Betsey Osborne talks about writing
The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe
When I was growing up, my father ran the local newspaper. The cartoonist there did a drawing of him exaggerating his long legs, and in the caption noted that his bicycle had been stolen and then abandoned when the thief couldn’t reach the pedals. This hung for years on our refrigerator and became for me the way into telling a story inspired by my father, the town we grew up in and his marriage to my mother. It may say something about me in that I don’t really think of Uncas as an “odd duck.” I think of him as a man set in his ways and used to having his own way, not because he is a bully, but by virtue of accepted roles and expectations. His wife is a buffer between him and the world. When this world is upset, he suddenly has to grapple with large and small issues that previously would not have entered into his consciousness.
It also opens the way for his conversations with Alex, who seems an unlikely confidant. I think that people can get into ruts in the way they behave with their nearest and dearest and that Alex is completely outside of Uncas’s circle—she’s not from Sparta, she’s unknown to him, she’s considerably younger than he. I think she might represent a chance for him to be the kind of man he might like to be—more open and light. I think Uncas is deeply frustrated by the end of the book and angry in turns at Carl, at his wife, and at his daughter, but finally realizes that it is his own reserve and unwillingness to change that has really hung him up. I believe that this realization is a tremendous breakthrough for Uncas Metcalfe; he shifts his view in a way that is crushing at the moment, but very hopeful for the future.
I’ve been asked, as a woman how did you manage to so effectively get into the head of a sixty-five-year-old man? I would say that as the middle child in a family of seven children whose parents were relatively reserved I think I navigated the world by listening and watching, in order to read situations where larger clues weren’t often provided. At least one profession where this kind of observation comes in handy is writing. I feel equally comfortable narrating from the point of view of a man or a woman. For example, I’ve written from the point of view of a seventeen-year-old boy and a twenty-year old girl.
Memory is also helpful to a writer. I remember a long drive with my mother through an icy snowstorm—we were lost—where the bare trees were all white, snow clinging to them. There were no bicycles hanging up—which happens in the book— but the image of snow piling up in places where it normally would have been blown off stayed with me. In fact, many of the descriptions of Sparta and the surrounding area derive from my memories of central New York, where I grew up. The house I grew up in is a few blocks away from a moribund downtown of a once thriving city, bigger than, but similar to Sparta, the town in the book. Because my mother was very interested in urban renewal and in city planning and, because my father ran the newspaper, I think I was made aware of what causes a city to flag, of how a small town adjusts when industries leave and a younger generation moves out. Capturing this turn in a city’s history was as important to me as the development of any of the characters.