DEBORAH CROMBIE: We've been talking a lot this week about how we as readers and as writers connect with place. M.P. Cooley (Martha to us!) is a New Yorker who lives in California's Silicon Valley, but chose to set her debut novel, ICE SHEAR, in the fictional town of Hopewell Falls in upstate New York. This is our Julia Spencer Fleming's territory, but Hopewell Falls is not Miller's Kill. Here Martha tells us how--and why--she came to create Hopewell Falls.
But first, here's a little bit about ICE SHEAR: As a cop on the night shift in Hopewell Falls, New York, June Lyons drives drunks home and picks up the donuts. A former FBI agent, she left the Bureau when her husband died, and now she and her young daughter are back in upstate New York, living with her father, the town’s retired chief of police. When June discovers a young woman’s body impaled on an ice shear in the frozen Mohawk River, news of the murder spreads fast; the dead girl was the daughter of a powerful local Congreswoman, and her troubled youth kept the gossips busy. Though June was born and raised in Hopewell Falls, the local police see her as an interloper—resentment that explodes in anger when the FBI arrive and deputize her to work on the murder investigation. But June may not find allies among the Feds. The agent heading the case is someone from her past—someone she isn’t sure she can trust.
As June digs deeper, her already tumultuous murder case turns red-hot when it leads to a notorious biker gang and a meth lab hidden in plain sight—and an unmistakable sign that the river murder won’t be the last.
MARTHA COOLEY: I was talking with a college friend a few weeks ago, reminiscing about our time in New York City. Our memories are colored by the fact that we were young and a little stupid
when we lived there: paying a $1 student entrance fee for The Met and then sitting on the floor of The Temple of Dendur, pulling out our textbooks and studying biology; the Jewish bakery that wanted us to work there because “we could sell a lot of cookies”; taking the Staten Island Ferry back and forth all night, standing on the deck and singing at the top of our lungs; working at Penn Plaza 34th floor, watching rain clouds come in from the west while the building swayed in the storm.
“I miss it. Let’s go back,” I said.
“Only with a time machine,” she said. “Our New York City isn’t there anymore. I think that New York existed only for us.”
Ice Shear is set in the fictional town of Hopewell Falls, NY, but between the waterfall, the textile mill, the street names, and the mastodon, the town is easily identifiable as Cohoes, NY. I chose to change the name for a few reasons. The first
reason has to do with the reader’s experience. If I have June Lyons drive south on a street that locals know only goes north, it will throw readers out of the story. Second, I didn’t want the real city to get a bad reputation. I’m killing people there! A dangerous fate may lay down every dark alley in Hopewell Falls, but in Cohoes you will probably find a Laundromat.
But the biggest reason I changed the name is that my Cohoes might not be the Cohoes other readers have visited. Some of the best writing wisdom is “write what you know”, and when I decided to write Ice Shear, I followed that advice. My internal geography works best when I’m trying to figure out how far or close I am to the Hudson River, and I miss the people of upstate New York, who don’t take themselves as seriously as people in Silicon Valley. In the book, I note the local landmarks, including the Purple Pub, a popular pizza place, and the local amusement park (RIP Hoffman’s Playland), and I am pleased that people from the area can identify it as home. But do know that as real as I try to make it, the city, at least my version, exists only in my imagination.
And then there is June Lyons’s Hopewell Falls. My main character is recovering from several devastating events: her husband has died, she was forced to give up her career, and she is dependent on her father to care for the one bright spot in her life, her daughter. To June, Hopewell Falls represents failure and loss, and at the beginning of the book all she can see is rot and decay in a frozen landscape. As she makes peace with her past and begins to develop some hope, that changes: She begins to see some beauty in the landscape and experience joy with the other people. She begins to fight for the town, trying to save the good as evil starts to encroach. June’s Cohoes isn’t the Cohoes of a lot of people who live there, but it isn’t mine either.
I think place stamps itself on a person. But each stamp is a little different. Hopewell Falls is how upstate New York imprinted on me.
DEBS: I was captivated by June (bet you can't guess what June is short for!), her town, and the complicated lives of its inhabitants. And I love Martha's theory. I know my London, for instance, is colored by my own experiences and perceptions, and is different from anyone else's London.
Readers, do you think place is unique to each of us?