I began writing A Universe Less Traveled by collecting fragments of memory, images, and ideas, then weaving them together into a story. The book is about what happens when you take a step into the unknown.
Here are some of my inspirations for you to explore.
Every city had its goofball TV pitchmen - entrepreneurs who found that they could build a business from nothing by flooding local television with cheap, silly commercials. Whether they were selling appliances, TVs, furniture, or cars, their zany personalities brought customers in the door.
In St. Louis, the most well-known of these guys was Steve Mizerany. I met Mizerany once, but I know nothing about him other than his commercials. My character is completely fictional. I hope the Duke's ads are as much fun as Mizerany's were.
The older neighborhoods of St. Louis are built almost entirely of brick. Visitors are often amazed by their beauty and craftsmanship. To me, bricks are a metaphor for the city's rise and decline. They are an elegant legacy from a bygone era, but, as the city's population declines, more irreplaceable brick structures are demolished every year, despite preservation efforts. It's a losing battle.
In my book, I played with the question, "what if St. Louis were recognized around the world as the colossus of bricks?"
I recently (May 2022) got a tour of the National Building Arts Center (NBAC) in Sauget, Illinois, across the river from St. Louis. Emery Cox, Archives and Collections Manager at NBAC, is a fan of A Universe Less Traveled and its fantasy about the Hydraulic Brick Company. He offered to show us around and it was amazing.
NBAC is located on a 15-acre abandoned steel foundry site. It’s a wonderland of old building materials and artifacts—the story of a lost St. Louis written in brick, terra cotta, and cast iron. Most of their vast collection would be crumbling in landfills without their rescue. NBAC also has a library with materials about 19th and 20th century construction techniques, including the archives of the actual Hydraulic Brick Company.
Visit their website to learn more and see when NBAC is open to the public. Also take a look at the photos below from my visit.
This excellent article traces the 19th century history of the Hydraulic Brick Company and its influence on St. Louis and the world. In my story, I imagined a different 20th Century path for this company.
Here's the link to the article.
My favorite part:
"In early 1874, T. C. Sterling stepped down from his position as secretary-treasurer to pursue travel, though he remained a director until his death in Paris, France, in 1893. Sterling was replaced by young Henry (Hal) Ware Eliot (1843 -1919); thirty years later Eliot would become Hydraulic’s second president (1905-08), and then serve as chairman of the board. The Eliot family name was well known in St. Louis through the distinguished career of Henry’s father, William Greenleaf Eliot, a prominent Unitarian clergyman and a co-founder of Washington University in St. Louis. Much later, the Eliot name gained international recognition through the literary achievements of Henry Eliot’s son, Thomas Sterns (T. S.) Eliot; the poet still held Hydraulic stock as late as 1948."
I thought the idea of generating electricity from bricks was a complete fantasy. But it turns out, maybe not. On August 11, 2020, this article appeared, describing research at Washington University in St. Louis.
Thanks to Jean Ponzi for alerting me to this.
Just a few miles from downtown St. Louis, Cahokia Mounds is a remnant of a lost world. A thousand years ago, Cahokia was the largest city in what is now the United States and part of the Mississippian culture which stretched from Wisconsin to Georgia.
I have always been baffled about how few people know and care about this amazing piece of history.
So I came up with a fantasy to bring Cahokia back to life.
This place is always worth a visit. Besides seeing the actual mounds and walking to the top of 100 foot tall Monk's Mound (the Temple of the Ancestors in my story), there's an excellent museum and gift shop, with Native American crafts and a great book collection.
There are many books about Cahokia (and Pauketat has written several). This one is a good place to start. It's where I read the story of Preston Holder and Joyce Wike, two married archaeologists who came to Washington University in the 1950s and made pioneering discoveries at Cahokia. Holder was fired by Washington University in 1957 for his "unconventional" politics. (See the chapter, "Ghosts of Archaeologists.")
In 2005, I went to an exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum that blew my mind. It had been assembled by the Art Institute of Chicago. "Hero, Hawk and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South" brought these amazing cultures to life. The beauty and delicacy of their art was breathtaking. I was astounded to realize that this forgotten civilization had thrived for more than a thousand years in parts of the country where hardly any Native Americans live today.
The companion book for this exhibit (edited by Richard F. Townsend) was where I first learned about the mythic figures of Corn Mother and Morning Star. You can find the book on Amazon. The photos are wonderful, though the essays are pretty academic.
Jeffrey Gibson, a Native American artist and MacArthur 'genius grant' recipient, has created an amazing new work ‘Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House’ at the Socrates Sculpture Park in New York City. Gibson is a member of the Mississippi Choctaw nation. He says that this work is specifically inspired by the ancient architecture of Cahokia. Read more about it here.
St. Louis used to be known as "Mound City" because of the many Mississippian sites that were within the city boundaries. Almost all of them were torn down as the city grew in the 19th century. Only one remains today, Sugarloaf Mound, in south St. Louis. For years, there was a small house on top of the mound, like the one Claire Moore (the future Corn Mother) visited to get advice from Deirdre, the "spirit speaker." The Osage Nation purchased Sugarloaf Mound in 2009 to preserve it, and later tore down the house. Currently, the mound is fenced off, The tribe hopes to build an interpretive center there.
Many people have asked me why I chose the corner of Grand and Gravois as the place where my hero first finds his way into the parallel universe. I lived nearby for about ten years and several aspects of that corner intrigued me. It's an intersection of two major streets that always looked more dilapidated than they should be - which is the story of St. Louis.
Also, the Southside National Bank building, the tallest for miles around, seemed to be so out of place.
There was also a unique public access cable TV show in the 1980s and 1990s, World Wide Magazine by Pete Parisi. It was anarchic, funny, obnoxious - and sometimes brilliant. In one episode, Parisi did a bit on Grand and Gravois as the "crossroads of the world." That stuck with me, so I made it the crossroads of two worlds.
Pete is no longer alive, but fortunately the World Wide Magazine archive is preserved on YouTube.
A Universe Less Traveled began with a series of dreams I had in early 2015. In them, I was in various places around St. Louis that looked entirely different than they do in real life. They were so specific that I could pinpoint each one on a map. These dreams got me started thinking about the idea of another city hovering just out of reach. What if I could find a way to go there?
Here are a few of the dreams from my journal:
Hidden Asian bazaars in old skyscrapers of South St. Louis. Escalators descending to an underground post office.
I have, somewhere inside me, an alternative map of St. Louis with mixes of places real and imagined. Always crowded with people and exotic products for sale. Store windows are full. Colorful items dangle above our heads. Indoor streets wind past counters of meats and treats. Mountains and lakes are just outside the city with funiculars and elevators to the shores to Alpine restaurants high on a cliff. Inside the restaurant, a balcony overlooks a skating rink surrounded by stuffed animals and antique carnival games. Seals peek in through the windows. They do tricks to angle for morsels of food. Some diners order platters of sardines on watercress to share with the seals, whose antics entertain the children. Though the seals stink and bark loudly. In private rooms above, couples wanting a romantic evening crank the windows closed to shut out the noise.
Who populates this city? It’s like an immigrant-filled 1920’s New York. Or like the movie, "The Hudsucker Proxy." There are red-faced aldermen in suits that are too tight. There are white-haired rich ladies –aristocrats in ridiculous mansions, each one on the street in a different style, each built a hundred years ago with a simple goal –to outdo the neighbors.
Catholic churches on every corner cater to the chattering immigrants. Pocket parks with grotesque fountains and vendors of balloons and odd-colored treats.
Families live in rehabbed mansions where floors were removed to create cavernous interior spaces. Think interior balconies surround. And the mom calls the children down for breakfast.
In short, an idyllic city that should have been, with interlocking stories, sweet and odd. Where prosperity is attainable – and the cheap seats still cheap. Its actual elements – a park with half-buried monuments; a towering building-playground with odd industrial jetsam jutting out in walkways and slides. With little musical spaces nestled away where few can find them – and accordionists play polkas.
Paths of great lily pads with miniature steam launches carrying families in between. Little stalls with sherbet made from unpronounceable fruits.
Riverboats and dirigibles provide an antique, unhurried ambience. Patience is a supremely admired virtue. All underneath a huge dome, with fountains at the top for those intrepid enough to go there. A steampunk Truman Show?
Who upsets the harmony of this city? Who comes to town?
I’ll describe the town as an intricate machine or ecosystem. My fantasy city which unfolds like a flower at night, then disappears with morning. Confused fragments remain as I go through my day. Do I see people at the supermarket who look like they are misplaced in time? Their faces, their silence, their sadness. Also, the cave restaurants with strings of lights and customers out of a Fellini party?
My alternate St. Louis, so palpable at night, lies just out of reach during the day. I can spot the places on the map, like the indoor Asian market that is just west of South Grand, to the right of the art Deco skyscraper at Grand and Gravois. I could park my car and walk in there. But it is not quite there –but somewhere behind a thin veil that flutters in the breeze – offering glimpses out of the corner of my eye that dissolve under a straight-on gaze.
What is an interesting way to describe or show the hidden city? I’ll get a city map and mark each place on it. They will need names:
· The South St. Louis Asian bazaar
· The covered streets that begin at Tucker and market, walking east and north with meat markets and restaurants.
· The home, a decrepit mansion at Westminster and Boyle with the huge open interior.
· The building, just west of the I-55 ramp leading up to the Poplar Street Bridge, modern and optimistic.
· The same building from the other direction, where the parking lots south of Busch Stadium are in this world.
Four or five places where there is a possibility of crossing over. So sweet and mysterious. If I weren’t so stupid, I could do this thing which ought to be so simple. The world is almost there, just for me. Who lives in this other city? Can I follow someone in? Will they see me? Or will I be behind a veil for them? Can we exchange messages? Perhaps, that is all that is possible.
I ride a bike south out of Forest park, with my friend Karen. Actually from the southeast corner of the park. East of Kingshighway, the path dips down, then up a big hill. There is a wide band of grass on each side of the path, so you can see a long way. I push hard to ride up the hill. Karen falls behind. At the top, the path curves to the left. On the right, set back in the grass, is a large, gray stone statue on a pedestal. Looks 19th century. It shows tow people seated, looking at each other as if in conversation. One is bigger, older and more important. Does it represent a teacher and a student? The figures are very Baroque with deeply folded clothes and intense, expressive faces. Wait! One of them looks at me, I think. Did I see his eyes move? Yes. I realize that this isn’t a statue, but two tableau actors. They climb down from the pedestal. I get in a conversation with the younger one of them. We lounge in the grass. I don’t know what happened to the older actor.
The younger one has gray paint on his clothes and gray makeup on his face, all textured to look like stone. Karen comes along as we are talking. She had stopped riding and walked her bike up the steep hill. I tell her how I had been fooled by the statue. Our new friend says it’s time to get back on the pedestal. Karen and I, now at the top of a hill, look to the southeast, where the path leads.
We can see tall buildings in the distance. I point out tow that match, about ten stories each, side by side. They are our destination. Karen has not been to this district before. I now realize that I have seen them from previous dreams. They are just across a small river, not the Mississippi, connected to the rest of St. Louis by a wide bridge with an ornate balustrade. The dream ends as we set off for this district. But, from other dreams, I can say that this district is prosperous and vibrant, but with a hint of danger. The two buildings just across the bridge are the entrance to the district, which has narrow streets and buildings of four and five stories, mostly office buildings. This district is newer and more affluent than the main part of the city. There is a cobblestone promenade along the east side of the little river. Oddly, there are no people around. It may be early on a Sunday morning or that may just be the dynamic of dreaming, where I often wander alone through landscapes (as in an old Twilight Zone).
The lesson? Write down your dreams.