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.
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.
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.