'Now You See It' Takes a Look at Small-Town Life
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Cokesville is a coal and steel town in Central Pennsylvania, but it doesn't appear on any maps. It's a fictional town and the setting for a debut collection of short stories by Bathsheba Monk. Monk has chosen a setting she knows well. She was born in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, a mining town at the northern end of the Appalachian coal scene. Her father then moved the family to Bethlehem and he went to work in the steel mill. In Now You See It: Stories From Cokesville, Pennsylvania, Monk writes about Polish-American families who live in a home where an inch of soot on the windowsill means a regular paycheck, two inches means a fat one and the best place for teenagers to make out is next to the burning slag heap. Bathsheba Monk joins us from the studios of WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Welcome to the program, Bathsheba.
Ms. BATHSHEBA MONK (Author): Thanks Liane.
HANSEN: One character who weaves in and out in many of the 17 stories in this book is Annie Kusiak. She dreams of being a writer and escaping the town. How closely is she based on your experience?
Ms. MONK: Well, I always wanted to be a writer and I guess I was always a storyteller so - or my mother would say, a great big liar, maybe, so I guess she's pretty close to me.
HANSEN: But you didn't go off and write romance novels as Annie does in the book.
Ms. MONK: No, I did have several other attempts at fiction, but they were sort of failures.
HANSEN: When you growing up, was - well, Bethlehem or the fictional Cokesville, was this a place that the kids of your generation - I mean, it was - did everybody want to get out, need to get out?
Ms. MONK: No, I would say most of the people that I grew up with and went to school with accepted the fact that they would continue on in the steel mill. It was - it's a great job. It was a very good job for my father and for men of his generation, anyway. They couldn't know, of course, that it would be ending shortly. That was late '70s, early '80s.
HANSEN: How did you get out? How did you finally escape?
Ms. MONK: Well, I joined the Army. That's the way I guess a lot of poor kids get out.
HANSEN: And tell us about your Uncle Mike.
Ms. MONK: Well, I'm not going to say that every family has this sort of element in their family, but my Uncle Mike was a member of a local mob and I think he saw in me a sort of kindred spirit. He had lunch with me and he gave me an envelope with quite a bit of cash in it and he said, just run and don't look back. And I did, and I never got to pay him back, so this book is sort of my payment.
HANSEN: Yeah, you dedicate it to him. You say for Uncle Mike, paid in full. So when did you know - how did you know it was time not only to start writing, but that you had to write about the town and the people that you left behind?
Ms. MONK: I had a couple other attempts at writing, like I said. I was trying to do the blockbuster Danielle Steele thing, which I didn't know anything about, a glamorous life, and I was trying to write about it. And it wasn't until actually that I started with a character, with a small image. What came out was just the background came out of coal mines and steel mills. It wasn't anything that I intended to write about per se. It just sort of happened.
HANSEN: What was the character, what was that image?
Ms. MONK: Well, the first story was actually Mrs. Herbinko's Birthday Party. The story is that she was married to a man who had a wandering eye. He had an eye for women and he died in a mine disaster and she had a series of strokes that left her paralyzed and unable to be with any other man actually until she did die. So her whole she's praying that she would be reunited with her Ignatz Serbinko(ph), that's her husband in heaven. And this is sort of a joke on Slavik names, that she was praying for actually the Ignatz Serbinko and when she gets to heaven, she finds out that she was praying for the wrong man because her real husband was registered under a different name entirely up there. But then she finds that this other man loves her, that he looks at her in an entirely different way and he took care of her all those years, 40 years, when she was sick better than her own husband had so she finds happiness at last.
HANSEN: How much came from your imagination and how much do you actually base it on people that you know? For example, the woman who thinks that her yellow dog is a reincarnation of her husband and the lady next door keeps trying to mace it, that kind of thing.
Ms. MONK: Well, you know, I hate to admit this, but all those characters are really me. I can't blame anybody else, and that story actually had a genesis, an interesting beginning too, where I was talking with somebody, I was living with somebody in Boston and we were talking about what would happen if one of us died and we talked about the same thing that the characters in that story are talking about, what would you come back as, and the person I was with said, well, you know, you'll come back as a bear and I said, well, you'll come back as a little yellow dog. And I came back from work one day, and I was living in this apartment where it was impossible for a dog to get in and there was a little yellow dog in front of my door, and I looked and said, you know, Henry? And the dog was still there and the person was late getting home from work and so I was convinced that it was, you know, the person. And so that was a genesis of that story so it was me, really.
HANSEN: All of them, the lonely lady who bakes cakes hoping that neighbors will drop by and they never do?
Ms. MONK: I think so, or maybe it's just when I look at people, I imagine what it would be like to be them, so I think I felt everything that's in those stories.
HANSEN: We're speaking to you from the studio in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and according to the book jacket, you're living in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where you've settled. Why did you go back?
Ms. MONK: Well, I swore I would never come back to this area, as you can imagine, and I was living in Boston about four years ago and I was at a party in New Jersey and I met a man, who I really liked, who is now my husband, and he said he was from Bethlehem and it was sort of like of all the gin joints in the world, you had to be from there, but that's why I came back, for love.
HANSEN: Do you plan to stay?
Ms. MONK: Well, I plan to stay married to this person. Wherever he lives, I'll live, so why don't I leave it at that.
HANSEN: Yeah, how has the place changed from when you were there as a young girl and needed to get out?
Ms. MONK: Well, the air's a lot cleaner, I'll say that. All of these towns, I guess they're like - Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, they're like towns all over America now who are trying - they're trying to decide what they want to be now that they're no longer industrial centers. I'd say this area, the Lehigh Valley, has a better chance of becoming something just because it's so close to New York and Philadelphia, and one of the things it's trying to become is a bedroom community for New York and Philadelphia, and the other thing it's becoming is a gambling casinos - that's on the block next. That's what we're going to become, a gambling center.
HANSEN: Are there remnants of your old life there that keep haunting you?
Ms. MONK: Well, it's interesting. When I first came back to Bethlehem after being away for quite a while, on the south side of town there is this - it's an old building and when I saw it for the second time, it was stuccoed over and there was a giant yellow banana, neon banana on it, and it's called the Banana Factory. And when I was a kid it was a (unintelligible) banana house where they would (unintelligible) green bananas, it was brick, and my dad, in fact, had part-time jobs there when I was growing up and I would watch him load bananas onto trucks and stuff.
And so things are here, but they're kind of - they're already under a layer. It feels like an archeological dig in a way, you know. There's layers of stuff already covering up what it used to be.
HANSEN: Bathsheba Monk's book is called, Now You See It: Stories From Cokesville, Pennsylvania, and it's published by Farrar Straus and Giroux. She joined us from the studios of WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Bathsheba, thanks a lot.
Ms. MONK: Thank you, Liane.