is available for online reading.
“Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon. (free online)
Set in Philadelphia’s 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.
“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist, bad decisions. The narrator and his partner-in-crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.
“Nostalgia” in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.