Home: Real, Sung or Imagined

July 16th, 2013

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-apple-pie-image27421089My youngest son, age 10, was a little nervous about spending a week at Boy Scout camp. He knew the scouts don’t prissy around with luxury items like cabins and food that anyone might actually want to eat. But that wasn’t what worried him. It was the homesickness.

My husband and I made a plan. At scout camp, the troop parents are expected to help staff the campsite; I would go down and stay over the first night, my husband would do the last night, and our older son, an Eagle Scout, would do a night in the middle.

As it turns out, this was a really bad plan.

That first afternoon and evening, every time I thought he was starting to settle in, he’d take one look at me and well up. The next morning was even worse. At the mess hall, over a breakfast of pancakes that tasted like sweetened dish sponges, he could barely hold it together.

“I’m right here!” I wanted to say to him. How could he be sad with his mother actually sitting 3 feet away from him—and what would it be like when I left? Mushrooms of anxiety were starting to grow in my own stomach, and no, it wasn’t the pancakes. After a tearful goodbye, I spent the whole ride home lobbing up prayers that he would be okay, that other kind parents and kids would somehow comfort him.

And that is exactly what happened. I got texts from the other parents. Apparently, once I left, the big neon sign blinking “HOME, HOME, HOME” over my head left with me. He began to hang out with the other scouts, practice his knot-tying and tell fart jokes just like everyone else.

A couple of days later, when his big brother came back from his stint at camp I practically tackled him. “How is he?” I demanded.

“He cried.”

“What?!” I’d been so sure that was behind us. “Do you think it was harder with you there?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”

“Because he told me so. He said, ‘I keep thinking about how you’re going home without me.’”

Home. I guess it’s nice to know that he loves it so much. I never really felt that way myself growing up. In fact, I couldn’t wait to jump ship. Home was not the full fridge, people keeping regular hours, generally predictable and happy place my kids know. I was always certain of my parents’ love, but beyond that, a lot of it was pretty much up for grabs.

Paul McC aThus, I wasn’t really prepared for my reaction to seeing Paul McCartney in concert last week. Flooded with memories from my childhood, I found myself slightly teary, uncharacteristically nostalgic for a place I had often found fault with. My mother rarely had anything in the way of disposable income, but when she did, she bought records—cool stuff like Steve Wonder and Joni Mitchell and, yes, The Beatles. We played them so continuously it’s a wonder they didn’t disintegrate into black vinyl dust.

I sang my way through my childhood, and those songs became a sort of home for me.

Books, too, became a home. I read every single Laura Ingalls Wilder book, secretly longing for the solidity of Ma and Pa, the sweet smell of baking pies, the warmth of a never-dying fire, and the safety of a fortress-like log cabin.

My own children trend toward dystopian fiction, which I still can’t quite get over. Why would they want to read book after book about post-apocalyptic misery, even if things eventually work themselves out in the end (sort of, after a serious stretch of gruesomeness, and in a still vaguely anxiety-ridden way)?

But maybe my husband and I have sown the seeds of their literary tastes by providing a home that is so contrary to all of that. So predictable and safe, despite the vicissitudes of childhood and adolescence. So comfortable, despite the fights over underperformed chores, over-consumed junk food, and whether it’s absolutely necessary for us to call the parents of their party-throwing friends “just to touch base.”

When my husband went down for that last night at scout camp, our son was having a blast. He’d made friends, learned all the kooky scout songs, and was happily filthy.  He could enjoy himself knowing that his dad wouldn’t be going home without him.

He says he definitely wants to go back next year. I will not be joining him. I will be home, making sure the fridge is full and the home fires are burning (or the AC is cranked up) when he returns.

Maybe I’ll even throw on some Beatles tunes and bake a pie.

Following: A Good Man’s Great Act of Love

June 19th, 2013

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-2-planes-image19585317Three years ago, my sister-in-law Mary was living the life she’d always hoped for. Parenting two beautiful 12-year-old twin girls with her partner of 17 years, working in highly respected position, and living on Cape Cod—it had all come together for her.

On December 9, 2010, it all came apart.

After a long transatlantic business trip, she got up to change planes in Detroit. In the jet way she crumpled to the floor; an embolism that had likely been growing over the course of the flight had traveled to her lungs. She was given CPR for 45 minutes and transported to the local hospital.

I will never forget that Thursday afternoon. A doctor called looking for my husband Tom, who was listed as one of Mary’s emergency contacts. She didn’t say much more than, “Your sister-in-law has had an event. The situation is quite grave.”

An event. Actually, Mary had died and been revived. But 45 minutes of CPR is a long time for a brain to live with only the barest minimum of oxygen. My husband understood this. When I got through to him, he already knew that the situation was, in fact, extremely grave.

Tom and Mary had a special bond; they adored one another and spoke often, discussing family concerns, seeking advice and sharing the joys and challenges of parenthood. They were raised in a loving, tight-knit family. Their father was a remarkable man in many ways, but it was his devotion to his kids that most impressed me. He was a salesman, often traveling all week and coming home to an exhausted wife and six young children. He would take over kid duty, in part to give their mother a break, but also just to be with them. He was famous for driving them all the way from their suburban Boston home to Logan Airport just to mail letters.

My husband is that kind of father; he loves to be with his kids. And yet the best part of his fatherhood is that he follows our four on their own journeys. Our oldest son loves to camp; Tom hates it, but goes on camping trips for no other reason than to be with his son in the boy’s own element. Our middle son is a Yankees fan; every cell in Tom’s being roots for the Red Sox, but when asked if they could possibly go to a Yankees game—in Yankee Stadium, no less—Tom found a way to make it happen.

My husband has made a part time career of following our children to places he would never choose to go if he were not the daddiest kind of daddy.

On December 9, 2010, Tom followed his big sister to Detroit. Mary was on life support, and her brain was slowly dying. Tom arranged for Mary’s grief-stricken partner to travel with him, and encouraged his sisters and elderly mother to come to Detroit the next day, knowing it would likely be their last chance to see Mary alive.

On December 11, the decision was made to remove life support and Mary died. She was a beautiful, loving, joy-filled, wonderful person, and she was taken from us far too soon.

The rest of the family went home to break the news, provide comfort, and prepare for the process of laying Mary to rest. Tom arranged for transport of Mary’s body back to Massachusetts. Because it was the weekend, the paperwork would take a couple of days, and he could have come back then, too, but he called me.

“I can’t leave without her,” he said. “I need to see her home.”

Two days later, I met him at Logan Airport, where his father used to come with Tom and Mary and their siblings to mail letters. I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve seen my husband cry, and he seemed calm when he walked across the terminal toward me. But when I put my arms around him, I felt the tiny gasps in his chest. Oh, Mary, we miss you so.

We followed the funeral van with her body to Cape Cod, talking sadly about how this would be her last time crossing the Sagamore Bridge toward the place she loved the most on this earth. We watched the van pull into the local funeral home, blinking back tears. Tom had done what he’d promised. He had seen her home.

Tom’s fatherhood is like his brotherhood and like his friendship. He shows up for people. When someone he loves is in need, he follows where they need to him to go, does what he can to help. He does this quietly, without need for acknowledgement or thanks. I’ve seen it a thousand times, and yet it was never so beautifully and heart-breakingly displayed as the day he followed his big sister on her final journey. For me it’s come to symbolize who he is at his core: a guy who shows up and helps out.

Our kids love to make fun of his quirks—the hilariously messy way he eats corn on the cob, his dogged insistence on tucked in shirts, his confusion over text speak (for the longest time he thought LOL meant Lots of Love). But behind their teasing is the certain knowledge of his rock-solidness, and that if they need him, nowhere on earth would be too far for him to follow.

The Healing Power of Fiction

March 20th, 2013

Boxcar_ChildrenThe best fictional characters are the ones we would be friends with if they weren’t so … you know … fictional.

Not to say our favorite book-friends are perfect—their shortcomings are what make them intriguing. Their struggles become our struggles, as we hope, page after page, that they find some way through the morass of difficulty the writer has so insidiously laid out for them. We want them to succeed—even triumph—over their own inadequacies as much as over the external conflicts they face.

I would be friendly with June Cleaver, sure. She’d probably know the best pediatrician, Bundt cake recipe and vacuum repair shop in town. But after a while her lack of issues would get to me. (Also her perennially perfect hair, her conflict-free marriage, and utter complacency about cooking a healthy meal every freakin’ night of the week.) I would be friendly, yes, but I wouldn’t be looking to hang with June.

I’d hang with Janie Mae Crawford from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Bridget Jones of Diary fame, Major Pettigrew while he makes his Last Stand, or Danny Coughlin of The Given Day. Flawed—yes; issues—many. But each with an essential goodness, however challenged, that makes them redeemable.

Redemption from our faults. Isn’t that what we all long for?

Following these characters into the deep end of their own maladaptive tendencies as they face multi-pronged offensives against their happiness is a thrill ride fiction lovers can’t get enough of, precisely because we feel like we are with them. We’re there. It’s real. Well, we know it’s not really real, but in the best page-turning moments, it sure feels like it, doesn’t it?

And sometimes, it’s all too real. We’ve been wounded by the very same losses, suffered the consequences of the same personal failings. Maybe we’re even facing them at the same time we’re reading the book.

Being with a character who’s wading through a similar swamp of disillusionment, fear, heartbreak and/or cosmic spanking can be instructive. It can bolster our belief in the possibility of redemption and make us feel less alone. It can actually help to heal up some of the many, tiny, inevitable lacerations on our own hearts.

My favorite book as a child was The Boxcar Children. It’s a story about a family whose parents die suddenly. The four kids are supposed to go live with their grandfather, but they don’t know him at all, and so they set off on their own. They find a boxcar in the woods, clean it out, scavenge old household items from a nearby dump and make it a home.

I first read it when I was about 9, soon after my parents’ divorce. No, I was not orphaned. But I felt the loss of my father from the house profoundly, as well as the loss of my mother to sadness over the failure of her marriage. I was not homeless, but I felt completely untethered as I traveled between the two “homes” backpack in hand, usually missing some critical item like underwear or overdue homework.

As the oldest, I was expected to lead my younger sisters through this fresh misery. I certainly wasn’t as patient or ingenious as Henry Alden, the oldest boxcar kid. But I did my best, cognizant of the fact that while my life had taken a turn for the worse, Henry’s shoulders were far more burdened than my own.

The Boxcar Children gave me hope that, though my young life felt sad and hard, good things could come. Happy surprises might await. That turned out to be true, and I didn’t even have to go live in a boxcar for it to happen.

As an author, nothing—not the shock and joy of seeing my first book on the shelves of an actual bookstore, nor the all-but-incomprehensible realization that people who don’t even know me are reading and enjoying something I wrote—compares to hearing from a reader who says, “Your book helped me.”

My first novel, Shelter Me, is about a woman whose husband dies suddenly and she’s left to rebuild her life with her two small children. After it was published, I heard from many widows. Often they just wanted to tell me their own stories, commenting on how good it felt to “share” the experience with a (fictional) person who “understood.”

One memorable email came from a woman whose sister had given her Shelter Me on the third anniversary of her husband’s death. She was mad at her sister. “Didn’t she know it would only dredge up all those old thoughts and feelings?” She ended up reading it anyway. “It helped me to realize some things about myself and my actions and see some things in a different light as well. Also, because my sister purchased a copy for herself, it has helped her understand somewhat better of what I went through. That in itself is helpful beyond measure.”

After a recent book signing for my latest novel, The Shortest Way Home, an older man came up to me and said, “I am Da.” Da is the father of the main character who, after many years absent from the family due to alcoholism, shows up newly sober, wanting to reconnect.

The man explained, “I lost my kids for 20 years because of my drinking. I know just what he was going through.” Then, with no small pride, he asked me to sign a book for his daughter.

This, I believe, is why we write fiction, and why we read it. For the thrill of “experiencing” –or re-experiencing—the trials and troubles of fictional friends, and for those healing moments of redemption when they pass through the storm, leading us to safety in their wake.

Desperately Seeking Anne Tyler: Starting a Novel and Looking for Inspiration

March 5th, 2013

Anne TylerI’m about to start writing a new novel and I’m slightly terrified.

What makes it so gut-twisting scary? I really have no idea. I’ve done it before and survived without any noticeable scars. In fact, once I’d started it was rather pleasant. I love spinning a story, birthing the characters who will best tell it, and building the set that will tether it to the earth.

Usually the idea behind it is some topic or theme I’ve been mulling and worrying over for months. When I’m almost ready to start I put together a bunch of notes: tentative family trees, possible floor plans, potential character names and their original meanings, sources for research, a list of questions for myself, things like “What kind of scotch?” and “Driver’s license?” and “What happens to Jackie?”

Nevertheless, the beginning, the moment before I put those first opening sentences on the page, always feels like being 15 years old and starting a new school in the middle of the semester. I don’t know my way around. All these people are strangers. The customs and traditions, dos and don’ts, fashion faux pas, appropriateness of bangs … it’s all critical information … and I know almost none of it.

The last novel I wrote did not follow my usual process. It came at me like a snowstorm, swirling suddenly out of the sky, blanketing everything I saw. I couldn’t NOT write it. And I had no preparatory notes, and found myself figuring it out as I went along. It was nerve-wracking, but also fun, always pedaling as fast as I could to keep the figuring one step ahead of the writing.

I’ve heard there are two types of writers (aren’t there two types of everything?): plotters and pantsers. Plotters, as you might guess, plot out everything ahead of time. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants (or as is often so often the case with writers, pajama bottoms). I’ve always been somewhere in the middle. This last novel set me squarely in the pantser category.

But this time there is no blizzard of inspiration. No story demanding YOU MUST WRITE ME IMMEDIATELY OR BEFORE LUNCH AT THE LATEST. I have ideas for several different stories I could tell—some semi-fleshed out, some just glittering flashes in my brain pan. I hope to settle on one in the next few days … and begin.

Looking for inspiration, I decided to do a little research on one of my favorite authors, Anne Tyler, and see what her novel-starting process is. Ms. Tyler, as you may know, is not exactly blogging on a regular basis. She doesn’t have a Facebook page, a Twitter account or even (gasp) a website. In fact, the interview I found in The Guardian (Anne Tyler: a Life’s Work, 13 April 2012) was the first she’d given in person in almost 40 years! She was as delightful as I’d hoped she’d be. The article had this to say:

Her usual process for beginning a novel is to turn to an index box in which she has written ideas or snatches of conversations and left them to ripen for years (“and I mean years”), often passing the same card over and over until she feels she can make something of it. The planning stage always takes her “exactly a month” before her subconscious tells her “OK, enough is enough.”

That seems so reasonable and no-nonsense, doesn’t it? So very doable. She also adds: ‘It doesn’t take very long for most writers to realize that if you wait until the day you are inspired and feel like writing you’ll never do it at all.’

A gentle kick in the pants for those of us using elusive inspiration as a stall tactic.

In the room where she works is a poem on the wall called “Walking to Sleep” by Richard Wilbur, which begins:

As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,
Or a general raises his hand and is given field glasses,
Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.
Something will come to you.

So this week, I’m going to jump off that mental cliff, with the assurance that something will come to me, and with a little prayer of thanks to Anne Tyler for the nudge. As she so wisely says, “Enough is enough.”

(Photo credit: Goodreads.com)

My Next Big Thing

February 5th, 2013

IMG_2095Thanks to my friend and Beyond the Margins co-blogger, Dell Smith, I’ve been invited to participate in an online literary blog called My Next Big Thing.

The blog is a series of questions about my work-in-progress. Many national and international writers have participated. It gives readers a glimpse into the working life of a writer. Part of the fun is tagging someone else, and it is with great delight that I will be tagging three other writers at the end of this post.

And away we go.

What is the working title of your book? Stumbling Toward Normal … or … Now That You’re Here. Still not sure. Please feel free to make your preference known—or suggest a new one—in the comments section below.

Where did the idea come from for the book? I woke up one morning with a scene in my head: a damp, gray, windy day; two mourners at the site of a new grave. The woman is the dead man’s girlfriend, and she’s drunk. The man is the dead man’s brother, and he’s furious. It was very clear and compelling, and I got up and wrote the scene almost immediately. I was in the middle of another project, but the need to know what would happen to these two kept invading my thoughts. I found myself going back to write another chapter, then another, until I abandoned that first project altogether.

What genre does your book fall under? General Fiction or Women’s Fiction—which I think of as family and relationship drama, though there is humor in it, too.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?             Amy Adams and Mark Wahlberg, in their best Boston accents from The Fighter. Or maybe Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence—I loved her quirky toughness in Silver Linings Playbook.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?  A ten-year alcoholic, Cass Macklin finds that in her darkest moment she’s been given something she never thought she’d have—she’s pregnant—and decides to try and get sober so she can keep the baby.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? Ten months, which is crazy fast for me.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?                            Everything Changes by Jonathan Tropper, Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Who or what inspired you to write this book? As I mentioned above, it kind of came out of nowhere. But I have a few recovering alcoholics in my life, and I have to say I really adore them. It takes a very special kind of person to embrace recovery, and to keep at it day after day.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest? Cass enlists the help of her late boyfriend’s brother, Scott, whom she’s known since their grim childhoods in the same Boston neighborhood. Scotty now plays third base for the Red Sox and lives in a tony Boston suburb, but is still the bitter, disconnected guy she’s always known. They forge a tentative alliance, and as Cass learns to reach out and get help, they are both drawn into unfamiliar territory with unlikely allies in order to keep this baby healthy and safe.

When and how will it be published? It will be published to clamorous, garment-rending acclaim, and toasted on every talk show and telephone pole flyer in America … *daydream ends, writer blinks and reenters reality* …

Um, actually, I’m not sure, yet. But if you’re interested, you could sign up for my infrequent yet scintillating newsletter, and I’ll let you know as soon as I do. http://juliettefay.com/newsletter/

And now it’s my honor to tag and introduce you to three wonderful writers. Please look for upcoming posts on their Next Big Thing.

Nichole Bernier is author of the novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D (Crown/Random House, 2012), a finalist for the New England Booksellers Fiction Award, and has written for publications including Psychology Today, Salon, Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. A Contributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler for 14 years, she was previously on staff as the magazine’s golf and ski editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She is a founder of the literary blog Beyond the Margins, and lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children. She can be found online at www.nicholebernier.com and on Twitter @nicholebernier.

Cara Black lives in San Francisco with her husband, a bookseller, and son. She writes the award nominated and bestselling Aimée Leduc Investigation series set in different parts of Paris. She has dog who’s not as well behaved as her detective Aimée Leduc’s dog but does drink as much espresso as Aimée does.  www.carablack.com/

Ania Szado‘s first novel, BEGINNING OF WAS, was regionally shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best First Book. It will be re-released in 2013 along with her second novel, STUDIO SAINT-EX, which has been sold for publication in Canada, USA, Russia, Italy and Poland. Her short fiction has appeared in literary journals and magazines, and in the anthology ALL SLEEK AND SKIMMING. Ania is a graduate of Ontario College of Art and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of British Columbia. She was born in Hamilton, Ontario and lives in Toronto. Connect with Ania via Twitter, Facebook, or her website.

20 Authors Want to Give You A Valentine’s Day Present

February 1st, 2013

Valentines Day BooksMy writer-pals and I want to show our love this Valentine’s Day by giving away our books. You can win up to 20, including THE SHORTEST WAY HOME. Meg Waite Clayton, author of THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS, came up with the wonderful idea of how to do it. Just go to A 20-Book Valentine’s Day Giveaway and following the simple instructions to be entered to win.

The Authors:

Where I Write: Authors on their Favorite—and Strangest—Work Places

December 21st, 2012

“Mom! Where are my cleats?!”

This is not conducive to writing.

Like interruptions to any work of focus, intrusions make the headlong forward motion of imagining a scene, dialogue, motive, setting, physical movement and internal turmoil grind to a screeching, asphalt scraping, brake-burning halt. Whether it’s emails, the ringing phone, or the work crew outside jack-hammering for a new water line, distractions make it difficult to focus on anyone’s inner turmoil but the writer’s own.

The choices are either to find a space with few distractions … or to find a mental space within that blocks those distractions. Both of those can happen in some pretty unlikely settings.

I asked some author friends for their favorite, intrusion-low places to write, and also for the strangest places they’ve ever written. Here are some of their answers:

Allie Larkin, author of Stay: “I write in bed or on the couch—sitting in chairs feels too much like grade school. On a recent writing retreat, I wrote in the sauna (not while it was on). It was small and dark and quiet, and I was writing about a character who lives in a motor home. Perfect.”

Sandra Gulland, author of Mistress of the Sun: “My strangest place was in a monastery in Mexico: not only was it a silent monastery, but the silence was in Spanish. I wrote some torrid scenes there, too.”

Therese Fowler author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald: “Strangest place: in an NYC taxi, using the notes app on my cell phone while stuck in traffic and inspired by a view of a gorgeous historic building. Favorite writing spot: the gardens at the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities in Southern Pines, NC. It’s the former home of novelist James Boyd (who, incidentally, hosted Thomas Wolfe and Scott Fitzgerald there, among others). Published writers can get residencies there for up to two weeks each year.”

Randy Susan Meyers author of The Murderer’s Daughters: “I write best when most alone. Best: in Provincetown sneaking out to get food from the market, wearing my oldest Gap sweatpants. Strangely, I find the older and raggier my clothes, the better my work. I’m incapable of doing decent work in coffee shops. Perhaps because I feel compelled to wear decent clothes?”

Nichole Bernier author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D: “Usually I write in a library or coffee shop. The strangest place is probably the basement bathroom of my parents’ tiny house on a lake, where I had an idea, but had to escape my children in order to get it down.”

M.J. Rose author of The Book of Lost Fragrances: “The strangest for me was rather the most difficult – I wrote most of a novel in and out of hospital rooms the year my husband was waiting for a kidney transplant. Before that I’d never been able to write anywhere but one chair/one room/ music/specific accoutrements. Then I learned how to be have-laptop-can-write.”

Kathleen McCleary author of A Simple Thing: “I’ve written in a dorm room during my 30th college reunion, but the strangest is probably in a canoe. I take an early paddle most mornings during our annual summer vacation in the Adirondacks and have brought my laptop, carefully wrapped up in a backpack, and sat on the floor of the canoe and drifted a bit. Not advised unless you are on a very calm lake and are not clumsy.”

Judy Merrill Larsen author of All the Numbers: “The oddest place was probably sneaking in writing while I was substitute teaching.”

The hands-down winner for Strangest Writing Locale goes to Martin Fletcher author of Breaking News: “A bit extreme, I guess, but I wrote the first two pages of my next book in a bulletproof jeep in the West Bank overnight waiting for a Palestinian militant group to take me to their leader. They never came but the two pages I wrote there hardly changed.”

For myself, I have a strange love for planes and trains. They’re not intrusion free—take out your laptop, start tapping away at something double-spaced and clearly not a spread sheet or power point presentation, and the person next to you is bound to ask, “What’s that you’re working on?” But after some polite conversation, I say, “I’m so sorry, but I’m on deadline” (whether I am or not). For me, there’s something weirdly energizing about being trapped in a small space with no internet and nothing else to do but get down to work for several hours. I can block out the lavatory trips of my row-mates, the conversation of the couple behind me, or the offers of highly processed snacks from the flight attendants. My intrusion force field goes high voltage.

My favorite place to write is in a hotel room somewhere, which I try to arrange every couple of months or so.  I like a nice open view of something nature-y. There’s a way in which my imagination expands into the space in front of me, and I find myself coming up with ideas that are more daring, quirky or unusual than when I’m home at my little desk. In 24 hours I can accomplish about 2 weeks’ worth of work.

Where is your favorite place to get some work of focus done? Where’s the strangest place you’ve ever worked?

Photo: Keiji Iwai Photography

Huntington’s Disease and the Friend Who Inspired The Shortest Way Home

November 2nd, 2012

I first met Sue Koehler when I was living in Seattle in the mid-1980s. We’d both been in the Jesuit Volunteer Corp—sort of a Catholic City Year—and had jobs working in homeless shelters. Both in need of a roommate, we shared an apartment for 2 years.

I soon learned that Sue’s mother had Huntington’s Disease: “A devastating, hereditary, degenerative brain disorder for which there is, at present, no cure … HD slowly diminishes the affected individual’s ability to walk, talk and reason.” (Huntington’s Disease Society of America)

If one of your parents has HD, you have a 50% chance of inheriting it. Symptoms are most likely to surface in your thirties to mid-forties. Sue’s mother’s symptoms began with severe mental disorientation at the age of 35. With two young children, “devastating” seems too mild of a word to describe it.

When Sue and I lived together, in our twenties, there was no test for the disease, as there is now. She had no way of knowing if she would begin to loose her physical and mental capacities in ten years … or never.

She went about her life with passion and a great sense of humor, but didn’t seem to have a long term plan for her life. She threw herself into her work at the Martin De Porres Shelter for homeless men without much thought for a career. She never seemed to date anyone that she would ever really marry.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What would she do if it turned out she had HD? And how would she feel if she didn’t have it, and had lived a sizable chunk of her life basing important decisions on what turned out to be a non-issue?

Many years later, this latter question continued to haunt me, and became the basis for my latest novel, THE SHORTEST WAY HOME. The novel is not based on Sue, but it is connected to her by virtue of how her story has always stuck with me. What follows is a little more about that, in Sue’s own words.

How did you first learned about Huntington’s Disease?

My mother had been in the hospital for over three months (something that could never happen today!) in part because her doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong with her. I was in deep distress because her personality had unraveled, and no one seemed to know why.

One night, my father told my brother and I and that we would be going to our grandparents house for some news. We never just “went to our grandparents house,” so I knew something was up. I was 13 at the time and my my brother was 11. My Dad took us out on the back porch and blurted out, “Your mother has Huntington’s Disease and you each have a 50/50 chance of getting it.”

Although I knew nothing about the illness, I knew my mother had become unrecognizable to me. That, in and of itself, was bad enough. But to be told in the same breath that my brother and I could also have the same fate was overwhelming.

How did that knowledge impact you as you were growing up?

At such a young age to find out that my own life could be virtually over by the time I was in my 30’s had a profound impact. I always presumed I had the illness. So, I never expected to marry or have children. And because of this, I did not allow myself to contemplate what my life could be as a mature adult. This caused a lot of short-term thinking and some terrible relationship choices. I only allowed myself to be involved with “unavailable” men. Not a good plan.

Living under the cloud of Huntington’s did offer one incredible gift: without the guarantee of a long, healthy life, I embraced each day as fully as I could. I also developed an extraordinary faith in God. With my mother unavailable due to illness and my father unavailable due to not being able to cope with my mother’s illness, I looked to God for solace, strength and direction and found it!

Did you think about HD on a daily basis?

HD was the major preoccupation of my young life. Every major choice was viewed through the lens of likely having HD. In my twenties, I had a wonderful man—with some “availability issues” of his own—who wanted for us to seriously explore marriage, but I was simply not able even to consider a life with him because I was frozen inside by the fear of the illness.

So many people who are at risk for HD decide not to get tested, but you wanted to. Why was that?  

After my mother died of HD when I was 28 years old, I woke up and realized I could never freely make a choice about relationships and marriage unless I knew whether or not I had the illness. I needed to be free.

How does HD continue to affect you?

On March 20, 1992, due to the extraordinary work of doctors like Ric Myers at Massachusetts General Hospital, I found out that I did not have HD. However, by that time, my brother, Dave, was already showing signs. A few years later, he was diagnosed with HD and I have been his main support since then. For many years he lived with me, until it was no longer safe for him to be alone while I was at work.

Today he lives at the Laurel Lake Center in Lee, MA. Each time I visit him, my heart breaks a little bit more. I have done some advocacy work, public speaking, and letter writing to try and ensure that people with HD get the care they need. For me, it still takes a tremendous amount of courage and faith just to walk through the door of Laurel Lake and face HD again. But, living with HD takes even more courage. Seeing my brother and the other residents keeps my heart soft and teaches me compassion. The trials I have had to face in my own life and observe in my brother’s life has given me an especially soft spot for others facing or caring for someone with any kind of dementia, something I see nearly every day in my work as a Hospice chaplain.

Sue is now happily married and lives in New York with her husband and son, who is smart, talented, polite and handsome. I can brag about him because he’s my godson, raised by an extraordinary person and friend.

Writing from the Heart of My Discomfort Zone

October 25th, 2012

I’m a huge baby about anything scary. I have no idea why people go to horror movies or read violent stories. Honestly, it’s like someone telling me they enjoy eating dirt and offering me a spoonful. Seriously? Whatever for?

Clearly there is a part of the human psyche that enjoys the vicarious adrenaline rush of watching or reading about something terrifying. I do not have that part. And I don’t mind, most of the time. It makes it a lot easier to narrow down my viewing/reading options to a manageable list.

Occasionally it’s a liability, though. When one of my dearest friends handed me Little Bee by Chris Cleave, she said, “You have to read this. The writing is so beautiful and the story is unforgettable.”

Little Bee is gorgeously written, completely masterful, immediately engulfing. Which is why when it got to the parts about why the main character, a young girl, was fleeing from Nigeria, and what unspeakable things had happened to her, her sister and her friends, I felt as if it were happening to me. I’m still slightly traumatized by those images.

“How could you tell me to read this?” I asked my friend. “You know I can’t handle that stuff!”

So when I decided that Sean Doran, the protagonist of my new novel The Shortest Way Home, would be a nurse who had tended to the poorest of the poor in some of the most degraded, dangerous places of the world, I knew I was in for a tough time. I would be researching and writing about the worst kind of horror—the suffering of children.

I called a friend, Julia VanRooyen, who is an OB/GYN with the Women in War Project of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Julia has been to Africa many times, worked in a variety of clinics and hospitals in places like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, areas that pulse with the tragedy and cruelty of warfare. The threat of death, maiming and rape are constant, especially for children, who are least likely to be able to defend themselves or outrun their tormentors.

Julia’s work involves bringing American doctors to help at understaffed hospitals that are often overrun by raped and beaten women and children. I talked with her at length, and then supplemented that with my own research, much of which involved first person victim reports.

I learned more about the gruesomely creative ways in which humans can inflict harm on one another than I ever wanted to know in a hundred lifetimes. Some days I just had to stop and do something else. Some nights I couldn’t sleep or had nightmares when I did.

I think I got through it because I was also learning about the heroic efforts of mothers, fathers and even strangers as they attempted to protect and seek care for tortured children, and about people like Julia who cross oceans to help in a myriad of ways. The world is full of the worst kind of evil. Thankfully it’s also full of infinitely inspiring kindness and generosity.

Interestingly, I ended up using only a tiny fraction of what I learned. The Shortest Way Home takes place over the course of a summer when Sean returns from Africa, during what he thinks will be a brief visit home to Massachusetts. There are a couple of flashbacks to his time in Africa, and in the first drafts I included some references to child rape and torture. Not that many, I thought. I was comfortable with them, and being the overly sensitive baby that I am, I thought others would be, too.

My early readers—my writing group, husband, sister and friends who read my drafts—were unanimous in their dislike of these references.

“It’s too much,” my husband said, unwittingly echoing what others had already told me. “You already mentioned rape before.”

“Yes, of course I mentioned it,” I told him. “Where this character was living, it’s practically as common as a broken limb.”

“Still,” he said, “it’s enough. We get the picture.”

Everyone agreed. Ironically, I found myself paring down the references that had cost me so many queasy hours to research in the first place. Ultimately I think it works just fine, neither whitewashing the trauma and tragedy, nor assaulting the reader with it. As my husband says, you get the picture.

The good and evil in the world, the beneficence and darkness in our own hearts—that’s what stories are all about. For the writer, it’s worth the journey into our discomfort zones.

A Book in The Drawer … Right Where It Should Be

September 28th, 2012

I have a book in the drawer. Okay, it’s not in an actual drawer. It’s in a box with old tax documentation under my fax/scanner. I also have electronic copies stashed in several places. Not that it matters. It will never see the light of day.

The Book in the Drawer is a phrase I’ve heard often from other authors. It’s the practice novel, the one that never got published. If a fiction-writers bible were ever to be written, the psalms might include the following lamentation:

Oh, Lord, have mercy on my wretchedness.

I have been cast out into the wilderness of time wastage.

I have put my pen to many a parchment,

Pages that speak from the depths of my soul,

And yet my toil has been for naught!

Alas, my Book is in The Drawer.

I wrote my drawer novel out of aggravation. I had just read a remarkably bad book. The only thing I liked about it was the premise: two people trapped in an elevator. (She was beautiful, he was handsome. Of course. Yawn.) I found myself wondering, What would I do with that for a starting point? Who would I put in that elevator?

I decided that the man has just come from a family barbecue at which his siblings have lambasted him for being selfish. The woman is a recovering alcoholic with an unmedicated anxiety disorder. The elevator gets stuck between floors during a power outage, and the woman has a panic attack and pees her pants.

I called it The Hyperventilating Pants-Wetter Society. It took me a year to write. In the end, the best thing about it was the title, which I still really love.

And it almost got published! I had an agent and everything. (He completely ignored me then shunted me off to some 24-year-old “associate” who clearly hated me and my book. After a couple of painful months they decided it was unpublishable, notifying me by registered letter. I am not making this up. Seriously, they couldn’t have picked up the phone?)

I was in a state of ocean-floor level misery until I remembered how much I disliked and was slightly afraid of them both. Also, by that time I had written my next novel, Shelter Me, and I knew it was better than The Hyperventilating Pants-Wetter Society, except for the title, which, for my money, is hard to beat.

Shelter Me was eventually repped by my current agent, and after she got it sold, I asked her to read The Hyperventilating Pants-Wetter Society. She was not enthusiastic—didn’t even think it could be fixed—so I left it in The Drawer (so to speak) and turned my efforts toward the new story I was working on.

There are three things I’m grateful for regarding The Hyperventilating Pants-Wetter Society:

1. That I completed it. Before that, I truly had no idea if I could take a story from a bunch of stray thoughts to a full-length novel with a recognizable beginning, middle and end. It allowed me to put an official check mark next to something I’d always had on my bucket list: write a novel. Not write a bestseller or even get published. Just put the words on paper from start to finish.

2. That it’s in The Drawer. For a while I had a hard time with the fact that I’d spent an entire year writing something that would never see the light of day. At one point I went back to see if I couldn’t—oh, how foolishly—prove my agent wrong by buffing it to a publishable state. I couldn’t. It was not good. And if it had been published, I would be embarrassed by it now. It was a practice novel, pure and simple.

The third thing is a little surprising. My father read and loved The Hyperventilating Pants-Wetter Society. As an adoring and completely biased parent, he loved that novel.

A couple of months ago, he was helping a friend with incapacitating claustrophobia—especially in elevators. Her father was very ill and being treated on the twelfth floor of Massachusetts General Hospital. She desperately wanted to visit him, but not being in great health herself, she couldn’t walk up twelve flights. My father went along to help her get through the elevator ride. As they waited on the ground floor, she became terribly anxious, and he thought she might not be able to make it.

He later told me, “I wanted to distract her, so I started telling the story of The Hyperventilating Pants-Wetter Society. By the time the elevator came she was laughing, so I kept going. When we got to the twelfth floor she couldn’t believe the ride was over so fast.”

Thus, 3. That it helped someone.