You live in Saratoga Springs, New York, home to Yaddo, one of the most famous artist colonies in the United States. Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, John Cheever, Amy Bloom, and Andrea Barrett, among many others, have been awarded fellowships over the years.
Frankly, I didn’t even know what a huge deal Yaddo was when I first moved to Saratoga and it is literally around the corner from where I live, just past the famous Saratoga Flat Track. I had a two year old and a five year old when I moved here so… I was a little preoccupied by Barney and packing a PC lunchbox (something I never mastered). Saratoga Springs is a jumble of contradictions. A quaint Victorian village in the shadow of the Adirondacks, it is most well known for the flat track which has drawn the rich and famous and their thoroughbred horses since the late 1800’s and the Sulphur Springs for the purported healing properties and for one of the most expensive private liberal arts colleges in the country: Skidmore. The gardens at Yaddo are open to the public and I’ve spent a lot of time on the grounds… soaking up the ghosts of writers past, I guess you could say, but I’ve never applied for a residency.
Your novel, The Summer We Fell Apart, is set in the lower Hudson Valley, Manhattan, Washington D.C, Los Angeles and Italy. Do you think where you live has informed your work?
I’ve lived all over the place – I was born in New Rochelle, NY, raised for the first ten years in Pelham – just outside of Manhattan, in a large Italian American family… many first generation. Language, proper language, was a big deal. Maybe that’s where my love of words was born. It seemed to me that the relatives who had come from Italy could learn to speak English but clung fiercely to their Italian. Their children who were born here seemed fanatic about using the right words, sounding more American. When I was ten my father (who had already been an air force pilot and an engineer) moved us to a small town on the outskirts of the Florida Everglades to start a pool company. It was a huge blow to my tight-knit family who understood vacations in Miami Beach but had never ventured much farther than that, certainly not the lower west coast. I think my parents left New York with their dreams a little deflated by the reaction from their families. That adventure, that sense of place, definitely turned me upside down. I went from this odd kid, totally scared of my own shadow, to someone who learned to cut the jaws from baby sharks that washed up on shore (to sell to tourists), who snuck out of the house to fish for shark off the pier at midnight, and who glimpsed three white hooded Klansman at night on a deserted stretch of beach. When I look back on that time I think Florida, at least the part where I lived, was like the wild, wild, west. Unclaimed and a bit dangerous. I miss that Florida.
Once I left for college in Atlanta, I never again spent that much time in Florida again save for breaks. After a year in Atlanta I traveled to New York to finish my education. And while I’ve lived all over New York State from the city to the edge of the Adirondacks, I guess you could say New York is home. Eventually, my parents returned north as well.
The geographic locales for The Summer We Fell Apart seemed to spring naturally from the characters even though they were all places I had been. The only place I needed to be specific was a small town within train travel of Manhattan – my husband was born in Kingston, New York and spent some time in Saugerties and Woodstock so I guess that was how I stumbled upon Nyack for the setting of the Haas family’s home. Although, I did send the father to Saratoga to teach in the drama department at Skidmore, so that link at least came full circle.
Why haven’t you written about Florida?
TNB actually has opened the Florida Floodgates for me. I’ve been writing some non-fiction pieces and the novel I’m working on now is set on a remote island off the West Coast of Florida. I can’t say much more than that.
Tell us about The Summer We Fell Apart.
The Summer We Fell Apart is about the Haas family. It is narrated by four siblings, Amy, George, Kate and Finn who were raised in a chaotic, abusive environment, by a once-brilliant playwright and a struggling actress. Years later, when their father dies, they must depend upon the fragile bonds that unite them, despite years of anger and hurt, to remember what it means to be a family.
It has a fairly unusual structure for a novel. Was the structure something you struggled with?
During my first draft I think the book read more like connected short stories. It took me going back in and adding at least three hundred pages and then cutting it all back again. I did this a couple of times. Killed off a few characters, and in the process, found the spine and hence the bones of the book. Each sibling needed a voice (a section) and within that section separate chapters. Their stories overlap enough that by the end of the novel you get a pretty clear picture of events from each of the siblings’ point of view.
Where did Amy, George, Kate and Finn (The Haas siblings) come from? Do you know a family like this? Is it your family?
Believe it or not: I had a first line and a last line. I knew who was speaking both. I had no idea other than I wanted to tell the story of a large family and the relationships between the siblings, mostly the relationship between the youngest, Amy and her brother George. When I was done with Amy’s sections – which I really thought were going to be a novella – I heard George’s voice. He wanted to tell his story as well. Then came Kate and Finn and finally, their mother, Marilyn. It was an unusually linear process. Originally Finn had a twin but the alliteration and the extra sibling were just too much. So the twin got killed off in the second draft.
And no, I don’t know a family that is specifically the Haas prototype.
You’ve received some pretty nice accolades: Publishers Weekly called it a cunning well-crafted debut. And novelists like Martha Moody, Elizabeth Benedict, Will Allison, Diana Spechler, and Jessica Anya Blau gave you props as well. For a first-time novelist you’re making this look pretty easy. Was it?
First off, I have to say that the praise is off the charts. All through the process I imagined (and still do, sort of) that someone will tap me on the shoulder and tell me its all been some grand misunderstanding. I feel honored and truly grateful for everything. I’m in awe. Awe is a great word.
As for easy? No. I’ve been at this a long time writing whatever came my way to make a living. I’ve written for the newspapers that people line the birdcage with, press releases, monthly columns for a food co-op newsletter, radio scripts and PSA’s for a business network, edited papers, written ad copy etc. etc. … and in my spare time (before two kids) I wrote short stories and novels at night after the day job. I’m stubborn, tend to take the long way and figure things out myself. If I’d gone back to school for the MFA I might have been here sooner. But then again, I don’t know if I would have written this same novel. So, maybe not.
What’s the craziest job you ever had?
Well, not crazy as in “I was a stripper” crazy, but one summer during college I tended bar on the St. Lawrence River. I don’t even know how I was hired since I didn’t know how to do anything but open a beer. Anyway, lucky for me, most of the locals who hung out there drank beer and I learned how to be a really good listener while they told me their stories. One guy in particular had been involved in some pretty crazy stuff. I later found out he was Abbie Hoffman, one of the infamous Chicago Seven.
Why don’t you write about that?
I think he may be buried in one of my past novels. Never to resurface, and in the end, his is not my story to tell. It was just a cool thing to happen to a nineteen year old.
How did you keep at the writing without getting published? How many novels before this one?
I wrote five mediocre novels before this one. I published short stories here and there. I won a few contests and came in on the finals of some pretty decent contests. It was enough to keep me going, that and the fact that I simply could not stop writing despite rejection. I was sick when I tried to stop, just felt awful inside, dead, so I just picked up and went from there. Day by day. Don’t give up became a mantra. It simply was something I had to do. I hate to come off as so dramatic – but it’s true.
Do you have a routine?
When my daughters were small I wrote when they napped. When they went to school, I wrote as soon as they left the house. Now one is in college and the other high school and I have a bit more flexible time. But still, I’ve kept my “school day” schedule. Everyday no matter how I feel, I write. On a bad day there are many trips to the kitchen. On a good day, not as many. Some days all the pages are crap. Believe me, by now I know crap on the page when I see it.
Are you a fast writer?
I’m a big believer in fast first drafts. I try not to edit myself too much during this process. I do go back and look at the previous days work to get into the rhythm, but other than that I keep on going. I keep track in a notebook next to my computer with chapter numbers etc. But not much else. I don’t outline. I might have made my life a lot easier if I did, but I don’t.
So how long? From start to finish?
For this book? Eighteen months.
Can you give us the short version of how you landed an agent and a contract?
I read constantly. And so books I liked, books that moved me, books I felt were in the same vein as my own, I would note in the acknowledgements section who the author thanked: agent, editors etc. Then I did some research and if their ideas gelled with mine I added them to the list. Then I learned how to write a damn fine query letter and sent them out with crossed fingers. In the end my agent, Julie Barer, found me through a colleague of hers who had read one of my aforementioned previously unpublished novels. We went out on submission with that novel but it ultimately didn’t sell. She gave me the time and space and believed in me enough to allow me to retreat and write what became The Summer We Fell Apart. Honestly, I never met another human being who believes in me as much as she does. Every writer would do well to have someone like that behind them.
So are you living the dream?
A year ago I would have been too scared to jinx it, but yeah, today, a few days before publication, I’d have to admit I’m living the dream, but I still have a lot of work to do.