Advice, Autobiography, Books, Inspiration, New Publications, Publication Announcements

When You Write Fiction About Family

Davidson Family Photo, taken by my dad. Camping or picnicking somewhere in south America.

When you write about family, publishing your first book isn’t always the happy occasion you think it should be. My first novel Blue Woman Burning will be published by Red Penguin Books on November 23rd. Instead of excitement and joy, I’m riding a see-saw between dread and numbness. It has been SUCH a long and confusing journey with so many stops, starts, revisions, and reinventions. Though excellent work can be written in the thick of emotional turmoil, I had to grow a few decades to write mine. When I began it (34 years ago!), I was too stuck in its emotional backwaters to understand and complete it.

Discovering Direction

The novel started with a short story I wrote after I had been accepted to a graduate creative writing program at the University at Albany in 1988. It was about an 18-month family stay in Chile during my childhood. I wrote in a charming, humorous voice, which I later figured out was only to protect myself from pain caused by family dynamics. I used magical realism to externalize my perceptions.

I had no idea how to end the story because I was angry with the main character, Eustacia, based loosely on my mother. I didn’t know the main character angered me, though. It was so charming how she didn’t know how many children she had; how she accidentally packed a child into shipping container and blithely congratulated herself for her brilliance when it was discovered; how she named them all after her own body parts. When I discovered my anger, the ending came with an explosion.

Long story short, autobiographical material confused and distracted me. We really did drive from Santiago, Chile to Upstate New York in a Dodge Dart as the novel depicts. We really did get stuck in the altiplano, a high desert plateau. But that wasn’t what the book was about. It took me a long time to realize the novel was about me being trapped in a Bermuda triangle between my mother, my brother and myself. Yet, I wasn’t even the main character in the original version!

Huge revisions later, I cobbled together something presentable in 1999. I found an agent, and she sent it to all the best publishers. Somewhere in my basement lurks a copy of a very complimentary rejection from Grove Press.

She asked me to revise. There was clearly something wrong with it. I and my writing style had changed so much in those twelve years of writing the novel, that it felt like I had jammed two different bodies together. The bones just didn’t match up no matter how much I massaged the skin. I was sick of it, I had just had a baby, and I didn’t know how to fix it.

I needed a few more decades of growth to get past the emotional pain of the autobiographical material. That’s when I was able to ask myself the real question all writer need to ask to complete a novel: “What do my characters need?” Not, “What do I need?” The latter is a great question for therapy and for getting started. But it doesn’t end there.

So, many more revisions later—and I don’t mean mere edits, but rather, throwing out half a book and writing a new half, then throwing out half of that, and reorganizing and trying new points of views— Blue Woman Burning is both my first novel and my tenth novel, all rolled into one lifetime of learning. I also just learned it is the first book in a new imprint for Red Penguin Books. I’m honored.

And now? I want people to read it…and I don’t want people to read it. I want it to be wildly successful…and I also know that the chances of that are slim. I’ve been working hard to promote the hell out of it, but I still have a day job, the task is endless, and I have a secret fear that the publicity gods just don’t like me. Maybe I enjoy the secondary gains of obscurity too much: protection. Will obscurity continue to protect me? Probably.

Family Fallout…

I have warned my family about the autographical content. I was worried about my mother reading it, as I knew she would recognize herself and also the places where I fictionalized. There’s a death in the novel that I know would wound her. Sadly, at the age of 98, she doesn’t remember much. Yet, it is sadly fortunate that my novel is being released now: I can share my accomplishment with her, AND I know she won’t be able to read it.

Speaking of which, at her insistence and against my better judgement a few weeks ago, I agreed to read the prologue aloud to her. Not surprisingly, cherubic and charming narcissist that she is, she interrupted me twenty times to tell me how it really was, and how I should revise. I explained that the book was finished, and she told me she was trying to help me improve it. I said, for the first time in my life, “It doesn’t need improvement.” Though I had to take a restroom break, I marveled at how little the exchange hurt. Twenty years ago, it would have cut deeply and lastingly. Whew. Growth!

But there’s the rest of my family. I worry about that my two older sisters, who are not in the novel, will feel exposed by having the family in the public eye. I wonder do they feel bad about being left out entirely? Then there’s a fictional version of my younger brother. Will he mind how I characterized some of his surface attributes?

I am most worried about my older brother’s feelings. The character based on him, Ovid, is a major character in the novel. I have spoken with my brother about it, and he has graciously applauded my publication and told me not to worry about how the character is depicted. Still, will friends call and ask, “Did that really happen?”

I told him a writer can never capture a whole of a human being on paper (at least, I can’t). I’m also hugely aware of how unreliable memory is and how biased we all are. That is my defense. He is okay with me noting that he is bi-polar in real life. But I clearly took it to a more dramatic level in the novel. It made a better story. It was not wish fulfillment. A writer says to themselves, “What is the worst possible thing that could happen to this character?” and then they do it. I won’t spoil it for you.

Let me just end by observing that there is a huge danger to having a writer in the family. More books are more autobiographical than most authors let on. They expose family and friends even when cleverly disguised. There is also a huge danger in being the (published) writer in the family The writer dares to shape the family narrative how they see fit. The writer gets the last word. But do I?

So let me be clear, as the acknowledgment of Blue Woman Burning says, “Thanks also to my family of origin for adventures in distant lands, arguments and inspiration, and for your forbearance, as I borrow family stories and likenesses, and change them wildly” to make a better story. There will be some fallout, no doubt, but I will endeavor to embrace the learning that will follow.

Meanwhile, friends and family will be joining me at a launch party on December 9th in Saratoga Springs, NY, and expect I will feel the joy, then.

Tune in next time for a preview of the prologue.

(Link here, here, and here for related posts)

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Advice

Is it Okay to Use True Stories to Make Fiction?

This it TikTok post that relates to yesterday’s post.

@literarylatte

New Country, New School, New Reality, the truth in fiction at laledavidson.com#booktok #indiebookstore #writertok

♬ original sound – Lâle Davidson, (she, her)

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Books, flying people, Magical Realism, Speculative Fiction

Camping and UFO’s on the Altiplano, 1976

Ever heard of Shirley MacLaine and the UFOs in South America? My family had its own close encounters. My novel Blue Woman Burning, where a narcissistic mother magically vanishes in the Altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, is a blend of fact and fiction. The excerpt below is a memory the adult children in the novel have narrated in the voice of their vanished mother. The event narrated here, however is pretty much as it happened in real life.

Our intrepid Dodge Dart on the way to the Altiplano

The American family began their journey on a road not marked on any map that passed from Chile into Bolivia, a road through the fabled Altiplano, a desert plateau so high that the altitude made gringos sick, a road their Illustrious Mother had learned about from the circus master.

Strange goings on had been reported there. The ancient Nasca people had carved mile long spiders, monkeys, and airplanes into the plain. No one knew how they could plan and execute such drawings from the ground, nor why. Some preferred to believe aliens had visited them rather than that they were so advanced, while others speculated that they had ridden the thermals in giant fiber kites, using the pictures as maps of their territories.

Nasca Lines in Peru

Just wait, children. You’ll see. We are going to a magical place where the ground is so high it touches the sky. The air is thinner there, so I will be able to demonstrate to you the greatest mystery man has ever achieved. It will change you forever.

The altiplano (high plains in the Andes)

The children were eager to learn the mystery their mother would impart and eager to go home. The family drove north and stopped at all the military checkpoints above Santiago, but once they drove off the map, there were no boundaries or checkpoints to tell them when they passed from one country into another. That was how they forgot to say goodbye to their beloved country, never knowing how they would miss it until they got all the way home.

As they climbed the mountains, the landscape shed its vegetation until only a few low shrubs crouched near the ground. Higher still, the ground produced nothing but stones. The air thinned and the tightness in their lungs engendered a certain queasiness of stomach and dryness of mouth. As the road deteriorated, it churned up boulders and spat out streams. All at once, the road leveled out, and they found themselves at the edge of an expansive, sandy plateau rimmed by perfectly conical volcanoes. The road before them dissolved into two sets of deep tire tracks in the sand. Walter turned off the engine and the wind sucked up its rumble. All five of them looked blankly through the front windshield at the greatest expanse of nothingness they had ever seen. The sky was gray and the sun cold as gruel. The colors of the desert might have been named vagueness or loss.

The Intrepid Explorers, facing a vast nothingness, resolved not to turn back. Instead, they launched the car onto the sand at top speed. Within a few feet, the car stopped, blocked by the mound between the tracks, and the wheels spun uselessly.

Their brilliant mother and handsome father placed stones behind the wheels and got back in the car. Their father gunned the engine. The wheels spat out the rocks, the car lurched forward ten feet and stopped, blocked by the sandy center again.

Father and young god Ovid got out to push. Mother flipped her legs over the hump and wiggled into the driver’s seat. The car lurched forward twenty feet and stuck again. They continued working their way forward a hundred feet or so in this manner, before Mother finally shut off the engine. Silence rushed in, followed by wind. Now they couldn’t go back even if they wanted to, and they couldn’t go forward either.

Walter came around to the driver’s side. What should we do?”

Something will come to us, she replied.

“I’ll walk to those hills. There might be a village,” Walter said pointing to low brown hills to the left of the volcanos. “I’m sure it’s only a few miles.” He kissed Mother on the cheek.

They watched him walk away. Vastness diminished his movement, and distance erased his height, until at last, he was only a tiny blue dash against the gray, barely discernible, blinking up and down, his movement indistinguishable from imagination.

As soon as darkness fell, the desert cooled. Mother got out of the car to set up the camp stove. The wind kept blowing the flame out, and her thin body wasn’t up to the task of shielding the flame, so the children locked arms around the stove while she lit it. They heated up some coca leaf tea, which was supposed to cure altitude sickness. Inside, Mother spread sleeping bags all around, filling the car with the downy scent of wet dogs. They sat in silence while the wind rocked the car like a cradle. Mother pulled out Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to pass the time and teach them the truth beyond shadows. Brilliant Ovid leaned forward and listened with his whole body, interrupting her excitedly now and then to discuss an idea, but the words lulled Fallon and little Terence to sleep.

My brother, my mother and me, camping along the coast in Chile.

The wind outside rushed over the massive plain, diminishing their tiny car, whispering indecipherably into their ears, and eventually everyone dozed.

Oh look! Mother cried in the darkness. The children sat up, the air in the car warm with down and farts, tiny feathers sticking to their hair.

“What is it?” Ovid asked.

The mystery. Oh, children, the mystery!

She wiped their condensed breath off the windshield and pointed out into the absolute darkness of the desert. At first the children saw nothing. Then, far off, a bright orb or light appeared and moved horizontally in a perfectly straight line, then disappeared. The other children gasped. “What is it?

 Another light appeared above and dropped straight down.

“It must be Dad,” Terrence said. “Coming toward us with a light.”

No, no. It’s much too high and too large.

“And anyway, that’s north. Dad went off to the west, idiot,” said Ovid.

“What’s over there?” asked Fallon, trying to remember.

Nothing. Nothing but volcanoes.

“Could it be a truck driving down the volcanoes?” asked Fallon.

“No, the road would be going diagonally,” Ovid said.

Further to the right, another light moved from east to west, again in a straight line.

“Helicopters?” said Fallon.

“Why would helicopters be flying out here at night?” said Terence.

There have been reports of spaceships, Mother said. I have marked the spot they appeared on the windshield, my dears. We’ll check in the morning. Perhaps we’ve forgotten what was there.

They watched the lights in silence and drifted back to sleep.

Later, the cabin light speared a hole the darkness, and frigid air blasted in. The slam of the car door returned them to darkness. Walter was back, teeth chattering. His hands were too cold to close around the cup of tea Mother poured from the thermos. She piled a sleeping bag around him, and they whispered. It had taken him hours to reach the hills. There had been a village, but no one owned a truck. Large trucks came through daily. They would have to wait.

Mother told him about the lights: had he seen them? He had, but he didn’t know what they were. There was no village in that direction.

They never did find out what the lights were. That mystery was eclipsed by the much greater one that occurred the very next day.

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General, Uncategorized

Camping the 1950’s Way

My parents were adventurers. In my lifetime, the only time they truly got along was when traveling. They lived in separate houses 400 miles apart, but remained married, and traveled together a lot.

Crouching behind the suitcase to get out of the wind.

The way we camped was to pack the trunk of the car with sleeping bags, a stove, a tent, water, gasoline, and a box of food, then drive–only backroads– highways were for tourists, not adventurers. When it came time to sleep, they’d pick a spot that seemed safe and secluded to put our sleeping bags on the ground if there was no rain, tents if there were. I’m pretty sure we were trespassing in farmer’s fields much of the time, and that was mostly okay in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, as was sleeping on the side of the road.

Sometimes, people DID consider it trespassing, as when some shepherds in Turkey attacked us in the night and we had to make a getaway across a river, but that was before I was born.

My novel Blue Woman Burning (due out in December 2021), is partly autobiographical, and starts with one such trek from Santiago, Chile to Oneonta, New York, in a Dodge Dart sedan. 12,000 miles. Took us six weeks.

I’m thirteen, and washing the dishes with my older brother somewhere
on the altiplano between Chile and Bolivia.

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Magical Realism, Novel Excerpt

How the past retells itself

Flying Balloons.jpgWith the Adirondack Balloon Festival around the corner, an excerpt from my magical realist novel, Fallon’s Truth, seems in order.  The protagonist, Fallon, cannot reconcile her magical past in Chile with her banal present in New York City. In a sing-song voice, the past keeps retelling itself in her head at inopportune moments.  In this flashback, Fallon is referred to as Sister, her older brother is Big and her younger brother is Little. Eustacia is Fallon’s mother and Walter is her father.

Things began to happen in Chile that could only happen in the land where the earth ends. One day, when Eustacia was supposed to be cooking a pot of beans and Big was supposed to be watering the lawn, they began talking about the Big Bang and black holes. As they talked, they salivated and gesticulated. They drifted away from their posts, down the tiny street on which they lived, and out onto La Avenida de Las Condes, with Sister worriedly following.

“Did you hear? Scientists picked up a hissing sound on their cosmic recorders. They thought it was pigeon droppings on their antennae at first. But do you know what it turned out to be?” Eustacia rhapsodized.

“Yes! I read the same article!” Big said. “In National Geographic.”

“It was the left over sound of the Big Bang!” they exclaimed in unison. Sister was puzzling over how they could possibly tell that this hiss came from the Big Bang, especially since it could so easily be mistaken for pigeon droppings, but Eustacia and Big were talking so ecstatically that they began to physically leave the ground.

Thinking quickly, Sister ran back into the house, rummaged through the utility drawer—such a mess—and grabbed a ball of hemp twine. By the time she caught up to them, they had drifted down the avenue, but were still hovering a foot from the ground, talking so fast that their breath was lifting them like hot air balloons.

She tied the string around their ankles, and just in time, too, because a surprise thermal swept them high into the air. The ball of twine spun so fast in the cage of her fingers that it burned her palms, but she hung on with all her might. Eustacia and Big were oblivious. Other children were out, flying their kites, and when they saw Sister with her magnificent kites, they flew theirs closer. Sister had reached the end of her proverbial rope and was leaning all her weight backward to keep Big and Eustacia from flying away when Little popped up behind to lend a hand.

“Look out!” he cried. He pulled his sweater sleeve down over his hand and wrapped the twine around his wrist, jerking it to the side. “The kids are going to cut the string.”

When Walter stepped off the bus that brought him home from work, this is how he found Sister and Little, flying Eustacia and Big high in the blue sky. They only became aware of his purple face when he reached over their heads, grabbed the twine, and began reeling Eustacia and Big Brother in, spluttering epithets.

Walter, dear,” Eustacia said as soon as her feet touched the ground, “we were having such a lively conversation.”

 “They could have been killed!” Walter raged, shaking his finger at Sister and Little. Sister began to cry in earnest now, and Little to blubber.

“It is all my fault,” Big said, stepping protectively in front of his younger siblings.

“What are you talking about?” Eustacia looked in puzzlement from Walter to the children and back again. “Why are you so angry?”

“I’m not angry!” Walter said, turning a deeper shade of purple.

“But you’re shouting.”

“I’m just trying to make myself heard!”

Well,” Eustacia said as she drew herself up very tall and cold. “I never. Big, children. Let’s go. Father is in a most disgraceful state. There can be no good reason for such bad behavior.” Lifting her chin, she walked off with the children trailing behind her.

Walter immediately became apologetic.

But when they got back to the house, the kitchen was on fire and the lawn was drowning.