by Donovan Wheeler
Like a lot of winding back routes in western Indiana, Baker’s Camp Road cuts through thick copses of sycamore, oak, and poplar. Wide enough for two passing vehicles, it’s a road best traveled alone. Sit in the middle. Straddle the crown of the pavement. On those occasions when you do have to creep right—when another car is coming your way or when a pair of boys are pushing their bikes up a slope—the only sane move is slowing to a near stop. Marked by gaping cracks and loose chunks of asphalt, the road’s edges are too rugged for anything faster than that. After a few turns through a vaulted tunnel of old-growth vegetation, the sun will strike you from the passenger window. A freshly tilled field lays open baring its rows of exposed wounds awaiting the planting to come next.
photos by Caitlin Fogle
Maybe this seems like a peculiar place to find an emerging writer, one who is moments away from breaking onto the nation’s literary consciousness. It’s only odd, however, if the fit doesn’t work. If you hang onto outdated clichés of frizzled white men in beachside flats donning sailors caps—one hand gracing an Underwood, the other gripping a whiskey. For Chris White, Baker’s Camp Road proves not just an apt fit, but a bonafide one as well. When she wasn’t living among the shadows of New York’s brownstones or L.A.’s freeways, she’s always been somewhere like here.
“I was excited to get out to the country again,” White says.
It’s not a flippant comment. No more than three steps into her house, I know that here, she’s found a home. Sitting across from her in her living room, the scene casts itself as an anachronism of functionality and dignity. The intricate, threadbare throw-rug placed near a stone hearth, all framed by exposed woodworking best described as “log cabin” carries an authenticity to it perfectly suited for a writer. This is not a place where freshly installed Formica will be replaced in two years with granite because “it was time for a change.” This is a house that bends, and heaves, and sighs, and breathes with its occupants.
After a career spent crafting stage dialogue, song lyrics, and melodies, White turned to arguably the most herculean of written mediums. And for a good number of her years at DePauw, The Life List of Adrian Mandrick would anchor itself into the crevasses of her consciousness.
It sits on the level shelf positioned halfway down a ravine hillside, the first left turn past a refurbished covered bridge. The waterway which said bridge straddles, Big Walnut Creek, cuts along the west side of her property. The steep, wooded hill walls off the north side. An army of trees cover everything. As far as getting lost goes—euphemistically and otherwise—this is the place to do it.
White is gracious when I enter. Sure…that sounds perfunctory. But seriously…White is gracious. There’s no “let’s get this over with” vibe. Soon…pleasantly…naturally…we’re comparing “boonie-notes.” While mine are observations based on similarity, comparing my own childhood on a back road much like hers, White looks further than that.
“I think one of the biggest challenges for me about living out here is that you need to make your own fun…light your own fire,” she explains. “I think it’s because you’re not in [the] major pulse [of a big city] with a [constant] major energy force, that you need to be responsible for maintaining your own, strong, creative energy.”
“I haven’t had too much trouble with that because all of that is sort of mixed with this sense of freedom from some of the extreme stresses of living in an urban environment. Out here you actually don’t spend all your time in a car, or you don’t spend all your time trying to survive…which is how it feels living in New York for me…so (as a result) you actually can do all your work. [In fact], it was harder for me to live in a small town, than it was to live in the country,” she adds.
The small town in question—Greencastle, Indiana—had been her home since her arrival at DePauw University in 2002. She didn’t become a college professor the way most do. She didn’t blaze out of undergrad and hustle through her early 20’s scrapping out her Master’s degree on a paltry stipend. Hers’ was the less traditional path. Like all idiosyncratic endeavors, it was one she had never planned to take at all.
“I had written a lot of music and plays,” she explains describing those years after her graduation from the University of Colorado. Her thoughts trail off with her voice as she speaks. She turns her gaze to the ceiling, “…and I had been acting for many years…and having children…” Each afterthought comes fluidly.
“I created about 20 albums with my ex-husband, who just won a Grammy this year, after being nominated 13 times,” she says. She doesn’t mention her ex by name, nor does she directly lay out any parallels between her first-husband and her protagonist in her debut novel, The Life List of Adrian Mandrick. When she speaks of him, however, she’s more matter-of-fact than anything: They lived together in rural Virginia, put a recording studio in their home, wrote and created music together, and then it ended.
“There were 400 people in the county,” she says describing their home at the time. “It was very rural. Beautiful. Right in the Shenandoah Valley. And suddenly it was like I needed to get out of that small town if I wanted to carve out a future of some kind.”
For most of White’s life, she never knew “home” in the way that most of us do. Her father, an Air Force colonel who retired shortly after her birth, never let go of military life’s recurring constants.
“They had been moving everywhere their whole lives,” she explains. “But then he kept sort of doing it. Even though he was retired, every two years he would look for somewhere else to live.”
Consequently, she grew up in—as she lists it: “California, Alaska, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, Colorado, Washington DC, Las Vegas… All of this before I graduated from high school.”
“I’m pretty convinced that all that moving has served me as a creative person,” she continues. “As a person-person, I’m sure it has disadvantages. Because I have no roots, I sometimes feel as if I don’t really have a place. I’ve always envied those people who say things like, ‘Yep, I grew up here. I lived here all my life. This was my dad’s farm.’”
“But as an actor and writer it’s definitely helped me out. I can talk to anybody. I can be anybody. I can be anywhere.”
That adaptability proved cardinal. After her life unraveled in Virginia she went to New York, a place she’d haunted in her early 20’s. She took all three of her kids with her. The plan was that her ex would follow her north and assume his share of the parenting. Well…that was the plan, least ways. Carving out her life as an artist and single mother, White recalls the fateful conversation she held with her sister, then a professor at Ball State University.
“She said to me: ‘You know, I think you’d make a really good professor.’ I was 40 years old. [The idea] had never crossed my mind. Then I started to think about it: I have done a lot of acting, producing, directing. I had done a lot of things that were related to higher ed in terms of skills. And I had taught workshops in playwriting. So I applied for grad school.”
She landed a spot among the MFA candidates at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. From there, her teaching gig at DePauw waited a few moves away.
“Really, it was a series of miracles,” she explains. “That’s how it felt. Because I didn’t have a lot of teaching experience. [DePauw] was interested in my professional résumé. And my MFA was a solid one. So, it worked out.”
I could tell you that White distinguished herself among DePauw’s faculty, but you’d have to take me at my word. Instead, we can defer to my step-daughter, a DPU sophomore who sat through one of White’s courses during her first-semester. A hard-nosed, opinionated women’s studies major, Megan is not one who lavishes praise out of some need to please others. I do that…way too much of it for my own good, but Megan has no truck with any of that. So when she says that White was, hands-down, her favorite professor thus far…? When she says that White was a fantastic listener who responded directly to each student’s concerns…? When she still mentions a Chris White quote, or a Chris White anecdote in family conversation with the air of authority granted to an adage from a Founding Father…?
Yeah…I’d most certainly agree that “it worked out.”
If you’ve never known Chris White but have read Adrian Mandrick, you’re going to think it’s an outstanding book. And it is, as Helene Stapinski affirms in her New York Times Review:
“Near the start of White’s debut novel, we learn that our 41-year-old title character has sighted and cataloged 863 species of birds — the third-longest list in North America. In flashbacks to his childhood we meet Mandrick’s abusive father and his loving mother, who take him on a trip into the hushed North Carolina woods, where they come upon the war-painted ivory-billed woodpecker, thought to be extinct.
So begins our story and Mandrick’s lifelong love of ornithology. His parents inevitably split and June, his mother, takes a lesbian lover; the boy hears them at night “like two starving women feasting at a dinner long denied them.” Years amass between the family members “like thick cotton padding around a wound.” Mandrick (whose name hints at the narcotic Mandrake root) moves to Boulder, Colo., and becomes an anesthesiologist, with a bad habit of dipping into pharmaceuticals to help numb the pain from a family secret that is slowly revealed.”
Which concludes with:
“White’s life-affirming conclusion reminds us that endangered species aren’t the only ones that need to change and adapt in order to survive.”
But if you do know White then the book’s very existence, its journey into concrete form arm-in-arm with White’s own life as a college professor, lays a sort of foundational backstory which not only makes the experience of reading the novel something richer, it heightens the greater, more profound experience of getting to know White’s work as just another facet of her personality. And this is not any passing or fanciful facet, either.
After a career spent crafting stage dialogue, song lyrics, and melodies, White turned to arguably the most herculean of written mediums. And for a good number of her years at DePauw, Mandrick would anchor itself into the crevasses of her consciousness.
“As I was learning to teach at the college level—and as I was writing plays and screenplays, and raising children—I was always working on what would eventually become that novel,” she says. Years after the book’s genesis, its published form exists as a much-evolved work.
“It went through major phases of growth and change,” she explains. “It began from the wife’s perspective. It actually had multiple perspectives, but hers was the primary voice. In fact, in those early drafts, my current protagonist was essentially the antagonist.”
“He (Adrian Mandrick) was ‘the trouble’ in the book, and then his story eventually began to take over,” she explains. “He became more interesting to me both in terms of the narrative, but also in some sort of deeper process.”
These are significant changes. Fateful, even. But as is often the case with matters of fate, none of those critical changes would have coagulated had it not been for a conversation with writer Robert Boswell, who visited DePauw’s campus years ago.
“He came for a reading, and he asked me what I was working on,” she says. “At that point I was personally in a little bit of a low point. Even though I had been sitting with him for an hour, and even though that might be a wonderful opportunity to talk about my work…I didn’t mention any of it.”
“He said, ‘Maybe you need somebody to read it.’ And he offered to do just that.”
“One of the crucial comments he made was when he said, ‘This is his story…all the way through. You’ve got to get rid of the other perspectives, and you’ve got to commit completely to this story.”
So she worked at it anew. After nearly a half-lifetime toiling at lyricism and stagecraft, White returned to the alien, clunky, cumbersome task of mega-long-form prose. The degree with which her syntax harmonized with her semantics in those early drafts is a secret kept among White and those with whom she shared them. But the purchased draft we hold in our hands is a masterful work. Her life as playwright is evident in the novel’s natural, minimal, and effective dialogue. But the novel is particularly gripping when White slips into long passages of narrative prose, latching onto adept skills as an essayist, letting us slip inside Mandrick’s head.
“That’s been the most freeing thing about writing prose,” she says. “I had written for the stage and the screen for a long time, and there are a lot of limitations there. So to be able to sit down and say whatever you want about how a character is feeling, or to take someone wherever you want without having to think about budget (if you’re making a film) or whether a scene will make sense on stage (if you’re writing a play) is liberating.”
“This novel would have made a terrible play,” she adds. “I think it has the potential to make a good screenplay.”
“I try to focus on the fact that I have written the best book I can write. I’m certain of that. I don’t know about tomorrow, or about weeks later…but that is the best book I could write.”
Of course no one turns that gnawing assortment of fragmented thoughts and ideas into a novel without help along the way, and White never hesitates to offer up names. Besides the aforementioned encounter with Boswell, she expresses gratitude to her husband, Tom Chiarella. Himself a writer of short stories, an essayist, a past contributor to Esquire and a current writer/editor for Popular Mechanics—such a marriage could have resulted in a level of “over-involvement.” But White shrugs such notions off.
“We mostly give each other space,” she says. “We both seem to be very comfortable with that. Every now and then one of us will say, ‘Can you look at this?’ A few days ago I was doing that for him. We do that, but not as much as one might imagine. He’s been a huge support in the writing of this book. He’s read multiple drafts and given me great comments…as have a number of other people without whom, I don’t know how I would have gotten here.”
Among those others are her agent, Tim Wojcik, and her editor at Touchstone Books, Lara Blackman. DePauw colleague Lili Wright has also been a constant—herself a novelist and author of the well-reviewed, Dancing with the Tiger.
“She and I have been each other’s cheerleaders for years as we worked on our respective books, and that’s priceless.”
She saves her deepest gratitude, however, for Cathie Malach, whom she calls her “dearest friend and reader, for her profound dedication and support of the project from day one to the last.’”
Currently working on her second novel, White is mum about the new book’s details, save to say that she’s working under a much shorter deadline than her first go-round at the keyboard. Obviously, if her sophomore effort cements her standing in the literary community, she’s not going to shy away from that. But if that doesn’t pan out…? Here she sighs. It’s not a wistful or anxious release of air. Rather, it’s more sensible, moderately Jedi-esque.
“One knows that this process is both exciting and terrifying for the ego,” she says. “And if I’m in that ‘place of ego,’ then I know that I’m going to get thrown around in the boat. So I try to focus on the fact that I have written the best book I can write. I’m certain of that. I don’t know about tomorrow, or about weeks later…but that is the best book I could write. I gave it everything I had…intellectually, creatively, emotionally, spiritually. I can sit in that space and feel grounded.”
Sure artists love the applause. But good artists always get that it’s about the work. White has put in her time. She’s created some excellent work. And she did it by making peace with the world in which she found herself. Whether the rest of us one day add our own contribution to the collective sublimity of the world or not, doesn’t matter on its own merit. What does matter, what Chris White has been teaching us all this time, is that the real “art” in the world happens when we take the “wheres and whens” of our own lives and turn them into something beautiful.