"Anything you write has to happen someplace," admits author Geoffrey Becker, "and I always thought that Colorado Springs was an interesting town."
The award-winning writer's explanation for the setting of his new novel, Hot Springs, is somewhat muted. But for readers, the experience of discovering that your hometown plays a prominent role in a book recently selected as an "Editor's Choice" by the New York Times Book Review is a little like learning that a childhood schoolmate just won American Idol. Ah, that giddy little brush with greatness.
Becker laughs when he hears that the cashiers working at 7-Eleven on Cache la Poudre Street were excited to see their place of employment immortalized in the book's pages.
"It's sort of a little thing, but it's easier to write about someplace you've lived," says Becker, who worked as a visiting professor at Colorado College during the mid-'90s. "You know, if I wrote about China it probably wouldn't be very convincing."
And the book is both entertaining and convincing as it takes its cast of slightly-damaged-albeit-sympathetic characters on a fast-paced, but deeply felt, journey from Colorado Springs to Baltimore. (It's another locale Becker knows well — he lives there now and teaches writing at Towson University.)
And though the setting isn't the novel's main star, the liberally sprinkled references to familiar landmarks make it seem just that much more authentic to local readers. There are mentions of Pikes Peak, the Gazette ("'Keep it,' she said. 'I already did the puzzle.'"), an AWOL soldier in a Tejon Street bar, a party in Manitou Springs, a hike on Air Force Academy grounds, a tryst in an Old Colorado City office, and a child given up for adoption to a Christian family on the north side.
Love it or leave it
It's this child, Emily, who serves as the pivot point for the tale's other characters, their lives swirling in a chaotic and desperate dance around her. Emily is 5 when her birth mother, Bernice, returns to Colorado Springs, re-enters the house where she lived with Emily's adoptive family during her pregnancy, and slips out with the girl in the middle of the night. The impulsive but well-meaning woman takes to the road along with her hapless and hopelessly enamored boyfriend Landis, who still seems to think that Bernice's obsession with taking Emily is a fantasy that will end soon.
On the run, the footloose Bernice finds herself suddenly juggling the roles of mother and fugitive as Emily grows sick in Truth or Consequences, N.M., and tells Bernice that she thinks she's "swallowed a demon." Their journey continues across the country to the East Coast, with adoptive mother Tessa in prayerful pursuit. Along the way, the characters struggle, not only over their love of the child, but also with their own relationships and beliefs.
"These characters are all searching for something that will give meaning to their lives," says Becker, who set the tone from the book's opening query, a line of poetry by Robert Hayden: "What did I know, what did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?"
"That line is about love," Becker says, "but it's also about love as an almost religious devotion."
Becker, 50, admits he's pleased and surprised by the critical attention that Hot Springs has been receiving. Despite his having earned numerous awards — including the 2008 Flannery O'Connor Award for Black Elvis, a collection of his short stories; the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for Bluestown, a previous novel; and the Parthenon Prize for the short story that inspired the current novel — he's been writing under the radar of most readers and critics.
"This book bounced around for a while before it got published," says Becker. "I don't really know why it was getting turned down, but it might have been that there was not really a clear-cut hero or villain ... or a vampire."
In actuality, Becker's skills as a writer grow increasingly apparent as he lures readers into understanding and empathizing with each of the book's characters despite their flaws and misdeeds.
"I don't think they're crazy," says Becker of his book's cast. "They have problems, but so does everybody. I tried to like them all. They're trying to do things, you know. They're trying to make things better."
Becker is now at work on a new novel, though he declines to divulge details about it for fear he'll "jinx it" by telling too much. And he similarly withholds hints about the setting.
"Whenever I go someplace I try to pay attention," he says. "... And I take notes."