Friday, October 18, 2019

You Can't Go Home Again (Alissa Grosso)

I always struggle with the right answer to the question, "What is your hometown?" I usually default to Hackensack because a) it's where I was born and lived for the first few years of my life and b) thanks to Billy Joel everyone has heard of it. Who needs a house out in Hackensack anyway?

Downtown Hackensack, though where we lived was a tree-lined (including a massive one that almost fell on our house) suburban sort of road.

By the time I was starting kindergarten my parents decided they certainly didn't need a house out in Hackensack and moved a few miles away to Ramsey, NJ. We lived in Ramsey for about six years in two different houses, and because it's where I spent most of my childhood it probably feels a little more like a hometown than Hackensack. Ramsey is what I consider the classic suburban town.

We walked or rode bikes to school. Our bustling main street was full of an assortment of shops and businesses including a movie theater, a five and ten and an ice cream parlor. The second house we lived on was on a dead end road and in the summer all the kids in the neighborhood would be out in the road playing ball until it got too dark to see.

A glimpse of Ramsey's downtown. I had no idea that downtowns were a rare thing until I moved to a town without one.


However just before I started fifth grade, my parents decided they didn't need a house out in Ramsey either, and we moved again. This move was a bit further than moving from Hackensack to Ramsey both geographically and culturally. Although we stayed in the Garden State, we might as well have been relocating to the surface of the moon.

Byram, NJ was a culture shock to this girl from the suburbs. There were toothless old men in overalls who sat on rotting front porches and waved to passing cars. There was a distinct lack of sidewalks. Television was nonexistent unless you had cable. I had never been on a school bus before, and now I had to ride one to school every day. Clearly, I had entered the Twilight Zone.

Though I lived there for longer than I lived in Ramsey or Hackensack, Byram never had the feel of a hometown. The strangeness of the place never really wore off.

A few years ago, I attended my high school reunion and was chatting with one of my former classmates. She was telling me how she and her husband had been living in Hoboken or some other town in the normal part of New Jersey, but had recently had kids and so moved back to Byram to raise them there. You know how when somebody says something that clearly proves they're insane and you have to try not to look appalled and instead are supposed to politely smile and nod? Yeah, well, I think I didn't quite manage to hide my look of shock and dismay before I did the smiling and nodding thing.

Byram was such a bizarre place that of course I had to set a novel there. My second novel Ferocity Summer takes place in this town at the southern end of Sussex County. The main character Scilla lives in a discarded vacation home that's not unlike the one my family lived in when we first moved to this quirky town. It's a dark and edgy book about a girl who is having a pretty bleak summer and the third town I called home just seemed like the perfect backdrop to her story.
Before Ferocity Summer came out, I brought my boyfriend Ron to the town where I spent my teen years and might have gotten him a little bit car sick as I drove him around town so he could film some scenes for this book trailer.

To date, it's the only book I've set in a real, live town, which does seem strange to me, especially since leaving Byram I've lived in six other towns in three states. Maybe it's because Byram is such a unique place that if you made up a town like it people wouldn't believe it.

They say you can't go home again. I don't know whether or not that's true, but you can always set a book there.


Alissa Grosso is the author of 6 novels for teens and adults and these days she calls a small town in eastern Pennsylvania home. It's pretty quirky. She might have to set a book there some day. Find out more about Alissa and her books at alissagrosso.com.


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