The Growth of a Story
By Paul Morin
BOWLING GREEN, O.—“It had wine. It had Prohibition. It had gangsters. It had money. And, it was about the history of California,” Dr. Lawrence Coates mused, when asked about the inspiration for his third novel, “The Garden of the World.” But, as is often the case when writing a novel, the maturation of the story took time, though the fruit of his labor has been sweet, as Coates recently accepted the 2013 Nancy Dasher Award for the work, presented by the College English Association of Ohio.
The seed for “The Garden of the World” was planted back in the late 1990s, while he researched his first novel, “The Blossom Festival,” and discovered a story from Prohibition-era California. In the 1920s, California winemaker Paul Masson was robbed of over $400,000 worth of wine, an extraordinary story with questionable believability. The robbery was never solved, but authorities suspected that the success-driven Masson used the robbery as a way to move wine during Prohibition. It was a mystery too good to pass up, and Coates, a professor of creative writing at Bowling Green State University, knew he had found his next work of historical fiction.
Like fine wine, however, the maturation of “The Garden of the World” took time. Coates was already working on other writing projects. Additionally, he needed to perform a significant amount of research in order to authentically depict wine country in California during Prohibition. His research included reading oral histories, speaking with multiple wine makers and visiting wine libraries in California. He visited vineyards and drank wine, an occupational hazard, he laughingly recalls. He learned as much as he could about the time period and the setting of his novel because he knew effort was necessary to create an authentic experience for his readers. As a result of the depth of research, the novel was not published until over a decade later, in 2012.
“There are some sentences in there that are 10 years old,” Coates said.
The research and time he put into his writing fed his novel, and the story grew far beyond the original inspiration. The wine heist is present, but “The Garden of the World” became a story that explores how Paul Tourneau’s drive to build a vineyard in the Santa Clara Valley damages his family.
Coates explained that he “ended up talking about the builder’s impulse that you see in the history of America, and particularly in the history of the western United States, where these titanic figures come and build something” and often leave some form of destruction in their wake.
Through that exploration, the novel transformed from a tale about a theft into a story that vividly recreates the nostalgic beauty of wine country in the Santa Clara Valley in the early 1900s, while also exploring the darker undertones of war, racism, and fractured families.
For Coates, exploring the human costs of the novel was the most challenging part of the writing process. The natural tendency of a writer, he explained, is to avoid exploring the difficult situations characters find themselves in because it forces the writer to struggle with the same emotions their characters face. But readers want the writer to explore those situations, to delve into the emotional hardships, because that helps them work through issues in their own lives.
The College English Association of Ohio recently recognized the complexity of the work, the research, and the time Coates put into the novel by awarding him the 2013 Nancy Dasher Award, which is only given to a work of creative writing, written by an Ohio English faculty member, once every three years. Karen Schubert, a committee member for the award, said of “The Garden of the World,” “The fact that it’s fiction, that these individuals are created in Coates’s imagination, and then situated so convincingly in a time and place far from here, makes it that much more deserving of recognition.”
Coates, who hadn’t expected the award, said that he was very gratified to be recognized by his peers.
The initial seed of the novel had its roots in a compelling true story of wine, Prohibition, and money, but all that germinated into something more with careful research and character development. Coates’s cultivation of his story gave the novel time to grow into beautiful prose, with vivid descriptions, engaging characters, and struggles that readers can immerse themselves in. And for Coates, the fruit of his labor was well worth the time it took to achieve.