From its start, A Map of Tulsa -- by Benjamin Lytal -- pulses with the vitality of youth. The story begins with a night out for Jim Praley, home from college, his wandering spirit leading him to the then-derelict charms of the Warehouse District, as the story unfolds in the late 1990s or thereabouts.
The Cain's, the Center of the Universe -- it's all unmistakably Tulsa. Lytal's story spins outward to describe how Praley, the suburban son of school teachers, navigates and makes sense of his city: the vast backyards of midtown, the corporate-yet-comforting swamp of suburbia, and some intimate secrets atop an oil company tower.
The story maps the heart, with Praley's days and nights increasingly intertwined with heiress and former wild child Adrienne Booker. But the city itself matters deeply to Praley and to Lytal, who is also the son of school teachers.
Born and raised in Tulsa, Lytal graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and left Oklahoma to attend college. He never moved back, not counting a few summers spent in Tulsa.
The Harvard graduate lived in New York for about 10 years and now married and living in Chicago, but wrote he visits Tulsa a few weeks every year. He stops by next on March 26 at 7pm at Harwelden Mansion, 2210 S. Main St., for a book launch sponsored by BookSmart Tulsa, part of a larger tour.
Lytal agreed to a back-and-forth discussion over email:
Q: When and how did you decide you wanted this book to take place mostly in Tulsa?
A: I tried to set the book in New York. But I discovered that it was really set in Tulsa.
Q: It's hard for me to imagine these characters as New Yorkers. Is that what you mean, or can you elaborate a bit on why Tulsa felt like a better fit?
A: For one thing, it felt dangerous to write about Tulsa. That's why I had wanted to avoid it: "too close to home."
Q: So it was a tough decision. Why did you ultimately choose Tulsa for the setting?
A: Henry James, a Bostonian, wrote novels about American expatriates in Europe. His brother William said, c'mon, you don't really understand European society, you should be writing about Boston. But Henry knew that he had to write at edge of what he understood.
For us, things have flipped. Lots of people write about going abroad. Whereas writing about the hometown seems embarrassing, somehow unwise.
My hunch is that this is true for lots of my fellow Americans: that we can go and live wherever, but there is something about the hometown that puts us on our guard, that challenges us, that we respect at the deepest level.
Q: So you chose to write a book set in Tulsa in part because you respected the challenge of doing so? Once you settled on Tulsa, did you wind up doing a lot of research on your hometown?
A: I'm wary of doing very much research. I worked from memory, and on visits home tried to avoid places I was writing about.
Q: Do you think cities have an identity? If so, what is Tulsa's?
A: I think we WANT cities to have identities.
Q: Maybe we're wired to want everything to have an identity? Or, why do you think a city's identity matters to us?
A: We're mobile -- we get to move around a lot. But we don't always get to choose where we live. It's too painful to think about a city in terms of trade-off. We'd rather just go ahead and identify with it.
Q: Do you own an "I Heart Tulsa" shirt? Be honest.
A: I don't. Those are for New York.
Q: Jim and Adrienne, the two young people in the center of the novel's plot. Would either of them wear an "I Heart Tulsa" shirt?
A: I'm not sure what you're trying to get at here, Jaime.
Q: The plot is about their relationship, but how would you describe the relationship they each have with Tulsa?
A: That's a question my book answers over and over, in many different ways. It's safe to say that Jim loves Tulsa. But what is his love, compared to that of someone who doesn't move away?
Maybe it's better to say that's a question my book ASKS.
That's a question my book ASKS over and over, in many different ways.
Q: And how does Jim's relationship with Adrienne amplify the feeling he has for Tulsa? I'll leave that as an open question.
But Jim and Adrienne come from such different parts of Tulsa; he's the son of schoolteachers; she's an heiress, basically.
In general, meeting and caring about someone from a different background, how much do you think that helps us figure out our own identity? How much do you think that helps us figure out where we come from and what meaning to attach to that?
A: I think you've answered your own question there, and made an excellent point: that dating someone from a different background can be exhilarating, precisely because it gets us thinking about ourselves, too.
Q: Exhilarating, yes. But there can be a clash of classes. Do you think Jim and Adrienne treat each other less well because they each have a different status in society?
A: In early 2009, shortly after the crash, a critic named Walter Benn Michaels lamented that Americans don't write novels about class anymore. I hope that my novel goes a little way to redress that complaint. I would be very happy if it did.
Q: It's a story of youth as well. I couldn't imagine Jim and Adrienne as New Yorkers, nor could I imagine them just a few years older. How much do you think being young -- I'm talking about being their age -- affects attitudes on class, on difference?
A: I think class difference weighs on Jim more than he realizes. You have to read between the lines, at first. Things become more explicit, later -- that's always the way, isn't it?
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