People use old National Geographic magazines for everything from collages to DIY wallpapering to bookshelf stuffers. Writer Tara Conklin scooped up a stack of the mags at a Goodwill store for another use—they became the dusty yellow spine of her latest novel.
In Conkin’s novel Community Board, the lead character retreats from an imploded marriage to her parents' empty small-town home, munching canned food from the sofa and seeking solace from a well-photographed world of zombie-creating horsehair worms, honey-filled Viking ships, and renowned poet Pablo Neruda.
"Seems a lot of people grew up with those rows of yellow spines in their parents/grandparents bookshelves," Conklin, a lifelong Nat Geo reader, tells us. (Readers, how have you used old Nat Geos? Let us know!)
Here’s how Conklin stumbled upon those magazines—and what they added to a comedy of manners about the changing notion of "home."
What made you think of Nat Geo magazines as a device in the novel?
For the first third of the novel, my protagonist Darcy Clipper is isolated within her childhood home in western Massachusetts. It's peak winter, her husband has just left her, she's lost her job, she dislikes all her friends, she's mad at her parents and she's returned to a place of safety to re-consider her life choices. In envisioning what a childhood home looks like—that place of return—I instinctively placed a stack of National Geographic magazines somewhere in the house. Those yellow spines would be lined up on a bookshelf or deep within a closet or conveniently in the bathroom. They're maybe a little dusty, definitely dog-eared, pages thumbed, address labels peeling off the front. My parents had a stack, my grandparents had a stack, and now I have one too.
Once I placed that detail inside the house, I knew I had to use them. One of the narrative challenges of the book was to keep the first part of Darcy's story from becoming too claustrophobic. She spends a winter holed up at home, eating canned food and entertaining conspiracy theories about her neighbors—this could get old pretty quickly. The magazines gave her (and the reader) an outlet to get outside her house, outside her own head and explore some larger ideas that the book evokes.
As a lifelong Nat Geo reader, It was great fun to look through old issues and find pieces that fit within the novel. For me as a kid (and even now), Nat Geo magazines always took me outside myself, on an amazing adventure, to places I'd never seen before or things I'd never considered.
After Darcy's break-up, she's in full-on navel-gazing mode. She's completely isolated, isn't speaking to her friends or family, doesn't go outside—in short she's decided that human connections aren't worth the trouble. To move the narrative forward, I needed something to shake Darcy up, to give her space to consider a world outside her own house. The magazines served that purpose perfectly. In reading about other lives and other dramas, she's able to take herself less seriously and realize that life is still happening all around her and she needs to get out there.
The novel deals thematically with the idea of community—what do we get from it, what do we owe our community, how do we find it, etc. It may sound a bit sentimental, but at its heart the Nat Geo tradition seems to place us all within one large human community. You're sitting on your couch at home in Massachusetts when you open the pages to read about a family in rural China about to lose their home due to the Three Gorges dam project (Nat Geo September 1997) And you feel a pang for them. Or you wonder what you would do in that situation. Or it reminds you of a great loss in your own life. All human experience contains the same essential elements—love, home, family, loss—and I think it's important to remind ourselves of their universality.
Did other Nat Geo articles stand out?
Yes—too many! I flagged and wrote up more articles than I could use in the novel. And of course, inspiration is a tricky thing. For example, a quote from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda ends up playing a large role in Darcy's evolution as a character. In the book, she originally comes across the quote in a Nat Geo article and begins using it as a kind of mantra for herself. The actual evolution of Neruda appearing in the novel wasn't quite that straightforward. I read a Nat Geo travel article about Chile's Atacama Desert that contained only a brief mention of Neruda, but it was enough to get my wheels turning about his poetry and his views on love and life. I have some old books of Neruda's verse and so I took them down and started reading. I know his legacy has become complicated, but I found real beauty and inspiration in his language and thought that Darcy would too. The lines I cite in the novel come from Neruda's Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1971:
"There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song —but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny."
This idea—a belief that all lives are inter-connected—is particularly relevant in the book, so I decided to invent a Nat Geo cover story specifically about Neruda and use those lines in the novel. They were the perfect inspiration to help Darcy get out of her house, transcend her own personal troubles and re-join her community.
I also found inspiration in the January 2001 Nat Geo that looked at "The Body in Space: Surviving the Odyssey." There's a spread about Valery Polyakov, the Russian cosmonaut who set the record for the longest time spent in space—437 days. Although Darcy doesn't spend any time in outer space, she does remain isolated for much of the winter. Polyakov's experience resonates with her. In the book, she imagines the private conversation he had with his wife Nelly after his return. They both suffered during this period of extreme isolation—Valery in orbit, Nelly down on earth alone with their young children—and Darcy herself is beginning to miss human connection, despite all its messiness and hassle.
When I think of Nat Geo readers, at least those who respond in emails, I think of phrases like you used in your acknowledgements about those people who are the brick and mortar of democracy. There's a hopeful sense that better information might lead to better decisions, no?
Yes, I really wanted to strike a note of hope at the end of the novel! I think ultimately that's what community is about—gathering together as individuals to make things better for the whole. That end goal requires faith in the process, a lot of give and take, compromises that need to be made, interests that need to be tempered, but I wanted Darcy to experience those basic building blocks of democracy via the Select Board meeting in her town. I grew up in an old New England village like the fictional Murbridge where community issues were determined democratically at an old-fashioned town hall meeting.
I think better information certainly helps us make better decisions in group settings like that, but you can also take it back to a more basic level: broader participation helps us make better decisions. One of the novel's supporting characters is Hildegard Hyman—an ageless woman in a cardigan who serves as all-around town volunteer, organizer, decision-maker, and go-getter. In the book's climactic scene, she urges the town residents to show up, to do the work of governing the town, because otherwise they'll end up with a place that's not their own.
And that's really where the hopefulness coms in (I hope!): we want to feel safe and valued in our communities, we want them to reflect our ideals and plan for our children's future and we can achieve all of those goals by the simple act of showing up and getting involved. It's a simple idea, yes, but I think particularly in this day and age of disillusionment with politics and governance, it's an important one to remember.
One thing that is striking in your novel is that there seems to be that dearth of good information in these towns, so rumors take off, often spread by these community boards, similar to posts one can find on the internet. Another is that people are yearning for connection, it seems, through these digital boards. Do you find that to be the case in real life?
I think one problem with these boards (and with online "news" in general) is that the good information gets mixed indiscriminately with the bad and it's up to the reader to discern the difference. Information that one reader dismisses and another finds credible often says more about the individuals involved than about the objective quality of the information itself. For me, that's why these boards are so fascinating—you get a snapshot of all these distinct individual personalities, their prejudices, their weaknesses, their flaws but also their generosity, kindness, and concern. And the people who use them are often completely oblivious to what they're revealing about themselves via these seemingly innocuous comments. There's a certain inadvertent honesty and transparency that can happen on these boards that would rarely occur in face-to-face communications. You see immense privilege alongside really basic needs; you see casual racism alongside very liberal, left-leaning ideas; you see community alongside loneliness. Rumors certainly take on a life of their own on these boards, but even the spread of bad information can still illuminate an underlying truth about the individuals and community involved.
And that goes to your second point about connection. Yes, people are yearning for connection! Particularly in the post-COVID era, after quarantine and fear and illness, I think we're all eager for human contact again. But of course, there's also trepidation involved. Darcy mirrors this in the novel after she starts working for her neighbor, Marcus, and emerges from her childhood home. She experiences some pretty debilitating social anxiety and Marcus talks her through interacting with people again. Virtual interaction—whether it's via Zoom or Facebook or a community board—is so much easier than interacting face to face. You get some benefits of community without a lot of the hassle. But at the end of the day, virtual connections can only take us so far. Maybe this is old-fashioned but I still believe sitting down with someone in person is the only way to truly connect.
David Beard is director of newsletters at National Geographic.