On a morning in late July 2008, I returned to a picnic table between the Delaware River and the Delaware Canal, in southern Northampton County, Pennsylvania: the same picnic table where, nearly four years before, I’d sat down and drawn maps of In Hovering Flight’s fictional Burnham College and its surroundings, including Haupt Bridge Road and the convergence of Nisky and Kleine Creeks—where Addie, Tom, and Scarlet Kavanagh’s little house is located. I tried that morning to recall how I felt on a gray morning in the fall of 2004, as the world of Addie, Tom, and the young Scarlet came alive for me. But to be honest, I couldn’t remember.
By July of 2008 so much had changed, certainly since 2004, but especially since 2000-2001, when I lived in an old mill near that beautiful spot along the Delaware River. In the six years since I moved away the river had flooded its banks twice, causing serious damage to nearby homes and to Route 611, the scenic road that runs along the river in lower Northampton and upper Bucks Counties. By that summer morning in 2008 the canal had been drained, it appeared for a quite a while, and the footpath where I pictured Scarlet walking with her friend Peter Gleason, furtively smoking a clove cigarette, was really overgrown.
Trying to remember how I felt on that morning four years ago, in that park alongside the canal and the river, all those ideas swirling in my head, is kind of like trying to remember my daughter Anna, who’s now seven, when she was a baby. Well, of course I remember her; what I mean is it’s like trying to remember how that felt: holding her, smelling her, nursing her. Her first words, her first steps, repeatedly giving her my order when we played restaurant, over and over, when she was two.
I can remember observing all those things, but what I can’t quite reproduce is the particular intensity of the feeling I had at those times. Just as I can’t quite recall the particular sort of giddiness I felt when Addie, Tom, and Scarlet (and also Cora and Lou, Richard and Bobby), and their lives along those Pennsylvania creeks, then the Jersey shore and the streets of Manhattan, came to life in my mind and on the page.
I guess that’s why I didn’t know what to do with myself when I finished the first draft of In Hovering Flight. I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the time, on a sabbatical with my husband Jim and three-year-old Anna, and I felt such a strange mix of exhilaration and sadness that I just had to go out for a big breakfast and then head up into the mountains for a hike. It was on another hike in the mountains outside Santa Fe that I got the idea for the “life list” of smells that Addie compiles near the end of her life.