Haven’t I Seen You Here Before?

(I posted this missive last week on The Nervous Breakdown last week, so if you read it there, skip this. If you haven’t heard of The Nervous Breakdown and you like to read short nonfiction on screen, you should totally check out the site. )

Getting ready for my recent trip to L.A., I told anyone who would listen that I’d never, ever been there. But when I walked out of LAX to catch the FlyAway to Union Station—boom! I caught myself in a lie. The low overhang that made me want to duck as I stepped out of the doors, the slice of blue sky just beyond, the scraggly palm trees against the white parking garage—I’d seen it before, on another June day fifteen years ago. The exact same tableau had been my first glimpse of the U.S. after returning from more than half a year in Southeast Asia.

Last month, I published a novel set mostly in Thailand. It’s about a Thai man and an American woman who get involved with an exotic animal smuggling ring. When people have asked the inevitable questions about how much of Currency is autobiographical—because, of course, everything’s more interesting if it’s autobiographical—I’ve been yakking about how sleeping with Thai guys probably inspired me to write from the first-person point of view of a Thai man. I’m trying to get over my fear that I’m boring people by talking about or reading from my book, but I’m not always successful, and that’s sort of sexy, right? Not the semi-failure, but the hooking up with a few too many foreign men? So I throw it out there to liven things up. And besides, it’s true. Sometimes I precede or follow the comment by making a lame joke about how I never smuggled anything—as far as I know, ha ha.

Until last week, I’d forgotten that I do have an autobiographical connection to Currency’s smuggling plot, a Los Angeles connection. That’s where I landed on my return from Bangkok, and, although I was continuing on to San Francisco, that’s where I went through Immigration and Customs and officially entered America. I’d recently been to Vietnam and Laos, among other destinations, and I was actually looking forward to this border crossing, to officers who spoke an English I knew I’d understand, to the certainty I wouldn’t be squeezed for a bribe, to belonging. When the immigration officer asked me questions about the length of my trip and how I’d managed to stay away for so long, he sounded friendly.

But maybe he tagged me in some way, tapped his loafer to a button on the floor, splattered invisible ink on my back, because while I waited for my stuffed, bedraggled, beloved backpack to roll off the luggage belt, I was approached by other men who asked me the same questions: How did I afford to travel so long without working? Where all had I been? The interest no longer seemed friendly, and I was wearied but not surprised when I was pulled aside at Customs. The search was thorough. Unzipped, my bag emitted the stink of tropical rot. It embarrassed me to watch gloved hands finger my crumbled clothes and dirty underwear, to see my souvenirs splayed out on the table, drained of meaning under the harsh fluorescents—the bunched-up jewelry, the crude carvings, the yak bone I had picked up on a trail in Nepal. But my heart didn’t start seriously pounding until the officer turned over the bone again and again and then walked away with it. He conferred with another uniformed guy. Then maybe another. One of them came over to ask me what the bone was. There was the crackling of a walkie talkie. The bone was taken out of my sight. It reappeared. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember the order in which these things occurred. But I remember being informed that the wildlife expert was on his way. I remember them telling me to repack my bag while we waited for him, the awful feeling of stuffing my messed and cheapened life back inside, under watch. “How did you know so much about smuggling?” people have asked me. “Research,” I’ve answered. And: “I got the animal smuggling idea from an article in a 1997 The New York Times Magazine.” And (in a snotty tone that implies Duh, I’m a fiction writer): “I just made up what it might be like to get caught carrying contraband into another country.” Why did I not recall until revisiting the airport where it happened that I myself was waylaid while carrying a piece of mammal?

It’s not accurate to say the incident slipped my mind. It must have been in there somewhere, hiding in the shadows, because I can recall it vividly now. I can recall the frog enclosures on the blue shirt I was wearing, the heavy string of Kali beads around my neck. (Jesus, how stupid I was to dress like such a clichéd hippy when coming back from what was at that time still a capital of drug production.) My backpacking trip was one of the most influential periods of my life, but I’ve become sort of sheepish about trotting out travel experiences that happened in the previous decade—or, ouch, are the 90s now considered to be two decades ago? And I’ve been laboring over Currency’s manuscript for so many years that my character’s experience had became more legitimate to me than my own, even though I still have the yak bone displayed at the top of a bookshelf in my dining room.

The wildlife inspectors ended up letting me keep it. By the time I was cleared, I needed a smoke, and I headed outside. I noted the contrast of the gloomy overhang and the sky’s robin’s egg blue, the outline of the palms’ ragged edges against the garage’s grimy cement. Southern California, I thought. Check. Then I stubbed my cigarette, went back inside, and got on my flight to San Francisco, where I stayed with my friend Brenna and her girlfriend Paula. I used their apartment as a halfway house, a place to acclimatize before I fully reentered American life.

Brenna has long since moved to L.A., and I stayed with her again on this recent visit. We’ve known each other since we were kids. We’ve hardly talked these last ten years. As she drove me around town to readings and parks and Venice Beach—I leaned on her for that one—her truck’s radio was often tuned to a station that played “Ladies Night” and “Celebration” on heavy rotation, songs we had danced to as preteens. We looked at each other across the wide bench seat and laughed. We grooved. We sang along, and she corrected me on some of my lyrics; apparently I’ve been wrong about them for thirty years. (It’s not “Celebrate your life,” it’s “Celebrate good times,” which I hope I can forget by the next time I hear it because I think my version is bigger-hearted.) One night, we all three went out, the same San Francisco trio, Brenna and Paula—just friends, now, best friends—and me, to a bar in Culver City, and Brenna and I danced in the back to the deejay’s nowest of now mix. We told Paula about how we had met on the dance floor at family night at our small town’s disco, and how we had fallen in love. We are still in love. Never-mind about the last ten years.

The phrase “the accordion of time” pops into my head a lot lately. I picture the long stretch of years—of course some things will be forgotten; there’s so much!—and then the squeeze that brings them together until they all exist at once, until everything seems as if it’s happening now. The sensation is accentuated by publishing a book that I’ve worked on through so many stages of my life and that’s inspired by an earlier stage yet; by a book tour that’s reconnecting me with people I spent formative years with before drifting away from. Lately, it’s common for me to recount a night on a 1980s dance floor as if it were yesterday, but to forget what happened last weekend. I’m an old lady in that way. But, also, I’m still a girl. Some enthusiasms are as fresh now as they were then. I keep having the feeling that I’ve been here before, and that it’s exactly the same, I’m exactly the same. But also, that it was nothing like this. Coming home, I’ve returned to a place I’ve never quite been: tropical flora, brilliant sunshine, dirty but still bright, white walls.

Review Round-Up

Well, Currency‘s been officially out for a little over six weeks now. I’ve read from it maybe a dozen times in a half-dozen different towns. I’ve gotten some reviews and done some interviews. I’ve been absolutely drunk on the kindness and enthusiasm of friends and acquaintances, and, despite attempts to keep my focus on my many book-related blessings, I’ve also succumbed to moments of despondency over the rest of the world’s utter indifference. (I know, I know, I shouldn’t be comparing myself to anyone. I shouldn’t be checking the Amazon ranking. But, um, I can tell you Currency is at #559,688 as I type. Anyone want to boost my number? From what I can discern, a single purchase vaults it above 100,00 for a day or so.)

Anyway, I thought I’d round up a list of links to some of the press I’ve received, so I have it all in one place.

Gina and I were in the fantastic courtyard of Austin’s boho chic Hotel San Jose when she looked up from her iPhone to tell me that all-round indie-lit star Jonathon Messenger wanted to interview me for TimeOut Chicago, and with the way the sun was hitting the garden’s huge yucca plants, or whatever they were, this probably constitutes my most glamorous author moment yet. I thought the interview turned out well. Here’s a link to it.

And remember when I was so happy when The Chicago Reader ran a good review? Well, I just about cried for joy when I read this one in NewPages, a site that celebrates all things independent in literature. “What follows is a tour de force portrayal by a serious author of the realities of modern-day smuggling and those involved in these activities. Currency not only succeeds in its scope and in-depth research, but also in in its fluid, energetic, and intriguing prose.” I think I’ve discovered my next tattoo. (You have to scroll down to find Currency, but along the way there are lots of intriguing reviews along the way.)

I was also very excited by this review on A Traveler’s Library, because I’ve admired that site for awhile as one of the few that combines a literary aesthetic with a focus on travel. Writer Vera Marie Badertscher says, “I would call it a good summer/beach read, but don’t want to diminish it. I also predict that it will be standard fare in every backpacker hostel in Southeast Asia before very long.” Ah, that is one of my fondest wishes! This enthusiastic review by Danielle E. Alvarez on GoBackpacking, a site for independent travelers, would seem to head the book in the right direction.

But, man, it’s mostly looking to be a hard slog. I wanted to give away some copies of Currency to readers about to embark on trips, with the request that they would in turn leave the book where another traveler would find it. When Jeannie Mark from the well-designed, well-written travel blog Nomadic Chick contacted me about doing an interview,  I thought her site would be a great place to launch the traveling book idea. She loved it, and we designed a contest. Jeannie did a great job with the interview (which is here) and the promotion for it, but we received fewer entries than I had prizes to give away.  (Here’s what she had to say about that.) So, if it’s that hard to give-away a novel to an audience that it’s pretty much written for… sigh. (By the way, I’m still trying to get this idea off the ground. If you’re going on a trip soon and want a free copy of Currency to read and then leave somewhere, click here.)

Still, even if it’s an uphill climb, the internet makes networking with traveler-types easier than it would have been ten years ago. Emily Gerson at the site Maiden Voyage Travel just did a nice interview with me. I talked about publishing with small presses on travel writer Alexis Grant’s super-useful and professional writing blog. And I identified another site that hits my target audiences,  The Lost Girls, which is run by three women who quit their NYC media jobs to travel and blog around the world. (Their book by the same title came out around when Currency did. It’s at #3,382 on Amazon. Not that I’m counting. Not that I’ve noticed they have a list of national reviews on their Amazon page that’s as long as my arm.) I was grateful to see Currency‘s pretty cover and a good review on their homepage last week, right here. The reviewer is the only one so far who didn’t love Piv’s voice, but she was nice about it.

Not so nice was this review in Chicago’s NewCity Lit. I stumbled upon it just the other day, but I reckon some of my friends might have seen it and not told me about it.

Well, actually, I just reread it to post it here, and it’s not terrible. And, you know, I used to be the first to say that if reviewers give everything a sunny two thumbs up, then what’s the point. But I think I’ve changed my mind. It’s so hard to complete a full-length work. It’s so hard to get it published. To find an audience. And then you’re going to dismiss it in a couple of sentences? It might be preferable to say nothing.

On the other hand, today I learned that a review of Currency that was supposed to run in a national print publication got pulled. I can’t help but wonder if it got pulled because the reviewer couldn’t be entirely positive. Better no national press at all than that?

Whatever. Better this—a book in hand, people reading it—than nothing, of that I’m sure. The good reviews I received before the not-good one did help inure me, and I was fairly well steeled for the indifference of the majority: I knew a book by a first-time author from a small press wouldn’t be met with trumpets. I knew having a platform was important, and that I didn’t have much of one beyond my supportive friends (whose numbers, thanks in part to the book, are growing). It’s been a journey, a real journey, in the best sense of word. No matter how much you read about a place, it’s different when you visit it. No matter how much you prepare, you’ll be swept along on some currents you can’t control. I always feel lucky when I get to go on a trip. And if you liked the book and spread the word, that would make me happy, too.

Freedom to Roam and Wrangle

First, the shameless self-promotion: If you haven’t yet heard, my novel CURRENCY is still pretty hot off the press. It’s an exciting yet thoughtful tale of love and adventure in Thailand. But don’t take my word for it! My dad says the same thing. So does the reviewer at The Traveler’s Library.  And—this just in—the reviewer at NewPages. Please read it. If you’ve read it and liked it, please do spread your views. One great way would be to write a review on Amazon. Or convince your (Chicago area) book club to make it their next choice, and I’ll happily join you for a discussion. If you live in Southern California, bring a friend and come see me read there next week.

And now, back to our programming: Mark met me at the train when I returned from my little East Coast book tour, and when he realized we wouldn’t be back in time to pick up Tillio, age 9,  from school, he asked friends to either take him to their house or just drop him off in our backyard, because we’d be home shortly.

We returned to an empty home, left a message for our friends, and settled in. I took conscious pleasure in being able to focus only on Lilli for a moment; we’d never been apart for that long, and we were having a sweet reunion. But soon, unease sunk in like a basement chill: What if they had left Tillio, and something happened? Something like…. Before long, Lilli and I were high-tailing it up the street to our friends’ house. And sweet relief: There he was in the yard, swashbuckling with a plastic sword. They said they just hadn’t felt comfortable dropping him off, and—although I’m a fan of the woman who let her 9-year-old ride the NY subway alone and thus started a movement—after my moment of panic, I understood.

I often think about how different it was for me when I was growing up. Like many kids in the 1970s, we ran free through the neighborhood from the time that we could run. We lived on the outskirts of a small town, our house one of maybe forty set in a loose ring surrounded by woods. The main road was a rural route that the occasional car barreled down, the woods across the street were big enough to get lost in, and the woods behind our house were bordered by a creek deep enough to swing off a vine and splash into. I don’t remember early swimming lessons, although there may have been some. There were no fences. We had no boundaries, that I recall. But I still got bored. When I was not much older than Tillio, I road my bike alone the four or five miles into town —on the rural route around the wooded bend, through a neighborhood characterized by run-down houses and grubby bars, over the bridge that spanned the railroad yard. Probably I was heading to the public library. Where else was there to go, at that age?

This factory was near my house.

It wasn’t like my leafy neighborhood or the steeple-poked town was a bucolic setting where nothing bad ever happened. It did. A girl my age who lived just past the main cluster of houses was molested in the woods. She might have been tied up? And found later? The details are fuzzy. Adults probably deemed them inappropriate for little ears. But we all continued to play over there, in what was essentially a forest. When I was in late elementary school, our parents would drop us off at the college swimming pool—my dad was faculty—and then we’d walk over to the deserted student union building and wait to be picked up. One afternoon we were playing hide and seek, and a pale,  pocket-pulling man kept appearing in the echoey halls. He eventually cornered me by a drinking fountain and grabbed my crotch. I might have yelled out. When my friend’s dad came, we told him what had happened. He was on it. My parents were on it. The police were called, and they came to our house; they sketched the creep based on my description. Later, the man was arrested for raping a girl in the town’s only parking garage. But we continued running free.

The nature of that freedom changed as I got older. While seemingly all the kids in my neighborhood had been let to roam the woods when we were young, not everyone I knew had as much license as I did once I hit junior high and high school.  My parents weren’t strict on the curfews. They let me stay for the second session of free skate at the rec complex; they let me have lots of sleepovers. They weren’t being slacker parents: we lived out of the way, and they had to drive me to these things, they had to pick me up. The ferried me to lessons, too, and paid for them. But money was always a little tight, and when I was sixteen, they didn’t say no to me working for the owner of the town’s strip club when he opened a greasy spoon; my friends and I had been recruited by him when we were washing cars in our bathing suits for a fundraiser. No warning signs there! And really, it was mostly OK; it was eye-opening. It’s just that it could have not been. I was supposed to be a waitress, but when business slowed to a trickle, I also delivered food and chauffeured people around in my family’s Ford Fairmont station wagon. One time, I was asked to give a ride home to one of the diner’s Lurch-like, mentally-deficient regulars. When we got to his place, he refused to get out of the car and, in slow motion, tried to grope me. I managed to get his door open and push him out onto the driveway with my feet. He fell on his ass, and that was that.

My parents gave permission for other things many might not have. For example, they let me and my best friend ride the Greyhound from Pennsylvania down to South Florida, where we stayed with a friend whose own parents I don’t recall ever seeing as we came and went, traipsing around the bottom half of the state looking for punk rock clubs and boys who would buy us beer. And then I turned legal age, so my parents couldn’t have stopped me if they wanted to as my travel plans expanded, but they could have tried. Should they have tried? The summer between my sophomore and junior year of college and I showed up in my hometown with a handsome, glowering man five years older and a foot taller than me who dripped a kind of scary sex. We’d hitched in from Philadelphia, and we were just stopping by before we thumbing it to San Fransisco.  After a two-night visit, my dad dropped us off at the side of Route 80 after slipping me fifty bucks. I had no credit card. I’m not even sure if I had a calling card. Most of the money money fueling our adventure belonged to the man I was with, and he was sort of crazy. And not always in a good way.

That hitchhiking trip was a life-changing experience, part of what made me who I am. Or maybe it was an expression of who I already was, of my essential self. My parents didn’t make me have to fight for that, and I’m grateful. There’s not one thing I wished they would have warned me more strongly about or stopped me from doing. (Well, maybe I wish they would have stopped me from quitting the violin.) Without my early freedoms, I don’t think I would have become a solo traveler, racking up some of my other most significant experiences. I don’t know if I would have taken such an open-minded view toward people and situations that didn’t fit a script.

But for my own kids? I don’t know. We are going to let Tillio fly alone this summer. He’ll be dropped off at the gate by my mom, he’ll be met at the other by one or all of us. And next year, we might even let him walk the block and a half to school.

Should we think of the worst thing that can happen? Or should we remember how unlikely it is to, that almost or could have is not it?