The Next Big Thing

I was tagged to participate in the Next Big Thing by my friend, the beautiful writer Sari Wilson. It’s a sort of blog-oriented chain mail where writers ask some other writers to post answers to questions about their current projects, and those writers post and ask more writers, and so on.

Sari’s responses appear on her blog Muttering. Next up will be Laura Bogart, whose fierce nonfiction I have admired on The Nervous Breakdown, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere and whose fiction I look forward to reading. And Eiren Caffall and I have tagged each other. We’re all answering the same set of questions.

A shelf of one's own
1. What is your working title of your book (or story)?

The first page of my draft consists of a list of potential titles. Right now I’m leaning towards Telling, or In the Telling.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Soon after becoming a parent, my mind and body still reeling from that enormity, I learned that an extended family member was in prison for a crime he committed against a child. This news brought some of my earliest and most distinct memories into new focus, and my brain started to churn.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Memoir.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Gotta pass on this question. I’m not even good at this game with fiction, and my mind is absolutely blank when the character I’d be casting for is me.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

It’s about the times I’ve told people that I was sexually assaulted as a child, which also becomes a story about family lineage and contemporary parenting.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

There’s a third way: publication by one of the many good indie presses, which often consider unagented manuscripts but give an author some institutional support. That’s how I published my novel, CURRENCY, and the experience was pretty great. I would consider going that route again. But first I suppose I will try to find an agent.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’m still working on it, but the end is in sight. I’m thinking I will have spent about 2 to 3 years on the first draft, or first and a half draft, since on a sentence level I revise a lot as I go. I have found my stride, now, but I have a full-time job and two kids, and blocks of time are hard to find.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The book I find myself turning to most often for guidance and inspiration is Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick. I’ve also looked closely at The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, Half a Life by Darin  Strauss, The  Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliot, and The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith. These books all have a raw urgency and searching quality to them that I don’t see in most memoirs. They seem very alive to me in a way I hope my book becomes. I’m especially interested  in works where there’s a conversation taking place between a then and a now. Where the story still seems somewhat open and unfolding.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I don’t know if I’m inspired so much as compelled. I feel a need to make sense of various currents in my life in the best way I know how, which is through writing. And I also feel an urgency about shedding some light on the issue of child sex assault, which both exists in the shadows and in the form of  stock cultural images that don’t always fit the reality experienced by many of us.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There are some good sex scenes as well as a couple bad ones. (The fact that sex is the first thing that comes to mind when I look at that question is itself a topic explored in the book.) I’m also feeling good about this book as a piece of writing, as a work of literature. However terrified I feel about this exposing personal nonfiction seeing the light of day, I sense I’m on to something, and I’m not letting go.

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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?

Family Travel: Kids and the List

A year ago today the four of us were returning from Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Lilli had just turned one and Tillio was about to turn eight. It was a low-budget, low-key jaunt to a pretty commonplace destination, but it was a great, great trip. We got off the ferry to the cheerful, semi-grimy tourist hustle that you’d expect from a bargain beach destination, the air smelling archetypally of salt, diesel, and sweet marine rot. We hadn’t changed money yet, we hadn’t accustomed to the heat, we didn’t know how best to get to our lodging at the other side of the island, and we were loaded down with a baby, a stroller, a pack-n-play, but I felt light as a feather. Mark sat with the kids by a curb next to a woman selling mangoes while I got to dart across the street to assess the combio situation and the lay of the land. There I was, dashing around someplace fun and new, and there was my family; we were together. It was the first time I’d left the country since having kids. I felt so happy. I felt like I was coming home.

When Mark and I met, we both fancied ourselves traveler-types. The desire to go was something we shared. And as a couple, we took a couple extended trips—to Thailand, to Guatemala and Honduras. In Tela, Honduras, there was a young hippie family staying at our hotel—a couple and their infant. They didn’t seem to do much besides hang laundry and fuss over the baby, and Mark and I noticed this, commented on it, but as years passed and we planned a life together I’m sure we thought—assumed—that we’d continue to travel, and meaningfully, once we had kids. We’d go to Costa Rica, we said, getting ready to be responsible: You can drink the water there.

Having kids. Traveling. I recently came across an old journal that I kept in Nepal. My thoughts were starting to turn homeward, and I had written a list of goals for myself. I’m too embarrassed to write them all here, but there was a lot of verbiage about the places I still wanted to go, about yoga, about establishing some kind of professional skill set that would lead me out of the service industry, about writing. And kids. Plural. Mid-list. Just the one word for that entry, no elaboration.

I had no fucking idea.

I know there are families who travel widely, kids in tow. I read about them on the internet. I get their twitter feeds. I know some of them personally, including a single mom who packed up her two little ones to Ecuador, hosteling it and giving the lie to my notion that it’s always money that’s the determining factor. Yes, these things are possible. But for us, they’ve been harder than we imagined. So much less time, such a different relationship to money and to work, two sets of grandparents we have to fly to see. And Tillio was such a tough nut, at the beginning there.

But he outgrew that. He’s actually a great traveler, and while we haven’t been abroad, he’s gotten around this country quite a bit. And traveling anywhere with a kid is more like Traveling. A few years ago, Mark went to Italy with his dad and brother, and  Tillio and I took our first trip alone for pleasure, not to visit family. We went to New York, and we flew into Islip, which I’d never done. I remember that airport as being bathed in light and sky and quiet. It seemed impossibly far from the city, and, in fact, it would be something like two and a half more hours and three more kinds of transportation before we got to Brooklyn. Standing outside the airport, a clutch of print-outs in hand, I was trying to figure out whether to take the bus or the shuttle when I met a dad doing the same with his three kids. We paired up as seamlessly as if we were the backpackers thrown together in a songthaew, comparing notes, presenting ourselves as a family to get the better fare from the shuttle, watching each other’s bags and kids when it made things easier.

That was another great, great trip. It was the first time Tillio saw the sea, the first time I went to Coney Island. We visited some of our best and oldest friends. On the Staten Island ferry we passed the Statue of Liberty and more types of boats than we could count.

That same summer he and I went to Seattle, and as a side trip, Valeria and I took three kids to San Juan Island. We arrived at the ferry station just as the rain stopped, and the kids and I explored tidal pools while Valeria propped her feet on our luggage and read the paper in the waiting room. We got off the ferry and made our way to a hostel I had found online. Again, I was so giddily happy as we walked out of town, each kid pulling his or her own bag toward the unknown, an adventure.

It was the feeling of being my old self with my son. There were chickens in the yard of the hostel. There were men in the communal kitchen who shared their beer with Valeria and me. Tillio and I slept in a cabin formed from a little boat, and I stayed up half the night writing. The next day, we got up and went out to watch whales. And that evening we left. It was just one night, but it’s burned into my mind as indelibly as my first night in Thailand was, and I’ve vowed to bring the whole family back for a longer stay.

This would be a great year to do it, when I’m going to Seattle anyway for CURRENCY (July 31!). But the book tour is taking so many of my limited days off, and Mark’s time is going to be pressed with me gone so much, and there are the grandparents to visit, and the cost of airfares for four. The San Juans might have to stay on the list for awhile longer, just like Costa Rica will, just like Italy all together, and France to see Valeria and Valen, and Thailand, which has caught Tillio’s interest because of all the talk about the book.

I try to keep the grand hopes for family travel alive without falling into despondency over the difference between the hopes and the reality. I try to recognize the dream when I live it—a couple hours here, a week there, the sun parting clouds over the Puget Sound. Or, for that matter, over Lake Michigan, the drama and calm and magical hazy glow of which can be found just a mile due east from our home. I try. There’s so much to want to do.

Smoking: A Dream Come True

It’s settled: The release party for CURRENCY is going to be at The Hideout on May 16, from 5:00-7:00. A string of exclamation marks cannot express how unduly happy I am. During the last few months, it’s seemed that the securing of this particular venue has had about as many ups and downs as my decade-long struggle to get the novel published.

You know, I will admit that early on in the struggle to get published, I had dreams of worldly success. I dreamed that I might actually sell the book, as in get some real money from it. Not sick money, not mad money—even in my starry-eyed youth, I never set my sites too high—just some, enough. The number became more specific after my son was born. The year he turned two, the manuscript first made the agented rounds of the big houses and my employer started insisting that I work five days a week instead of the four I was barely managing. I figured if I could get an offer in the mid five figures, I’d have enough to take that job and shove it, at least for a year or so, at least for long enough to cobble together some kind of modestly remunerative professional writing life. And I was willing to hustle: I’d do magazine features! I’d happily teach undergraduates! Anything, as long as paying the bills and caring for my kid would not be at such hot war with me getting writing time.

Well, most of those dreams, even as dreams, have died. My job provides our family’s health insurance and most of our income, and I read plenty about the dismal economics of publishing today. I accept that there’s no peace treaty pending between my writing life and the rest of it, that I just have to get more skilled in the trenches, and I’ve become more convincing when I tell myself that economic justification isn’t necessary. No, it’s the deeper satisfaction of seeing a personal project come to fruition that I’m fueled by now—and it is deep, and I am fueled. But during the ups and downs of booking The Hideout, it’s become clear to me that there’s still one external reward I’ve been holding out for, one very clear image I have of success. It’s smoking a cigarette on The Hideout’s porch after having had a book release party. That, to me, will equal a dream come true.

Now, I quit smoking on December 31, 1998. And I have truly kicked the habit, save for the special occasion. (Ah, for the special occasion.) But the sense memory of nicotine haunts me like an old lover. Or like all the old lovers. All the old friends, the eras and places and discoveries of youth. CURRENCY, too, is wrapped up in this acrid cloud of nostalgia: I smoked my way through Southeast Asia and wrote most of the first draft during a time when I sat at my desk at home and puffed away. Who, even among smokers, lights up inside now? It’s a freaking part of history, like horse-drawn carts. To further out myself as old: I have also enjoyed cigarettes on domestic flights, in college dining halls, and at the desk of my first office job. And of course I smoked—a lot—in the more typical places: bars.

I realize that smoking in bars is no badge of wizened coddgerhood, that up until 2008 anyone in Chicago could. On the eve of the ban I really longed to go on a cigarette tour of the scenes of old crimes and say a proper good-bye, but I was six months pregnant. Missing this last boat has left me with an unresolved yearning, and The Hideout’s front porch is about as close as it gets to public indoor smoking: There’s not that lovely stale air, but you can simultaneously sit down, hold a beer, light a cigarette, and converse. At first unconsciously, I’ve come to believe that this comfortable compromise, this celebration of the old in the manner of the new, is the single best way to mark the occasion of CURRENCY’s publication.

I’m not so aged that I took up smoking without knowing it was poison. In a way, the paradox has always been part of a cigarette’s charm: This will kill you, but doesn’t it make the moment sublime? Ah, yes. Yes, it does. Let the beautiful sad music play. My youth is behind me. I can no longer live for the moment, for only myself. In more than one sense, I do not have much time. But I do have this family, this life, and soon, I will have published a novel. A single cigarette still tastes divine.

And if it’s raining or something? If there’s construction on Wabansia and The Hideout’s porch is torn up? If I have bronchitis, or the cops shut the deal down because there is probably some ordinance against it? Well . . . could happen. We’ll see.

But, won’t you please join us at The Hideout on May 16? Which, by the way, is a request I can only make thanks to my friend Martha Bayne, who, in addition to being a stalwart smoking partner since the time when ten dollars would buy you a carton of Camel Lights, also knows how to make all kinds of good things happen there.

Similarities between shoestring travel and life with a newborn

1. There are the similar physical humiliations— the diarrhea or leaking breasts, the forced doing of once unthinkable things, begging a bus driver to stop so you can relieving yourself in the weeds, baring your breast to nurse in a crowded subway train.

2. There’s the same dependence on a bible, The Lonely Planet, or Dr. Sears Baby Book or Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, and the same frustration when the descriptions don’t match your reality.

3. There’s the discomfort and awkwardness of too much gear, the protrusion of a pack in a re-purposed school bus stuffed three-to-a-seat or of a stroller and bulging diaper bag in a shop aisle.

4. There is the feeling of all eyes on the potential disruption that is you, the lone white person in the village market, the sweating young mother with the baby who begins to cry in the quiet lobby.

5. But all eyes on you also in the other way, too. You’re a movie or rock star—the person with the eyes called beautiful and the blond arm hair others want to stroke, the madonna with the baby miracle, the newest bearer of the universe’s greatest gift.

6. You make the same thrown-together alliances, with the other backpacker getting off at dusk in the town, with the other mother looking to break silence in the park.

7. You have the same desire to do the right thing and the nagging fear that you’re probably doing it wrong—and that you’re being judged. What do you do with a fork in a Thai restaurant? What do you do when your baby’s only pacifier falls in the dirt?

8. You place a similar consequence on what you eat—the attempt to avoid ice or raw lettuce in Katmandu, to avoid dairy if you’re nursing. And there’s the same second-guessing: Was it the market-stall smoothie you gave in to that left you puking in the outdoor toilet at midnight? Was it the broccoli in that soup you ate that caused the horrific pre-dawn screams?

9. There’s the same urge to picture-take. You can’t believe how glorious the site, how far you’ve come. You can’t believe the perfection of the baby. If you capture it just right, will you always remember the ecstasy of this moment? Will others begin to understand that despite the dysentery, the battered body, the lack of freedom and privacy, of one’s own bed, the forbearance of mosquitoes and 4:00 AM feedings, you would never not be here? You would never have not made this trip.

10. And of course there’s the newness. Each stone and shadow and breeze is new, and particular. You sample the infinite variety, but you recognize the infinite connectedness, too. We all were born. So many have given birth. So many have tended babies, protected them from the world, showed it to them, smiled at them to elicit their smiles. It’s the humble and arrogant search of so many journeys: the world revealed, a mystery peered into. You are powerful and powerless, and everything seems both small and huge.

I’m sure there’s more.