Margo Orlando Littell: Five Things I Learned Writing The Distance from Four Points

Soon after her husband’s tragic death, Robin Besher makes a startling discovery: He had recklessly blown through their entire savings on decrepit rentals in Four Points, the Appalachian town Robin grew up in. Forced to return after decades, Robin and her daughter, Haley, set out to renovate the properties as quickly as possible—before anyone exposes Robin’s secret past as a teenage prostitute. Disaster strikes when Haley befriends a troubled teen mother, hurling Robin back into a past she’d worked so hard to escape. Robin must reshape her idea of home or risk repeating her greatest mistakes.

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It’s not really that fun to buy and renovate a cheap old house.

The Distance from Four Points is about an affluent suburbanite who’s forced into landlording when she finds out her late husband blew all their money on rental properties in her Appalachian hometown. To research the story, I spent a few days in my hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania, having a realtor take me around to residential and commercial properties for sale. I wasn’t looking for viable places to work or live—the ones I chose to see were mostly priced below $50,000, many as low as $10,000, and I was interested only in the ones with tragically ruined beauty. These places were once homes to the wealthiest people in town—a former coal-mining town that once held more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. The homes I saw had turrets, original woodwork and stained glass, wraparound porches, gorgeous brick walkways covered over with weeds. They were also actively crumbling.

But: I bought one. Friends made the leap first, claiming a turreted, five-bedroom, red-brick house for $17,000, and asked me and my husband to partner with them on flipping it. The house had been split into a triplex decades ago. There were collapsing dropped ceilings, holes in the floor, broken or missing windows, and the turret was missing its pointy peak. It was a forlorn, forgotten ruin straight out of HGTV renovation porn. For a while it was exciting to lead the restoration; then it broke us, emotionally and financially. A cheap old house is not cheap to fix up. And even a gorgeously fixed-up house can’t be flipped when the location is all wrong. We still own it. We had to turn it into a rental. I could tell landlording stories for days.

Waitressing influences everything I write.

In the summers after high school, I was a waitress at a few different places in southwestern Pennsylvania, including a country club and a chain restaurant that, for a while, required all servers to wear a funny hat. The complicated joggling for tips, the conversations I shared or overheard, the glimpses of other families at the tables I worked, the blatant theft and scheming—even two decades later, these experiences feed my work. In the two novels I’ve published, my characters are waitresses. This isn’t accidental. Waitressing, even in a nice place, requires a particular kind of gritty resilience, a willingness to be swept along with the rhythms of the shift, a tolerance for—or an openness to engaging in—petty feuds and sordid liaisons. It’s no surprise that Robin, the protagonist of The Distance from Four Points, meets a trainwreck lover during a dinner shift, or that she meets the husband who’ll save her during a different shift in a different year. People pass through places, and they need to eat, and even in a small town where it seems like every single face is familiar, as a waitress, sometimes you’ll meet a stranger.

The protagonist from my first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, was a one-eyed bartender based on a man a waiter friend told me about one night after our shift. That entire novel wouldn’t have existed without that particular night of running tables, my arms aching from carrying BOGO platters of bourbon steaks and seasoned fries with a side of ranch.

Every day as a waitress was a chance to find new stories. I’m still drawing from them, all these years later.

My novels are political. (Maybe all novels are.)

I published my first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, in June 2016. It’s about a small Appalachian town that’s upended when a group of itinerant thieves start robbing people’s homes, and its themes are xenophobia, grief, and belonging. It’s set in southwestern PA—Trump country, though I grew up there and am connected to the area in a way that goes much deeper than easy labels and dismissals. When Trump was elected that November, xenophobia ran rampant; there was a constant thrum of debate over who was an outsider, who was a “real” American, who deserved to be valued, respected, protected. The vilified outsiders in my novel took on new meaning. The story became almost comically allegorical. I hadn’t intended to write a political novel, but there was no denying I had: the apocalyptic effects of small-town xenophobia were relevant well beyond the pages of Vagabond

This time around, The Distance from Four Points falls into similar queasy territory, questioning who exactly are the victims and the oppressors, who deserves leniency, how much we owe to others and ourselves. We’re all in lockdown now. The residents of Four Points are in a kind of lockdown too, unwilling or unable to see beyond their small-town borders. For them, there is no wider world, no such thing as expertise or global perspective. I know this for a fact: the characters in The Distance from Four Points wouldn’t be caught dead in a homemade face mask. It’s discomfiting to me that my affection for these characters only grows.

I write best when my time is limited.

I wrote most of The Distance from Four Points when my daughters were under age five, still in preschool. I had less than three hours a day to write, three days a week. I’d drop them off at preschool and literally run home, spending every second I could at my desk before I had to return for pickup. Somehow, I wrote a novel this way. I had a singular focus. I was master of the little time I had. I didn’t get distracted with errands or housework or crafting or exercising or meeting friends for coffee. Once both my kids began elementary school, I had the entire school day to write—yet I accomplished less. With more time, there was less reason to feel so frantically resolute. It’s hard to get back into that mindset of time-scarcity. I’d be well served if I could.

With every novel I write, a line of discarded pages will stretch for miles behind me.

The very earliest version of The Distance from Four Points involved a nun faking a pregnancy and planning to kidnap a troubled teenager’s child. Another early version concluded with a dramatic and symbolic act of arson. The actual published novel includes none of these things; there is a nun, but she is only a next-door neighbor to a more important character, not the driver of the plot. I wrote hundreds of pages of story before I actually realized what my novel was about, and a lot of scenes, characters, and plotlines were discarded along the way. This is not an efficient way of writing, but for me, it’s necessary. I don’t outline because I often don’t know the twists and turns my characters will take. With Four Points, I didn’t even understand who my main characters would be. Cindy, best friend of my protagonist Robin, initially appeared in only a couple of scenes—until she elbowed her way into more. Vincent, Robin’s monstrous former lover, was terrible until he showed himself to be less villainous than regretful, aging, and weak. The process of finding a story isn’t something I can easily explain. There’s no formula for it. And there’s no avoiding the false starts and retries. I wish I could become a more efficient writer, but this novel has shown me that the long road to any future publication will surely always be lined with dead darlings.

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Margo Orlando Littell is the author of the novels The Distance from Four Points and Each Vagabond by Name, both published by the University of New Orleans Press. Each Vagabond by Name won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal, was longlisted for the 2017 Tournament of Books, and was named one of fifteen great Appalachian novels by Bustle. Originally from southwestern Pennsylvania, she now lives in New Jersey.

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