On Wednesday, July 13 at 6:00 PM CDT (4:00 PM PDT, 7:00 PM EDT) Author Barbara Graham comes to Mystery to Me to introduce her new book, What Jonah Knew, in a conversation with poet and novelist Dale M. Kushner. This event is free and will be in-person at Mystery to Me on Monroe Street! Seating is limited so save your seat by registering on Eventbrite at the link. The live event is also being streamed via Crowdcast. Register for the Crowdcast stream and you can join us from home or from afar. You’ll be reminded on the day of the event.
About the Book
A seven-year-old boy inexplicably recalls the memories of a missing 22-year-old musician in this psychological thriller about the fierce love between mothers and sons across lifetimes, a work of gripping suspense with a supernatural twist that will mesmerize fans of Chloe Benjamin and Lisa Jewell.
Helen Bird will stop at nothing to find Henry, her musician son who has mysteriously disappeared in upstate New York. Though the cops believe Henry’s absence is voluntary, Helen knows better.
While she searches for him–joined finally by police–Jonah is born to Lucie and Matt Pressman of Manhattan. Lucie does all she can to be the kind of loving, attentive mother she never had, but can’t stop Jonah’s night terrors or his obsession with the imaginary “other mom and dog” he insists are real.
Whether Jonah’s anxiety is caused by nature or nurture–or something else entirely–is the propulsive mystery at the heart of the novel.
All hell breaks loose when the Pressmans rent a summer cottage in Aurora Falls, where Helen lives. How does Jonah, at seven, know so much about Henry, Helen’s still-missing son? Is it just a bizarre coincidence? An expression of Jung’s collective unconscious? Or could Jonah be the reincarnation of Henry?
Faced with more questions than answers, Helen and Lucie set out to make sense of the insensible, a heart-stopping quest that forces them to redefine not just what it is to be a mother or a human being, but the very nature of life–and death–because of what Jonah knows.
About the Author
Barbara Graham is an author, essayist, and playwright. Her pieces have appeared in many magazines and websites, including Glamour, O, the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, Psychotherapy Networker, Redbook, Self, Time, Utne Reader, Vogue, and npr.org, in addition to being collected in numerous anthologies. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller Eye of My Heart, the national bestseller Women Who Run with the Poodles, and Camp Paradox, a memoir. Her plays have been produced Off-Broadway at the WPA Theatre in New York and at theaters around the country. For more about Barbara Graham and her writing, visit: https://barbaragrahamauthor.com.
Arriving at a new destination the first thing I notice are trees and sky. People, the details of their physiognomy, their manners and gestures, their clothing and habitations prompt my curiosity, but trees and sky are the welcoming agents that make a place home. This is a bit shameful to admit. As a fiction writer I’m obsessed by the unexpected beauties, swathes of ugliness, and confounding mysteries inherent in the human condition, but I must also confess to being an adoring student and humble acolyte of the natural world.
My attachment to trees began early in life. In a memory I am no longer sure is recollected or fabricated, equal parts invention and truth, I’m in our backyard on Elberta Road in rural Maplewood, New Jersey, washing dolls’ clothes in a galvanized tub. It’s late June, the air still clear of late summer humidity, the sky a pure jewel blue. I am between two stalwart friends: an ancient oak that marked the western border of our property, in autumn host to noisy conventions of migrating crows, and the younger but equally wide-girthed maple at the eastern corner whose winged seed pods we children stuck on our noses and ran around calling each other Pinocchio.
The leaves of both trees were deeply green, a hue more satisfying even than the edible green of Crayola crayons, the shadows they cast enclosing and giving texture to space as they filtered the light. Their overlapping branches created a vestibule of shade, a sort of room or entryway infused with its own particular vegetal scent within whose borders I experienced the pleasure of tranquility and happy solitude.
Arrows of sunlight shoot through the branches and hang in dusty, pollen-filled columns shaped and reshaped by the whim of a breeze. My hands are wrist-deep in sudsy water. I swish the doll nightgown and party dress through the bubbles, then wring them to dry on the sunny flagstone path. Nothing I can remember prompts me to throw back my head and stare at the sky, but on this day when I do, I’m transported out of my body into a separate sphere existing alongside the known one, the familiar world morphing into a wilderness of new perceptions.
If I spin around I see what I always saw: the screened porch with its slider couch from whose safety my grandmother and I watched the gathering darkness of summer storms; the clothesline strung with sheets and jiggling undies; the webbed lawn chairs circling the patio; the ruffled edge of an organdy curtain billowing from an upstairs window—the ordinary is still intact, and yet the longer I gaze at my steadfast guardians, the maple, the oak, the imperturbable summer sky—each stone in the garden, the delicate purple of the petunias—wherever I look each thing is radiantly alive, gazing back at me with equal curiosity.
There was, as I’ve said, a gentle wind and also an astonishing silence, as if I were alone in an invisible walled chamber suffused with goodness and calm. The words reverie, immersion, liminal come to mind. No more than a few seconds elapsed in real time, and even the sensations that accompanied my experience did not linger. I must have immediately gone back to wringing out dolls’ clothes, or I simply left what I was doing, caught up as young children are with another curiosity, a bug I fancied nosing the zinnias, or I ran off to play at a friend’s call. I had no comprehension that anything extraordinary had occurred and attached no importance to the event.
I forgot about this experience but the experience did not forget me. It sank to the bottom of consciousness awaiting my adult self to resurrect and examine its meaning. It was, I see now, one of my first memories of being fully alive, a person separate but a part of a palpably living universe. As Keats wrote in his Letters: “If a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.”
Certainly not then and not now do I make any claim for a visitation from the divine. In childhood, and my opinion hasn’t changed since, the God of the Old Testament did not fritter away His time spying on children. Wasn’t He much too busy smiting the enemies of Israel to care about me? Yet God knew everything you did without looking, so one could still be punished for bad behavior. The connection I felt was not to a personality—God, Jesus, angels, fairies—but to something ineffable and kindly nonhuman.
Nor can I reconstruct, as Barbara Ehrenreich does in her book Living with a Wild God, that perhaps I had succumbed to some form of dissociative mental illness or epileptic seizure. Neither God nor madness chose me. Enchantment might best describe the threshold I crossed.
For however briefly I was filled with gladness and the feeling of being less isolated, less lonely, as if I had entered my own fairy tale in which trees and birds and flowers whispered their secrets. The oak, with its giant’s torso substantial beyond injury from hurricane or gale, its extended humped roots evidence in my mind of a taproot that surely reached to the earth’s molten core, and the maple with its low-slung embracing arms, were benevolent sheltering presences that bore witness.
I am surprised at how much feeling bubbles up when I write these paragraphs. My self-aware adult self sees with sympathy the small child framed in her fleeting moments of bliss that will shortly be swallowed by chaotic family life; but perhaps it is precisely this duality of inner and outer experience from which we can take hope. It may be that I’m describing a kind of grace, those unwilled, spontaneous transcendent seconds in which we glimpse the eternal timeless.
I suppose now that my early experiences with the benevolent Other may have saved my sanity by providing an alternative to a world often dominated by cruel human motivations and laid the groundwork for a sympathetic imagination. It would be reckless as well as foolish for me to believe that glimpses of the eternal cure our fear of earthly horrors or of death, that end of everything we dread, but I can’t help wondering if we are eased by an experience of a cherishing force charged with maintaining the harmony of the spheres that includes us in its balancing act.
In his memoir, Speak, Memory, which is among other things a gorgeous elegy to loss itself, Nabokov writes about his experience of time, its treachery and consolation. Considering the latter, he says:
“I confess I do not believe in time….And the highest enjoyment of timelessness…is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plant. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone.”
It would have been impossible for my child self to have put any of this together—threshold experiences, love, death, immortality, beauty, solitude, loneliness, fullness, inner and outer worlds—but as I write these words sitting in my rented casita in New Mexico and race to finish a draft of my second novel, I see the timeline that exists from the backyard moment of long ago to this moment now. Newly arrived in the Southwest, I’m on the lookout for a special tree, a companion under whose boughs I can lose my ego-bound self, whose nonverbal teachings will be beyond my wildest imaginings.
Who would have guessed—certainly not me—that the most popular blog post I’ve written so far would be the July 24, 2014 post called “The Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer.” I have to wonder—besides MFA writing students, bookstore owners, and media interviewers—what audience accounts for all those clicks?
In the sixteenth century, an Italian artist and historian Giorgio Vasari wrote an unprecedented book, an encyclopedia really, called The Lives of the Most Exceptional Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times, comprised of more than a hundred biographies of famous artists. Four centuries later, the irrepressible scholar and critic Harold Bloom created the 800-page compendium Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. During the intervening centuries there have been thousands of biographies written about artists and writers. The general public seems ever more curious about the lives and minds of our creative folk. The question is why?
Of course I’m simplifying a more nuanced plot, but this is my question: as a culture do we relish a voyeuristic intimacy with our artists more than with their created works? (Imagine how the reclusive Dostoevsky, Dickinson, or Proust would have felt about this.) Is the current fascination with writers’ lives akin to another era’s curiosity about the lives of saints? How are writers important to our culture? Are their lives exemplary in ways worth studying? Or prophetic in some way? Do we want to know how they got to be who they are? Do we inquire because we really want to ask ourselves, “Could I become a writer too?”
These questions interest me even though I am one of them—a writer by profession and temperament. Writing is a lonely business, and I have to admit I find great satisfaction in reading this passage from Orlando by one of our true writing geniuses, Virginia Woolf:
Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.
I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to ask myself if I were interviewing Dale M. Kushner, author. Self-inquiry is an essential aspect of being a writer since self-knowledge is the basis of empathy and understanding others.
Were books accessible to you as a child? Were you encouraged to read? What were your favorite books?
Yes and Yes. I liked to read in private in my bed or in a corner in the library. I did not like to read at school, especially if I had to read out loud to a class. My favorite books as a child were a book of Chinese fairy tales, Little Women and The Diary of Anne Frank.
Are there aspects of craft that engage you more than others? I love language. I love the sensual quality of words. I make sense out of the world through images and the percussive rhythms and resonances of words. I can feel a satisfyingly written sentence vibrate in my body. It takes me forever to write a novel because I might spend hours searching for lemot juste.
What props are most necessary for you to write?
My lightbox in the winter. A bag of raw almonds. My tartan plaid flannel bathrobe. And Maisie, my Golden Retriever pup.
What’s an appropriate way for one art form to respond to another? At what cost do we forget or deny our history? Can we ever truly escape our past?
These questions preoccupied me earlier this month when, as part of its Bridge Poetry Series, Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art invited local poets to respond to Background Story, A New Approach to Landscape Painting, a new exhibition of an installation by contemporary artist Xu Bing. I enjoy this kind of challenge, eagerly assented and took part in a very stimulating evening on December 10 when we all read our responses. You can read my poem, “Elegy to History,” in full below. But to appreciate the context, I should first tell you a few things about Xu Bing’s iconoclastic and captivating work.
But Xu Bing is no ordinary painter. What at first seems to be an ink painting on eighty feet of rice paper turns out not to be a painting at all. It’s a screen covering a light box. The painting’s brush strokes are actually shadows cast by hundreds of LED lights illuminating dried grasses, plastic bags, sticks, rocks, tape, and other detritus. The box is open on the other side so that you can see how the illusion of the painting is created. It’s quite an astonishing act of conjuring. You can see Xu Bing and his crew at work in the video below.
In trying to find a way into Xu Bing’s spectacular work, that is, in trying to find the human element within the larger scope of the painting’s natural world, I took as my starting place the small figure of a Chinese man sitting on a bench in the forefront of the screen. It was his voice I began to hear.
He is man having a conversation with the past, a man summoned in a dream to acknowledge the personal and collective past of which he has been dismissive.
George Orwell wrote: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
I couldn’t have predicted even a few weeks ago how timely this quote is and how much it informs my poem. I say timely because right now on planet Earth we are more than ever undergoing sweeping cultural changes, and I believe that much of the turbulence in the world today is the result of collective forgetting and repression. What’s at issue here is not forgivable ignorance but radical denial and I believe there is a price to pay for it.
Perhaps Xu Bing’s title, Background Story, refers not only to the material attached to the back of the screen that forms the frontal shadows, but also to the idea that the backstory to Background Story is the artist’s reclamation of Chinese scroll painting, an ancient and sacred art form, in a dramatic new medium.
“A core element of human culture is dialogue with the past.”—Xu Bing
Elegy to History
At first I thought they were only shadows:
the whole enterprise meaningless.
I was young, arrogant. I only trusted things
I could feel and touch.
Art, beauty, spirit? Outdated ideas.
we had even
a new epoch.
I wasn’t prepared
when Grandfather summoned
in a dream,
called this place hsin—
the meeting of mind and heart.
I sat on a bench tapping my foot
as if at a bad movie.
I lit a cigarette. Mist kept
rolling off the mountain.
Everything was golden,
the color of ripe corn.
I didn’t realize
I had deluded myself.
I’d never escaped.
I was composed
Memories in the familiar vernacular
of my father and grandfather and his father
stormed my mind.
I began to shake
with a violence I’d never encountered.
I remembered how they had forced my father from his classroom.
He had been teaching
In the alley — lashes, rifle butts and boot kicks.
Rain fusing an alchemy
of mud and blood.
My father slipping from this world.
My mother’s helpless eyes.
I lit another cigarette.
All this had happened many years ago.
The Revolution was over.
We had proclaimed
a new age.
I had to ask myself: Why
in this place of serenity
did I still feel torment?
I reached out to touch a pine.
Its needles crumbled to dust in my fingers.
The scent of resin rose in my nostrils
and became the odor
of my mother’s heavy hair.
A thought of childhood
entered my head. I chased it away.
The footbridge was empty. Not a single bird
in the vast, impenetrable sky.
My father was gone, mother, gone.
The others eaten
My slender fingers
so helpless in my lap.
I fell on my knees and begged
their forgiveness. The earth
was neither warm or cold. The silence
a mockery to the chaos in my heart.
The dream was ending and
I did not want it to end.
I promised to return, I promised to remember,
but already the images were fading.
They were only shadows,
to be replaced by newer shadows.
Watch a video of how Xu Bing and his studio create his installations
A number of years ago I took myself to a small town in Switzerland outside Zurich where Carl Jung founded his training institute for Analytical Psychology. I was exploring the notion of becoming a Jungian analyst and had signed up for a summer intensive training program as a litmus test for a career change. My mother had been calling me her psychiatrist for years, a title I would gladly have shucked if there had been anyone else for the job. I was a dutiful daughter, a patient listener whose sympathetic clucks my mother enthusiastically interpreted as “Poor you.”
By the time I arrived in Küsnacht, I’d earned an MFA in Poetry, had numerous publications in prestigious literary journals and was enjoying teaching writing workshops. It seemed enough. More than enough. My children were still at home, and I could hardly keep up with myself as it was. And yet… something else was calling.
Something else was calling.
Jung himself would have been interested in my choice of words. “Call” from the Old Norse Kalla, meaning “to summon loudly.” What was calling me and to which calling was I being called? The motivation to study depth psychology was nothing as jolting as an angel (or devil) sitting on my shoulder directing me to change my life. It was something more akin to a still small voice that, had I not been listening, might have been drummed out by the cacophony of the daily round.
Something else was calling. Actually it was nudging me, poking into my dreams. I didn’t know what IT was, but I was paying attention. Just about this time, I had begun to write persona poems, that is, poems in the voice of a speaker who is not the poet, dramatic monologues really, and mine were in the voice of famous women—Simone Weil, Mary Magdalene, Marilyn Monroe. I see now that I was beginning to need a larger canvas than poetry to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I was evolving from a poet to a storyteller, and soon a writer of fiction, but none of this was clear to me when I stood on the steps of the Jung Insititut at Hornweg 28 on the Zurichsee.
Something was calling. Most of us know the feeling—the nameless, faceless prompting that niggles our mind and causes us to flail in our sleep. It’s the road we fear we might not take to an unknowable future.
In my case, the impulse turned out to be writerly, leading me away from crafting lyric poems toward writing a novel. I needed to understand better those paradoxes and conundrums of the human soul that are the basis of good fiction. Therapists and fiction writers share a lot in common: our charge is to observe and empathize with our clients/characters, to listen to their stories and help them discover new ones, to excavate the strata of their experience and bear witness to their motivations, their secrets, their unspoken desires. To do this with grace and objectivity, we need to know our own biases and personality ticks.
My “aha” moment, when I realized becoming an analyst was not for me, occurred while chatting with a fellow trainee. The day was postcard perfect—grazing sheep and gardens of Old-World roses scattered among the colorful medieval houses of Küsnacht, the Alps outlined against an enameled blue sky. My friend and I were discussing “transference,” the phenomenon in which a patient’s unconscious feelings are projected, “transferred” onto the analyst/therapist. (Say you resent your father and have never been able express it, but hey, it’s easy to cuss out your analyst.) Much of the healing in analysis, I was learning, got accomplished through transference whereby the analyst remains a mirror for the analysand to see his own feelings. Bad behavior on the part of the cussee was never to be taken personally by the analyst.
The “Paul/Laura” episodes of HBO’s In Treatment dramatized transference
I remembering thinking on that perfect afternoon in Switzerland: Do I really want to be so intimate with the anger and grief of others? Was my skin thick enough? All day I would be listening to stories and trying not to absorb the emotions behind them. These would not be invented stories either, but narrative tales bound to the real world and woven out of real suffering. Though I knew myself to be the best of empathizers, I didn’t know if I had the emotional stamina for the job.
I realized I wanted to explore the stories in my own psyche that were not bound to time and fact. The writer and analyst/therapist share a preoccupation with narrative and a love of mucking around in the unconscious where personality incubates and where the inexpressible is born into metaphor and image, but the desire to create art is vastly different from the intention of analysis. If I were going to explore inner worlds, it would be my own inner world, and by extension, the inner worlds of my characters, a much more selfish and self-serving goal than that of a becoming an analyst.
Embedded in the art of writing is the art of listening, true listening without the ego’s ready assertions, those automatic habits and defenses that define our public selves. This is listening the way I imagine a horse “listens” to the shifting musculature of its rider. I was just beginning to sense that I housed characters who wanted me to listen to them in just this manner, whose stories I needed to uncover and disclose.
I knew that if I decided to continue with analytic training, the experience would profoundly transform me, and that I would have to make a choice between becoming an analyst and writing, between treating patients and creating characters. I wouldn’t be able to sustain both.
I listened to fabulous lectures for two summers at the C.G. Jung Institut, but I did not stay to get my diploma. Instead, I opened myself to a new way of looking at the world, its shadows and archetypes, the likes of which would surface in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love.
And here’s an afterthought: the something else that calls us can manifest in cunning ways. Both summers I attended the Institut I was called away before the program finished, once for a family celebration and once for a sudden death in the family. Was the fact that I was called home early both times a coincidence or something more? How to interpret the interruptions? I would have to dig into Jung’s explanation of synchronicity and its relationship to fate to understand.
As I get deeper into the life and experiences of Reenie, the main character in my new novel, Digging to China, I find I am reflecting more and more about my own life and identity. Back in January, 2014, I gave a talk at Temple Beth El in Madison on “The Heroine’s Journey” as part of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation’s Everywoman’s Journal Program. Something moved me recently to revisit and expand on some of that material for an article that’s just been published onBlog-Shmog at Jewish Currents.
I do find it so strange and mysterious that I should be exploring “my Jewishness,” whatever that is, in relationship to my writing, but I suppose what we imagine to be our identity is a bit like strata shifting over time. I’m delighted that Jewish Currents decided to share my ruminations with its readers.
I’ve pasted the opening paragraphs to the article below. You can read the full article at Jewish Currents.
My Jewish Question, My Father
Twenty years ago, I was completely unaware of any relationship between my writing and my experience of being Jewish. Ten years ago, I might have felt a vague stirring of the connection, but had no sense of its depth. Now, working on a second novel, I look back at what I didn’t know I knew until after I’d finished my first book and am astonished to discover how much “my Jewishness” influences the way I perceive and interpret the world.
Why should this surprise me? Unlike other contemporary writers of Jewish heritage whose fiction is steeped in historical and fabulist Jewish lore—writers like Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nicole Krauss—I’ve never identified myself as a writer concerned with Jewish experience. But then, I had not looked deeply into the question. If I had, I might have realized that who I am as a writer has everything to do with my obsessions, my core concerns, my values and judgments, and these in turn are tinged by my personal and collective Jewish background. Did I really think growing up in a secular Jewish home left no traces?
Jews are often referred to as “people of the book.” The Old Testament is a compilation of teaching stories we tell and retell at ritual times across continents and down millennia. The Bible harnesses mythology, religious teachings, and history to the written word. Its sacredness is the very embodiment of the religion, a totemic object that has united a diasporic people since Moses, but it’s through the oral transmission of stories and story-meaning that the religion lives and breathes. A song sung at Hanukah begins: Who can retell the things that befell us/who can count them?/In every age a hero or sage came to our aid.
Who can retell? Storytellers retell and I am one of them.
My father was a great storyteller, a purveyor of jokes, a student of Torah and Talmud, Maimonides, Justice Brandeis, and a little Sholem Aleichem on the side. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Isaac and Jacob—these were not his cast of characters. My father’s stories involved figures named Yankel, Nutsy Fagin, or Velvela Rabbit. Like the great Biblical figures, his characters encountered nightmares and wild hope, made bad decisions, employed tricks, spoke prophecy and prayed to God. In other words, they were outrageous, endearing, silly, and closer than Eve to my own human heart.
My father’s stories embroidered the fantastical with the practical, and illustrated in equal parts pathos and humor, cunning and stupidity. The rich were clever and took advantage; children were innocent as were animals; the poor schlemiel got what he deserved. These were cautionary tales. Best to keep a sense of humor since absurdity ruled the world.
When I ask myself how did my Jewish upbringing influence what I write . . . [read more]
It may not surprise readers of fiction that fiction writers have a very intimate relationship with our characters. We hear their voices waking and sleeping. Their stories live in us, they become family, that is, family we choose. Or perhaps I should say, family that chooses us. When I talk about my characters to a new audience, it’s almost as if I am introducing family members to strangers.
My characters reveal their stories to me, but not all at once and not in any linear way. And not surprisingly, the complications that arise in their lives echo subjects I’m drawn to. One subject that has concerned me for some time I call “Girls at Risk: The Enigma of Resilience.”
One of the threads in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love, is emotional resiliency, what qualities enable us to flourish despite bad beginnings. I didn’t realize I was writing about this subject until after I finished the book. I call these post-publication revelations “Writer’s Hindsight Learning.” It’s what the author doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book! What I mean is that when I’m engaged in the discovery aspect of writing, moving the story forward scene by scene and trying to be a good listener to my characters, I’m not in an analytic mode. For me, writing is a process of discovery. The themes pick me. This might sound counter-intuitive, even counter-productive, but it isn’t. It’s about trusting your unconscious mind to lead you where you need to go. That means I don’t outline or write out a plot before I begin. It means risking being in the unknown. It means suffering the woes of creative vulnerability. But I know no other way to get to the deeper layers of a story, to the story INSIDE the story.
In fiction as in life, nothing destabilizes the identity of a young person as profoundly as turmoil in the home. I don’t mean this in any judgmental way. Quite the opposite. As a writer, I’m compelled to examine and speak the truth about the light and darkness inherent in human beings—the guilt, the sorrow, the joy, the indiscretions, the desire for freedom, the desire to survive no matter what.
By destabilizing one’s identity I mean the confused and painful experience of not knowing who one is or where one belongs. It’s the feeling of rupture from the familiar and stable structures of one’s life. These can be existential crises that set us on a journey to find out who we are. We ask ourselves, “if this and this and this are no longer true in my life, who am I now?”
“You are not going to use me an an excuse again.” James Dean as Jim Stark arguing with his parents (Ann Doran and Jim Backus) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
This dilemma—of finding one’s true self against the background of loss and impermanence—is at the core of The Conditions of Love, and now I see it shaping my second novel, a work in progress called Digging to China.
In both my novels, the young protagonists find themselves in home environments that are about to be disrupted. Their mothers are going through big changes. Their fathers are either absent, (Eunice in The Conditions of Love), or about to be left behind (Reenie in Digging to China). In his book, The Child, the psychologist Erich Neumann wrote: “Once we appreciate the positive significance of the child’s total dependency on the primal relationship, we cannot be surprised by the catastrophic effects that ensue when that relationship is disturbed or destroyed.”
Something Carl Jung once wrote has always haunted me and in some way has been an impetus for my work.
“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents (and ancestors too, for we are dealing here with the age-old psychological phenomenon of original sin) have not lived.” —Carl Jung, Introduction to The Inner World of Childhood by Frances G. Wickes (1927)
As a writer, I’m very interested in the entangled and entangling relationship between parents and children. In both my novels, the mothers are the major destabilizers in their daughter’s lives, while their fathers are absent and idealized. The unfulfilled desires of the mothers affect their daughters. These desires are either thwarted or encouraged by the decades they live in.
In The Conditions of Love, Eunice’s mother, Mern, has a craving to be a movie star. Hollywood and what it represented in the Fifties is quite different from the Hollywood of today. It’s hard for us to imagine how significant movies were in the Fifties. Movies stars were these gigantic, dazzling national icons. Everyone knew who Marilyn or Bogey was. So, we have a mother who yearns for a richer and more exciting life, and a child who yearns for a normal family.
But I have sympathy for Mern and hope readers will too. Her creativity is stifled. The novel is set in the Fifties before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, before the birth control pill, and women’s lib. Mern IS over the top, but what can she aspire to? She’s trapped in her single mother, working class life. To be discovered as a starlet was one big dream for a lot of American women at that time. Of course this situation is horrible for her daughter. Indeed, a set up for calamity.
In Digging to China, Reenie’s mother Nate is caught up in the political turbulence of the late Sixties. The novel begins one week after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, in June I968. In the course of the novel, Nate becomes radicalized and an activist for social justice. In Digging To China, specific political events precipitate internal transformation. Reenie becomes caught up in the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, and like Eunice, is launched on a journey of self-discovery.
Here is the opening of Digging to China. Reenie is listening to her parents fight in the room next door. You’ll hear how her imagination serves her in providing a sense of magic and wonder that leads to empowerment as she plots how to escape her distress.
Maplewood, New Jersey
They are at it again in the bedroom next to hers. Slippers thrown across the room, her mother’s scorched voice exploding in disgust. Her father commanding Control yourself, Nathalie. Reenie waits in the void of their aggrieved voices, ear to gap, the silence, and imagines her father smoking by the window, mother tense at the edge of the bed, cigarette butts burning to ash in the big glass ashtray. Her mother is Jewish and unhappy. (No one but Reenie notices this association, what she thinks of as her mother’s Jewish strangeness, the vague smile that twists into anger, the constant argument in her eyes.) Temperamental. Stubborn. Infuriating. Words her father labels her mother to be avoided at all costs, though Reenie is nothing like the brave and beautiful Nathalie. Nothing at all.
She should be used to this live rage scattershot in the night, but its randomness (her mother mutely seething at dinner, her father preoccupied but polite, cheerful even) undoes her, the violence chipping away at her confidence. Now she sits up in bed, hands clammy, heart sinking in a sea of blood and plugs her ears, Row row row your boat useless against the parental gale. Wakeful, she can’t not listen: her survival depends on it.
I want my fictional worlds to accurately convey the paradoxes, confusions, and moral dilemmas of human beings. Novels give us the experience of being alive in another person’s skin. How would we know about worlds we could never enter otherwise without our Toni Morrison, our Tim O’Brien, or Khaled Hosseini. Novels are direct avenues to compassion, something our world sorely needs to cultivate these days. And I have to say, writing my characters has taught me so much about risk, survival and resiliency. This is the great mystery of being a writer. We are transformed by what we write.
When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.
I have to wonder what other first lines floated around in Kafka’s head before he set down this iconic one from his novella, The Metamorphosis. How many possible first lines had he written and tossed aside? This one must have struck him with such truth and clarity that he dismissed all others. Teeming with possibility. We can’t know what we have inside if we are stopped dead-on by the confusion at the beginning.
Since May and the publication of the paperback edition of The Conditions of Love, I’ve been on the road visiting bookstores and talking to readers. Book tours are not without stress—Will it rain? Will the fine weather keep people away? Who will show up? Will the book sell?—but no matter how these external circumstances play out, without fail I personally have been touched by every audience, even the reader who told me she threw the book across the room because she was so angry with Mern in her outrageous mother incarnation. I took the reader’s response as a compliment (which it was!) since it means I must have created a believable world in fiction.
I hope to write more about my encounters with readers and the experience of being a private person who assumes a public life, but at the moment I still am on tour, about to head up to the Wisconsin’s Cape Cod , the Door County peninsula for several book events. I expect that once again I’ll be engaged in thought-provoking discussions about TCOL and about the writing life. Just for fun, I came up with this list of the Five Best Questions to Ask a Writer. Every writer will, of course, have different preferences, but here are some of mine.
The Five Best Questions to Ask a Writer
1. What were the early influences on your writing and how do they manifest in your work?
2. How does writing change the writer?
3. What books have fortified you as a writer?
4. Why is the unconscious mind a writer’s best friend?
5. What are you working on now?
This leads me to wonder if you’ve ever received a surprising answer when you asked a writer a question. I’d love to hear about it.