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fall color 2

Autumn in Michigan

Pentwater in autumn
Pentwater in autumn

There’s a fire roaring in my uncle’s enormous fireplace, the red wine and cheese and crackers are disappearing fast, and Pentwater’s literature lovers are dissecting 30 pages of my novel. It’s my aunt Mary and her book club friends Bev and Ellen. They’re smart, well-read women, and I’ve given them several chapters about my main female character so they can spot any flaws or holes. They talk about those 30 pages for two hours.

This is good timing. I’m working on my characters now, trying to deepen them, give them more dimensions. I’m writing long bios on all of them, even the minor characters. I’m picturing them in my mind in different settings, listening to them talk like an eavesdropper. You can’t eavesdrop on your own imagination, can you?

I just returned from a quick visit to Michigan. I come up regularly, typically in July or August to escape Austin’s heat and get my fix of Michigan’s summer charms: swimming in Lake Michigan, walking on white sand beaches under a sun that doesn’t punish, eating my weight in lake perch and sweet corn and cherries. I stay in Pentwater with my aunt Mary and uncle Bert, who have spent most of their lives here and now live in a big home they built back in the woods, a short walk from the big lake. Every time I come they take me in like a lost son.

Pentwater seems eternally unchanged, swelling and shrinking with the seasons. It swells in the summer with tourists and beachcombers and pleasure boaters from Chicago and Wisconsin, then empties out after Labor Day weekend and sleeps all winter. I’ve been coming here for as long as I can remember. My grandparents had a cottage here, on Bass Lake, and my family made the drive from Kalamazoo (where I was born) on summer weekends so my brother and my cousins and I could spend our days playing in the lake and catching frogs in the drainage ditches and running off our energy outside while the grownups sipped manhattans and talked about whatever grownups talked about.

We left Michigan for Texas when I was 12, and it took me years to shake the pang of nostalgia that would strike every September when Texas was still mired in summer heat and I knew the leaves were changing and the air was turning cold and bright back in Michigan. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve experienced Michigan in autumn, and now that I don’t have to ration my vacation days, I wanted a big dose of it.

It was pretty much a perfect fall week: crisp air, pumpkins on porches, leaves painted red and orange and yellow, doused in slanting fall sunlight that makes it feel like the golden hour all day. Bert and Mary took me on our annual pilgrimage to Scotty’s in Ludington for perch, we’ve made homemade Italian sausage and pasta, I drove down to Grand Haven to catch up with my cousin Courtney (another literary soul who’s supported me throughout the writing process) and to South Bend to catch up with my cousin Megan (who’s about to move to Chicago to take a great new job running admissions at the University of Chicago’s business school).

A few years ago I came here for two weeks while I was writing the draft of my novel and wrote each day on their sun porch, then walked on the beach in the evenings. So it was nice to come back with a finished draft and let Mary and her friends have a look. They like the character, they think she’s believable, and more importantly, they care about what happens to her. Bev said she was disappointed when she finished – she wanted to read more. Also good. They gave me some suggestions, asked good questions, and had me jotting notes to myself about changes I need to make. Then we had homemade fettuccine and Italian sausage. A good night all around.

And a good visit. It was a nice break. Now, back to work.