When writing is the family business

A lot of great writers seem like they were better with ink and paper than people. Pick up biographies of some literary geniuses and you’ll find many worked hard at their crafts and often endured terrible setbacks but were also self-centered loners who focused on their own problems to the detriment of their loved ones. A few of the “greats” were self-destructive abusers. Others unearthed family traumas or secrets and then publicized these for money. You wonder how their relations ever stood them.
On the other hand, there are a few authors who were so devoted to their families that their talent seemed to echo through their DNA.  Take a look at these clans of chroniclers and prepare to be amazed.
The Bronte Girls
The Bronte Sisters – Emily, Anne, and Charlotte, the literary doyennes of Yorkshire.  They grew when opportunity ran thin on the ground, especially for girls. These three (and their brother, Branwell) developed a rich communal imaginary life that carried them through some miserable childhood experiences.  All three of the Bronte girls tried to become teachers at some point (the only respectable profession open to women then)  but frail health and romantic disappointment eventually brought them back home.  As the daughters of minister they were, of course, poor as church mice and  they decided to try and make money by jointly writing a book of poetry.  Since their culture still didn’t accept the idea of women as professional writers, the published book was credited to Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; male pseudonyms with the same initials as the poetesses.  The Bronte sisters changed from poetry to prose and two years later England was hit with those twin monoliths of Victorian novels, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as well as Anne’s story, Agnes Grey. Two years later came Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the Brontes were out of poverty and ruling the best-seller list, though not for long.  Consumption took Anne and Emily before 1850.  Charlotte lived long enough to marry and enjoy some degree of her literary success but it was difficult for her to continue without her sibling support system. The only novel she wrote after Anne and Emily’s death was a retelling of her first effort. 
Mary Bard Jensen and Betty MacDonald
The Bard family clan: The Bard family’s motto was “Don’t be a Saddo” although some would say the clan had a right to be miserable.  The patriarch, Darsie Bard, died in 1920 leaving his wife with five young children, his aged mother, a heavily mortgaged house and very little money.  Nevertheless, his widow, Sydney to everyone that knew her, believed in making do and moving on without complaints. This “Never Give Up, Keep on Grinning” attitude kept the family together and doing anything (including writing) that might pay the family bills.  Sydney wrote, but her second daughter, Anne Elizableth, was the one to hit gold as Betty MacDonald, the author of The Egg and I and her children’s series, The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle Books.  Sydney’s eldest daughter, Mary Bard Jensen also did well in the domestic humor market with her books about being a doctor’s wife and one of Betty’s friends Monica Sone published Nisei Daughter.  Almost every book contains the theme of facing adversity with optimism and humor. There are worse beliefs in this world.
Lawrence and Gerald Durrell
And then, there are the Durrells.  Masterpiece tipped me off to The Corfu Trilogy the saga of (another!) widow and her eccentric family trying to survive on no money and a good attitude, this time in a foreign land. The stories were obviously penned by the youngest child, Gerald, but it is his eldest brother, Larry, who insists he is going to be a writer.  After two good episodes about this fascinating family, I started reading Gerald’s first book, My Family and Other Animals, and decided to do a bit of research on the family.  Are they known? Holy Smoke, are they ever!  The sardonic but kind Larry turned out to be Lawrence Durrell, one of the “Great” modern novelists my college  English instructors raved about in the 1970’s. (Chants of “Miller, and Durrell and Greene, Oh MY! would spill angry English grad students into the halls of my first university.) Lawrence Durrell’s work is visionary, sexy, brilliant, bitter, and good enough to be considered for a Nobel prize at one point but Gerald’s stories of their family are what gained popularity.  (A good thing, since Gerald’s vocation as a naturalist paid little or nothing!) The Corfu trilogy brought in cash and unexpected dimensions to any would be biographer of the “more literary” Durrell. The writing bug even spread to their sister, Margaret who penned “Whatever Happened to Margo?“; her account of how the family coped once they were relocated to England.
So there you have it.  A novelist doesn’t need to cut off his/her family in order to work (although writing requires quiet every once in a while).  Family can actually be a scribbler’s greatest ally, if his/her siblings get into the act.  As long as everyone agrees to help and refrain from being “a Saddo.”

An Early Halloween Story

Let me state from the first, the events of yesterday were unforeseeable and unavoidable. None of the actions taken by all parties were neither premeditated or predictable.  However, in case a group of panicked Puritans is already headed to my house, armed with ropes and lit torches, I wish to make the following declaration:

      • I am not now, nor have I ever been, a witch.
      • Due to a past Halloween party, I own a hooded, black cape.
          • This garment is a mass-marketed item, as the manufacturer’s label attests.
          • To my knowledge, said cape has no supernatural powers but it is a surprisingly warm, yet light-weight garment.

        • Yesterday, I donned the cape in question prior to walking down my private drive at sunset. 
          • The cape’s hood was in an upright position to keep my ears warm. 
          • Said cape is voluminous and anyone seeing me from a distance would not have been able to make out my “regular” clothing beneath its folds.
        • When I started my walk, I had no idea the neighbors were entertaining young children on their front lawn. Consequently, I was as surprised as the children when they saw me coming over the hill.        

        • Children can move very quickly when frightened and at the time I believed pursuing them to explain I meant them no harm would only make a bad situation worse. So I flew back, er… returned to my home.

  • I heartily apologize for any nightmares I may have inadvertently caused. However any kid who panics at the sight of a middle-aged woman wearing a black-cape, sneakers, and horn-rimmed glasses is a kid with too much Halloween on the brain.

(Maybe next time, I should carry my wand….)

October in Alabama: A Love Story

As a teen, I never cared for love stories.  While other girls were sighing and crying over the latest sugary “boy-meets-girl”, I jumped into the classics, swearing romance book writers conspired to create Cinderella pap to weaken women’s minds.  (Mom said I was foolish but she kept a soft spot for Barbara Cartland.) Not that I didn’t believe in love!  I was just felt very awkward and self-conscious reading about it.  I knew that if/when I fell in love, I’d never write tell the world about it.
Then I saw the South in October.
Yes, I know people aren’t supposed to fall in love with places.  And if any part of the states is known for autumn scenes, it’s New England, not Alabama.  But I did and the beauty of Autumn in Dixie was then a fairly well kept secret. So I had no idea, when I crossed the Mississippi River, that I was stepping into a place of transcendent beauty.  I spent that first visit walking with my mouth half-open, about the Technicolor foliage that appeared around every bend. I found the South and Southerners fascinating and loved their complex, stubborn relationship with this place but more than anything, I fell for the faraway hills covered in crazy quilts of color underneath sapphire skies. 

What can I say?  I began to fall in love.

I began to discover why an essential element of Southern literature is its exquisite sense of place, as if the things that happen here, couldn’t occur that way anywhere else. I’m not sure, but is there anyplace else where natural beauty is spilled out so generously, where “trash trees” transform themselves into moving sculptures of butterscotch, crimson and yellow every Autumn?   On the branches, the leaves are breathtaking. When they fall, they become an impressionist’s fantasy. Stand outside when the leaves are coming down and it’s as if fat flakes of cadmium yellow sailed off some artist’s palate and start floating down to the earth,  It’s a treat for the senses but that’s getting ahead of my story.

Fall is a festive season here, maybe because of the return of football games and maybe to mark our turn toward the holidays of December but I think it’s due to the changing weather. The blue of the sky begins to deepen or it just shows more of a contrast against the variegated trees. Then, the massive heat waves finally break and it’s fun to go back outdoors. People turn out for fairs, tailgating, fun runs and visits to the pumpkin patch. Music starts playing, scents of food fill the air and everyone seems happy to be part of the world. This is a great time for festivals but my favorite trip takes us up a secret bluff.

Can you believe this is where my husband and his friends hid out when they played hooky in high school?  It’s a beautiful, hidden place, about a mile’s hike off the public road and the view from the top goes on for miles. In spring, wild magnolia trees on the forest floor bloom and, if you stand on the edge of the bluff, you can touch the flowers at the tips of their branches. It’s even better in fall when a hike through the leaves gives you an appetite for harvest soups and barbecue.  That level of beauty is everywhere and it only heightens as the season wears on.  By the time we return to the bluff, I am besotted with the joy of life and this wonderful world full of color.
Sometime between Halloween and Veterans Day, the deciduous trees hit their zenith of color and for a few days the sun rises on hills that already seem like they’re aflame.  This is the grand finale of autumn and, regrettably, it doesn’t last long.  The winds decide to change or a front comes through and the trees that were covered in vermilion and bronze before, now stretch nude limbs to the sky.  The beautiful leaves, now sodden, cover the ground at least until the the leaf-blowers get going and my infatuation with autumn will be finished again for a year.

So, yes, I’ve become a romantic fool, a fool for the South every October.  If our romance is short-lived, at least it’s beautiful while it lasts and I always have next fall to anticipate.  And I am willing to wait. So maybe this is more than an autumn romance.  Maybe this is true love.

From Myth to Man: Hamilton

It was hard telling the Founding Fathers apart when I was in Elementary School.  Every fall another teacher would try to impress the achievements of the frock-coated/ American Revolutionaries into our malleable brains with similar results.  In a group portrait of patriots, we could all pick out Franklin (rotund, bald and smiling) and probably Washington by his unsmiling mouth clamped around a set of dentures but the rest were identifiable only to those who had studied.  To the rest of us, they were a group of middle-aged, white males with funny clothes and powdered hair.   If you had asked me then who Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Benedict Arnold were, I’d probably have said: “One was a traitor, another was shot and the third one fired the pistol.”  I doubt if I could have said more.

And that’s why we need writer-historians like Ron Chernow.  His lauded volume Alexander Hamilton not only rescued the memory of a brilliant man from obscurity and (with the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda) brought new respect to this patriot’s memory; it illuminates the character of Hamilton so well that the man and his peers become people we can recognize and relate to.

Almost everyone went to school with someone like Hamilton; I know I did.  Look back in your memory to the bunch of outsiders in your class whose clothes don’t match the current fashion and whose family weren’t considered pillars of the community. Despite knowing they aren’t part of the “in-crowd” most of them have some friendships and function as regular students not this kid. Outsider he may be, but that doesn’t seem to register with him. Instead he wears his intelligence and self-confidence like armor and attacks each subject like it’s a competition to be won.  This is the classmate whose hand is always up, who argues with the teachers like he is their peer and who has scholarships, a major and 10-year plan lined up while the rest of us are still looking at colleges. The kid’s self-confidence often comes across as arrogance which means he/she isn’t well liked but everyone recognizes the student’s intellect and drive. Actually, “drive” doesn’t begin to describe this kid’s laser-like focus. This is an adolescent with the will, and brain of an adult.  But what is making this Sammy run?
Chernow believes Hamilton’s insecurities as a child formed the needs that drove him as an adult. Abandoned by his father and functionally orphaned at 13, the illegitimate Alexander wanted the social and financial security he saw in other lives and missed in his own. Using his thirst for knowledge and a gift for writing, Alexander maximized ever chance fortune threw his way, first in the Carribean and then in the American Colonies where marriage and revolution gave him the opportunity to rise in a fledgling meritocracy. Unfortunately, his talents and aspirations also carried the seeds of his undoing.

Like many geniuses, Hamilton worked well on his own but lacked the insight and diplomatic give-and-take necessary to function well in a government of other accomplished, ambitious officials, all with their own agendas. (Among other things, Chernow’s Hamilton traces the beginnings of America’s two-party system and verifies that politics has long been a blood sport in this country.)  A compulsive and prolific political writer, Alexander was so used to gaining support through published essays that he expected publicexoneration after writing of his involvement in a sex scandal.  That action ruined his political future and his belief in the code duello as the way upper-class gentlemen settled disputes led to the deaths of himself and his first-born son.  Hamilton’s tragedy is not a life of unrealized promise (much of his initial work is still apparent in this country’s financial structure) but that his underlying insecurities kept him from seeing his life’s work come to fruition.

By all means, catch a performance of the musical Hamilton if you are lucky enough to get tickets.  By all accounts, it’s an amazing show.  But while you are learning the lyrics and melodies of this revolutionary musical, read the biography they sprang from.  As rich as the theatrical production is, this book is the mother-lode.

Elegy for an Honest Marriage

It’s October, one of my favorite months for stories, even though most October stories have a tie to the supernatural.   So it only seems right to start off with a story by one of the writers most associated with scary stories: Stephen King.

At its essence, marriage is a closed corporation.  It’s a private entity with its own personality and the principals own all the stock.  Sure, often children are born to a marriage and spouses share parts of their lives with others but these people are beneficiaries, not stockholders; if children leave and friends fall away, the corporation continues unless death or divorce intervene, keeping secrets known only to the principals. At least that’s the premise of Lisey’s Story.  And those untold secrets are what makes a marriage powerful, even when one of the principals dies.
Lisey Landon is still learning about the strength of her marriage years after her husband, Scott, died. Scott was a successful novelist and the public face of their marriage.  His passing left her with a sizable amount of cash, a barn full of books, and some very insensitive academic types that believe their knowledge of Scott Landon’s work gives them superior rights to and understanding of Scott, the man.  Only Lisey knows how wrong they are.
Scott’s commitment to his wife is a suggestion why some marriages go the distance, even when one of the principals is famous.  Landon treats his fans with kindness and respect but recognizes their view of him is grounded in their response to his stories.  In his words, Lisey sees him as himself, a person of both weakness and strength, that is totally separate from his work. Before the world fell in love with Scott’s creations, Lisey fell in love with Scott, not his work, making her one of the few trustworthy souls in his world.  And trust her he does with his deepest secrets, the ones where King’s imagination runs dark.

If parents and siblings knew us when we were children, then spouses see how we live with the effects of that childhood . Lisey’s learns of her husband’s fearful background and the genuine affection that can thread through knots of abuse.  She also discovers the genetic dynamite her husband carries and the extraordinary abilities and terrors he keeps private.  In exchange, Scott gains access to Lisey’s quiet, incredible sense and strength and insight into her long-term dance in a gaggle of sisters. To the public, Scott and Lisey Landon look like an uneven couple but they are a strong, symbiotic team, unaffected by fame or money. The marriage is based on mutual trust they’ve learned to rely on, knowing each will not only keep the other’s secrets but the secrets they hide from themselves.  

King fans will find the humor and gruesome scenes in Lisey’s Story that fill many of their favorite author’s books and literary fans will be enchanted by the pool at Boo’ya Moon, the place Scott says all storytellers drink from to find the words and ideas that keep them writing and us reading.  But make no mistake, Lisey’s Story is primarily a love song, a hymn for a long, loving marriage.  Listen well because songs are all outsiders are allowed to hear.  The best of any good marriage remains a privileged secret.