Why I Wrote Polar Bear the Way I Did
The Results of Polar Bear Research--Life in the Bustling Human Culture
In general, I like writers who create a social fabric with their characters. In a forward-moving society, people rub shoulders, and the ongoing relationships and spontaneous interactions tell a reader a lot about who they are. In a close setting, they confide to significant-others but no one else. A writer may direct the tale with an omniscient point of view, but he lets it unfold through the characters.
For that reason, I draw a lot of inspiration from writers like E. M. Forster, Leo Tolstoy, Bernard Malamud, and many others. Their characters sit in living rooms and talk, they attend parties and talk, they visit the race-track and talk, and they visit each other at work and do more talking. The author paints the living rooms, forests, and race-track with words. Otherwise, he keeps his artistic intervention low-key.
In writing Polar Bear, I wanted to create a social group with a lot of moving parts. I did not want mellow introverts who muse endlessly on their states of mind or wallow in a long description of their surroundings. I populated the plot with many vibrant young people who are hungry for things. They are vulnerable as hell because they have a lot on the line. The lucky ones experience the pomp and thrill of new love. Rival boys have their minds set the same girl. She has a hair-raising job of keeping their interest up, while also negotiating between them. Rivalry keeps everyone's tensions up. No one wants to miss a moment of it.
The main character John is a studious boy who compares the social scene at the lake to a polar bear mating-season. He likes a girl named Harry (short for Harriet) and she likes him, but she also like handsome, athletic Carl and the feisty risk-taker Renny. John suffers over her inattention and retaliates with awkward, passive-aggressive behavior. Often, Harry tells John things she tells no one else. John converses awkwardly, overwhelmed by his feelings. At other times, she barely tolerates his questions, as he tries to sort out the terms of their relationship, worrying he does not have one.
Again, Harry likes Carl, but the passive Carl hangs back and lets girls come to him. Renny is obtuse and unkind toward girls, even though he flirts with all of them. The boys are in Harry's face every moment, flirting with her, but she is so volatile, she cannot maintain a relationship with any of them.
In general, I do not like modern Southern fiction. It makes a decent airport read—a lot of reassuring family ties and wisteria-grade sentimentality to calm me down before a flight, if I can't have a Xanax. I don't even like classical Southern fiction—Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Thomas Wolfe, Capote, or Tennessee Williams. It cannot keep pace with vibrant social centers like Atlanta and Charlotte.
My favorite Southern work is Wise Blood, published in 1949 by Flannery O'Connor. It is ribald, surreal, extremely violent, and Southern as grits! Even today, years after reading it for the first time, I have a time trying to explain to anyone what Wise Blood is about! But it works! You finish it feeling haunted and wiser. Better than Xanax, to be sure!
The novel unfolds in backward fictional towns in Tennessee, but the film-director John Huston realized that an urban location worked better for a movie. He revealed the social potential and literary stature of Wise Blood and supported O'Connor's intentions better. So he filmed it in Macon, Georgia. In several scenes, the viewer can see the Macon Telegraph building in the distance.