INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT BOUCHERON
Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: We’re interested in the way “Audible Cities” focuses on the three imagined cities without a protagonist. How did you approach writing a story without centering or including a main character?
Robert Boucheron: The three “Audible Cities” are from a fictional travelogue. The project started in 2015 as a series of reports to the Geosophical Club, founded in a tavern in New York in the early 1800s, “to winnow the grain of wholesome truth from the chaff of tall tales and sailors’ yarns.” Each report is brief, a few pages. As the project went on, I collected the cities in groups of three or more and titled each group: American Cities, Utopian Cities, Secret Cities, and so on. Forty have appeared in magazines, with more to come.
Some reports quote a traveler, explorer, or archaeologist. Some name the founder, like the medieval hermit Saint Kerdou for “Kerdeuil,” or the guiding spirit, like René Descartes for the grid layout of “Cartesia.” And some give brief sketches of inhabitants. Every real city has a personality, and the hero of each fictional report is the city itself.
Two of the “Audible Cities” are in the Virginia mountains, where I live. The Quiet Zone is a real place, and so is the Clinch Valley, home of the musical Carter Family. For the third, I asked: What is the City of Destruction in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress?
The fictional town of Hapsburg, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, is the setting for twenty of my stories and a mystery novel. The Hapsburg project includes a history of the town and characters that return from story to story. The Hapsburg stories are often tall tales, and the town is madly picturesque, like Staunton, Virginia.
RR: The names of the cities are evocative and striking—how did you choose them?
RB: For all the Geosophical Cities, I cast about for names that sound almost real. “Hushington” is close to Huntington and Washington. Many town names end in -ville, -burg, -ton, and so on, like Nashville and Lynchburg, so “Vocaville” is the vocal town. “Cacaphonepolis” is about noise and cacophony, with -polis tacked on, the Greek word for city, as in Indianapolis.
RR: The glimpses into different imaginary cities reminded us of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Were you thinking of that or possibly other works as influences in this project?
RB: Invisible Cities was definitely a starting point. I’m fan of Calvino’s books with their elaborate wordplay, absurd plots, and quick movement. Jorge Luis Borges writes about impossible places. Jan Morris writes about real places in unconventional ways. Bruce Chatwin travels through comic opera scenes set in a real landscape.
As a boy, I loved to read National Geographic magazine and books on great cities of the past, like The City in History, 1961, by Lewis Mumford, and Cities of Destiny, 1967, by Arnold Toynbee. The highly charged style appeals to me, loaded with adjectives and historical drama.
The fact that Alexander the Great founded cities wherever he went struck me as awesome. I pored over maps, and I studied the growth of cities like Paris. Later I read books on urbanism by Witold Rybczynski, Jane Jacobs, Patrick Geddes, John Reps, and Steen Eiler Rasmussen.
In the Geosophical Cities, I wanted to try for more realism than Calvino did. Sometimes my sketch is a satire of particular city, like “Duldubius” for London, or of an urban problem, like the chaos of “Jumbledore” and the sprawl of “Peripheral City.” Global warming threatens the frozen city of “Wassamotta,” and the cave dwellers of “Stonestz” are conservative to a fault. But the aerial city of “Aviana” is a flight of fancy.
RR: We understand you are also an architect. Did that experience help inform how you created the unique cultures and imagined ways of life for each city?
RB: I went to Harvard College, and I walked all over Cambridge and Boston in the 1970s. I earned a Master of Architecture from Yale University in 1978, and I got to know New Haven. I lived and practiced in New York City for nine years, then moved to Charlottesville in 1987. Most of my architectural work is residential—new houses, renovations, and apartment buildings. I also worked on art museums, resorts, churches, and new subdivisions.
Buildings always have a context. An urban site forces the architect to think about that city, its character, traffic, features like a river, hills and valleys, and so on. Buildings and outdoor spaces serve social functions, so their design is as much about people as about materials and weather. And built forms are always expressive and symbolic, from the grandeur of a domed cathedral to the open display of a shop.
The cities we love and want to live in do not happen by accident. Someone designs them. In fact, a vast number of people cooperate to research, draw, and build them. My fictional cities play with symbolism, exaggerate their good and bad points, and suggest the need for design.
RR: With COVID-19 and stay at home orders, all cities are starting to feel a little like Hushington. What are your favorite quarantine activities?
RB: I’ve worked at home since 2010, so the pandemic has not much changed my daily life. I go for long walks in the neighborhood, which is called Belmont, around a little park near my house, and a few miles to another city park on the Rivanna River. I don’t have a television, so I don’t watch the programs and movies everyone else does. I do listen to the radio in the kitchen. My favorite at-home pastime is what it always was, reading. Over the years, I’ve accumulated many used books from thrift shops, yard sales, and dim labyrinths crammed with old books. With so much uninterrupted time to read, the difficulty is in choosing which book. After an hour or so of immersion, the difficulty is in coming back to reality.
Long before I started the Geosophical Cities, I drew plans of imaginary cities. In 2009 I began to draw street views of these places—a block of houses, palaces, churches, towers, city gates, and so on. There are now over fifty drawings in pencil and ink. I exhibited some, sold a few, gave a few to relatives, and published a few in literary magazines. There is an inexhaustible supply of images in my head, so I draw and write interchangeably.
Robert Boucheron’s work in Issue 7.2: