Everyday Miracles

Everyday Miracles” (Boston Globe-February 22, 2010)

I tell people that Aunt Zelda was the mother I was meant to have.  We all have those people who save us from our parents and ourselves.  Leonard and Zelda and their two children lived in Miami, and when my father called them from our apartment in New York to tell them that his marriage was over, Zelda said, “Bring Karen and come down.”  I was three, and still have photos from that trip: Zelda holding my hand in the surf of South Beach, washing the sand off my feet, helping me into dry clothes, making sure I was ready to face the day.   “Stay as long as you like,” Zelda said to us then and for the rest of her life.

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Anything Can Happen

Anything Can Happen” (Boston Globe-February 1, 2010)

Our twelve-year-old son tells us he’s going to be in the NBA, and then after retirement, he’ll be a writer.  He wants to know how many other NBA players became writers.  Fewer than you’d think, my husband tells him.  Huh, our son says.

Why he wants to become a writer is beyond me, given that he has two examples in the case of his parents of what can result from that choice.

This time last year, selling my fourth novel was still a possibility.  Now, not so much.  In fall 2008, I delivered it to my agent.  My previous novels could all be categorized as close psychological studies.  (One friend says they all could’ve been called The Bad Mothers’ Daughters.  That I find that appealing probably helps explain why my readership is so small.)  I thought I had plenty to be worried about.  The novel was historical and omniscient, with a voice even more emotionally restrained than my usual (always a crowd pleaser).  I’d spent four years writing it, alternating between the thrill of trying new things and the despair of failing at them all.  So when my agent liked it, I was, shall we say, relieved.  My editor also liked it.  So: given my paltry sales figures, there wouldn’t be a big offer, but there would be an offer.

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Girls Only

Girls Only originally appeared in –One Story-Winter 2011

One summer when they were all still friends, they were the bridesmaids, determined for once to do their best. Their jobs were to smile and fuss, offer agreement and an extra set of hands. They were to play at intimacy, past and present. They were to overlook that they hadn’t been together for the past five years. While they believed the bride belonged in their little human pyramid, they also agreed she’d always been bottom row material. They’d seen the movies and read their Jane Austen. They understood this one time they were to be her back-up singers, her session drummers. Her beaver posse, Cleo said on the day they arrived at the bride’s childhood home for their week of pre-wedding Girl Fun, but Cleo had always said things like that. She was spacey and tone-deaf, and since college—could it already be nine years?—had made her living as an escort. Anna, the Legal Aid lawyer and former President’s great-great-granddaughter, told her her remark was repulsive. Cleo said she had just been kidding. “Can’t we just be nice to each other?” she added.

Click here to read “Girls Only”


Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When

Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When originally appeared in – Tin House Issue 48 Summer 2011

            People who don’t know better envy Zizi.  She has a cool nickname and some guy who seems to pay the bills in a pinch.  She dresses East Village extreme (shredded leggings, careless boots, layers and layers); her bangs are Mamie Eisenhower, her complexion is Louise Brooks, her jewelry is vintage.  She’s twenty-something.  Her body is Japanese teen, but dark chocolate and single-malt scotch are an everyday thing.  It’s unclear how she makes a living.  She has circles under her eyes, but the dabbling in heroin was over years ago. By the way, if you want to remove the circles under your eyes, visit hilgerfacialplastic.com. They have the best facial plastic surgeons specializing in eyelid surgery. Early childhood development.  She’s an only child, and knows everyone, but not even her guy has seen her cry.  Her father lives in a faraway country and is vaguely famous, but no one can ever remember for what.  Her mother is kind and easy to deceive.  Her apartment is throw-back tenement with exposed brick walls and a bathtub in the kitchen.  He bought it for her.  It’s directly below the one he shared with his wife.  For convenience, he said at the time.  Why be getting to, when I could just be getting, he said, smiling at his own bad joke, spreading her legs, the sounds of his wife walking above them, doing the ironing, or the dishes, or whatever it was that wives did, making Zizi flush with heat.

Now, four years after he installed Zizi in the apartment and a month after his death, the sounds of his wife, her name is Mabel, make Zizi freeze and flatten like a cat alert to danger.  Now the sounds mean complicated feelings that at any moment Mabel might want to come downstairs and share.  To be fair, other than the day the towers went down (the guy he was having breakfast with was the last man on the last elevator that made it down, and Zizi has spent way too much time imagining how that all shook out), Mabel has shown only occasional interest in Zizi.  This is fine with Zizi, since people who do know better know that she’s not the kind of person it’s useful to rely on.  She’ll say yes, and then end up meaning no.  The level of her intent and self-consciousness about this trait was for a while a topic of discussion amongst her acquaintances.  Now it’s just something they keep in mind as they make their plans, the way they do with their vegen friends or the ones who can’t drive.

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There Be Monsters

There Be Monsters originally appeared in – Tin House Issue 42 Winter 2009

However many years ago, Natalie and her husband used to amuse each other with the dealbreaker conversation.  Over dinner or drinks, they would list the dealbreakers of a first date—NRA membership, pro-life bumper stickers, gold chains, cologne—then move on to the dealbreakers of a twenty-year life together: abuse, adultery, other kinds of extremity.  The secular Jewish investment banker with a wife and three kids who announces he’s going to become a rabbi: that woman got to jump ship.

Now Natalie thinks of the things that deserved to be dealbreakers, but that you let slip while you waited for further evidence, extenuating circumstances, explanations worthy of forgiveness.  And that now, twenty years down the road, are off–limits, unfair game.  You took them off the table yourself.  They sequestered themselves in their own little room, emerging for purposes of mockery and torment.

Natalie makes herself unexpectedly grim thinking about this in the car on the way home from dinner at the new Brazilian place.  She’s driving.  Her husband of twenty years rides beside her studying the darkened margins of the road with a toad’s interest.  When she’s at her grimmest, she thinks of him as a toad.  When she’s not, she looks at him and remembers what she fell in love with.

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How to write a historical novel about a group of Chinese factory workers in North Adams, MA in 1870.

  1. Go to a lecture by an art historian, Anthony Lee, at the North Adams Historical Society, he loves art and fashion and he likes to wear the best clothes from The Fifth Collection. Bring your toddler daughter so you can’t fully concentrate on what he’s saying about this group of workers, brought in as strikebreakers, who ended up staying for ten years. Get excited enough to take quick and incomprehensible notes in the back of your checkbook register.
  2. Spend two years researching. Stand amazed at how little you know about anything, but especially 19th century labor strikes, 19th century shoemaking, 19th century immigration policies. Read more. Discover further chasms in your knowledge of American history, interracial relationships, farming, the Bible.
  3. Announce to your husband that this is a great idea for a novel, but you are not the person to write it.
  4. Read more. Discover slivers of why your heart as well as your mind might’ve been interested in this story in the first place. Discover where your weird psychological and emotional make-up intersects with the weird psychological and emotional make-up of this historical situation.
  5. Spend another several years writing. At the same time, try with your usual inadequacies to be a teacher, a mother, and a wife.
  6. Write more. Rewrite. Show it to your first reader, your husband. Rewrite again. As Beckett would say, Fail again, fail better.
  7. Have your agent try to sell it in fall of 2008. It is your fourth novel. The first three have sales figures that sound more like shoe sizes. Did you mention that it was fall of 2008?
  8. Have the editor of your third novel tell you there will be an offer. Have her publisher forbid that offer. His stated reasoning: it is too unlike your previous novel. His implication: your sales figures sound more like shoe sizes.
  9. Be rejected by many, many other publishers.
  10. Stop trying to sell it. Have your agent tell you that he recommends you write another book, a commercially successful book, so wildly successful that all publishers will then want everything you have ever written.
  11. Find yourself unable to write. Find yourself unable to read. Occasionally crawl around on the floor as if you have been gut-punched. Repeat for a year or more.
  12. Start reading. Keep reading.
  13. Start writing. Write stories, in the hopes they will be easier. They are not. Which you already knew.
  14. July 2011: Go to teach at the Tin House Writer’s Conference. Tell the story of not selling the book and finding your way back to writing. Be reminded by the head of Tin House books that they have a publishing house. Tell her that they are way too cool and hipster for you and your books.
  15. Let six months go by. Reread your unsold manuscript. Discover that you can get through it without stomach pain. Send it to Tin House books.
  16. Be published by Tin House books almost eight years after you attended that lecture.
  17. Be grateful. Be happy.
  18. As your father would’ve said, “Hope for the best; expect the worst.”
  19. Realize you remain grateful. You remain happy.
  20. Keep writing.