Barbara Dimmick is a writer in love with places.
In the Presence of Horses, Dimmick’s first novel, is set in eastern Pennsylvania where she was born and raised. If fiction is the result of a collision of disparate elements, this novel sets three abiding themes into play against one another: Dimmick’s love of horses, dating back to age two when she rode a little Palomino pony at a birthday party; the history of the Lehigh Valley, from its early Moravian heritage to its recent loss of the Bethlehem Steel; and stories of how individuals, who through no fault of their own, get run over by trauma and later must grope their way toward brighter futures.
Heart-Side Up, Dimmick’s second novel, is also set in a particular place with its own textures, rhythms, and traditions. Having lived alone for eight years in the Vermont woods, beyond the reach of electricity, and without running water, Dimmick wanted to write about the rough beauty and the paradoxical luxuries, security, and risks of such a life. While she had a generator, she used it only to run power tools for carpentry and, on occasion, to make frozen margueritas in a blender. She carried water from a free-running artesian well, cut trees, trimmed lamp wicks, and, since she was teaching at a nearby college, read student papers by lamplight in the evenings. When heavy storms came, she felt like the safest woman in the world. Being independent of the power grid means that it can snow like blazes and the woodstove still works, the well still runs, and propane refrigerator will not give out.
But fiction slips quickly away from autobiography.
In concocting HSU, Dimmick says, “I knew I wanted to write about that life, but I had to figure out who the woman was and what she was doing there.” It became evident that Zoe, attacked by a student, had fled to the woods for safety and anonymity -- anonymity being one thing no one in a very small rural place ever has. But the novel is a love story too, and Zoe chose this particular village because the first man she ever loved was living there already. But if every love story has an obstacle, what was the man doing there? And why had they separated?
“I had a terrible time with this character,” Dimmick says. “I tried everything, and it was all hokey and obvious. And then one day, I was sitting at my desk, and clear as anything I could sense this character standing just behind my left shoulder. I knew exactly what he looked like, but then he said, ‘I’m a monk.’ And I said, ‘No, you’re not. You can’t be a monk.’” Dimmick laughs. “All I knew about monks was Brother Cadfael mysteries and The Name of the Rose. And I knew that poor Zoe, for some reason was in love with one."
Within days, Dimmick began researching monasteries and, a few months later, she began staying in monastery guesthouses. “Everyone asks how your life influences your writing,” Dimmick says. “But no one asks how your fiction influences your life. I discovered something about myself that didn’t seem to surprise my friends. I have, in part, the heart of a monk. I was happy in monasteries. I understood the rounds of prayer, the fit of the hours into the day and the day into the season, and the natural seasons into the religious cycles. Now I stay in monasteries whenever I can.”
Dimmick is now at work on a third novel, and place still matters. In search of the kinds of details that drive stories, she’s traveled to Egypt, Italy, Germany, and France. “I fell in love with the Sinai,” she admits. “And I had splendid travels in Europe, but now this book has been in progress way too long.” The research has been extensive, and this new work also represents a complete change in style. In it, an archetypal woman who, in one guise or another, has been around since time began, offers her version of the history of religion and humankind. Is this another book about recovering from psychic wounds? Dimmick laughs. “Definitely not. It’s a big fat rollicking book. The main character is smart, she has a mouth, and she has scores to settle. She’s been fabulous company these past few years.”
Barbara Dimmick lives her husband in Scottsville, NY. From her desk, she looks out into a grove of walnut trees.