The Opening Pages of Not Now, Voyager:

I woke abruptly, to a darkness so thick I could breathe it in. My mind was ominously alert, none of that blurry, dream-clogged puzzlement that usually comes with the return of consciousness. It was an alertness I often wished for in daylight—sharp, energetic, skimming through the past hours, the boat trip, the long taxi ride through flat scrubby countryside under a wide white sky, everything that had brought me here. I knew exactly where I was. I remembered the light switch on the bedside lamp even though this was a new place, my first night. I switched it on, but nothing happened. I remembered a row of square plastic buttons on the bed’s headboard and fumbled around until I located them. None of them produced any light.

Now I was baffled, with panic creeping towards me like a little battalion of mice. I got up and groped my way around the room, feeling for the furniture—there wasn’t much of it, as I recalled. It was pitch black and I had no idea what time it was. Maybe it was no time at all. Maybe time had stopped and I was in the afterlife, or some place in between, a dark place, oddly enough with the same layout and furniture as my final room.

If it was not the afterlife, then it was a room in a hotel in Orkos. Orkos is a town on the Greek island of Naxos, in the Cyclades islands. I was in the middle of the Aegean Sea, on the island where Theseus abandoned Ariadne while she slept, and it was very dark. From my brief exploration shortly after I arrived, I recalled Orkos as a nowhere town, a ghost town. None of the low white buildings dotting the dry landscape had seemed inhabited. No people were on the roads. There was a beach, not quite where the guidebook had promised, in fact a good half-mile away and a trifle mangy looking, but still a beach. The hotel was pretty empty too. At dinner I’d seen four other people sitting on the dark terrace, shadowy shapes raising forks to their mouths and murmuring. The server was a vague young Norwegian who’d been sleeping when we first arrived in the sultry late afternoon. We had to seek him out in his little nook at the back and wake him.

So I was nowhere, by myself. Well, not quite. My daughter was in the room just upstairs. At least she was when I went to sleep. But if I had died in my sleep and been brought to some pitch-black limbo, I hoped she wasn’t with me. She was too young; she had her life ahead of her. I would rather be dead alone than dead with her, even for company.

But of course I wasn’t dead. How foolish. There had simply been some sort of electrical failure. The thing to do, in a hotel, was call the front desk and report it, ask for a flashlight. I was quite capable of that. But this kind of hotel in this kind of town didn’t have phones in the room. I had a cell phone but not the kind that worked abroad. I wasn’t sure why I’d brought it with me—I rarely used it even at home, but it made me feel assistance was at my fingertips. The functioning cell phone was upstairs with my daughter, along with the guidebooks. She was the organizer. On this trip, she organized and I did the talking. I was good at talking. But there was no one to talk to.

I could try going to the front desk, but that would mean finding my clothes in the dark and climbing down the series of rocky, twisting paths that led to the main building. The architecture of the hotel was unclear, diabolical, really, with the rooms laid out in clumpy outcroppings set in the hills. If there even was a front desk—I hadn’t seen one, nor, if it existed, did this seem the kind of hotel where someone would be on duty all night. The drowsy Norwegian had led us straight from his lair to our rooms, and the dinner, lamb stew, which he proudly announced that he had cooked himself, was served on a terrace. Who could say where that terrace might be, in this hilly maze? I could go out and climb the stairs to my daughter’s room in the dark, but I didn’t want to wake her merely to have her share my panic, which had now crept all the way inside my head and was pattering around. Besides disturbing her, it would embarrass me. I was the mother, after all.

I tried the lights again, then sat on the bed in the dark. Where was I, not literally, but in relation to reality as I understood it? And more important, why? Where was the rest of the world with all its people? The darkness closed around me like a fleece coat. Soon it might stifle me. The night could last forever. The night was vast and I was a speck: that was the lesson of great literature and I knew it well. No one would find me in its vastness. No one would think of looking here, in Orkos. Why had I done this, left home to sit in a dark room in an endless night in a deserted town in the middle of the Aegean Sea? Ariadne was discovered and saved by Dionysus, but I had no such expectations.

I remembered a door that opened onto a tiny balcony, just large enough for one person to stand on. I groped around until I found the knob and stepped out. Light! Way up above, the moon. I almost wept with relief. It didn’t light up much—there wasn’t much to light up—but I could make out the silhouettes of a few sagging trees, a few right angles that must have been the rooftops of the other rooms below. There was still the moon. Perhaps there might still be the sun as well. It just might be that morning would come, and with it, light.

Nothing remained to do but lie down and wait for sleep, and for light to return. With luck, the world would not always be so dark. Never again, I vowed. If I outlive this darkness I’ll never leave home again.

Orkos, the endless dark, the unknown, the isolation, the helplessness, the nightmare of travel in its purest form. Now I knew what I had always dreaded.

And after much meandering, the closing pages:

When I was eleven I began a novel about twin girls. It was a crime novel: a body, a hotel room. I was fascinated by hotels though I had never stayed in one. To stay in a hotel seemed the pinnacle of glamour and sophistication. At that age, indeed well into adulthood, until I actually stayed in one, I dreamed of hotels. I longed to stay in a real hotel with a front desk and a lobby with armchairs and carpets and potted plants and uniformed bellhops.

Since it was not from experience, it was probably from the movies that I got the idea of what a hotel, a four or five-star hotel, and its lobby should look like. The management would be visible and haughty and uniformed and the lobby active with guests yet serenely dignified, the kind of hotel a character in a 1940s movie would check into, where the bellboy would follow in the elevator with the bags and lead the guest to an ample suite, fling open the windows and unobtrusively accept a tip. Then the guest would hurriedly make an important phone call or receive a visit from a mysterious stranger, or alternatively from some thugs sent to threaten him or beat him up, and if the latter he would awaken, dazed, send for Room Service and soon a wheeled tray would arrive with a bottle of champagne and a huge silver dome covering the meal; or if he never awakened from the beating, a maid in a white ruffled apron and cap would discover his body when she came in with a pile of towels and would start to scream. My novel would take place in a hotel like that.

I worked on the novel in the most dismal and unhotel-like of places, in school, in the seventh grade. The last class on Friday afternoon was reserved for Creative Arts. The week was almost over, so I suppose the authorities thought there was no harm in spending a smidgen of time on something as harmless as the arts–an afterthought, a dessert after the meat-and-potatoes subjects. Most of the class drew or did clay modeling but a few of us were permitted to sit at our desks and write. For forty-five minutes I would cover sheet after sheet of a yellow legal pad, flipping the sheets over in haste.

The plot turned on the girls being identical. One of them would die and the other would be left bereft, either to carry on her sister’s life or to solve the mystery—I never figured out exactly where the story would go after the initial murder. The notion of twins, like that of hotels, was another of my secret fantasies. I never imagined I was adopted, or a changeling, as so many children do, but I did suspect I might be a twin. My thoughts would often unreeI in dialogue, as if I were speaking to someone, a double, who would receive my words with perfect understanding. I had friends, but they knew me piecemeal: only this double could receive and thoroughly grasp everything about me. My thoughts and feelings, my doings, needed to be put into words and presented to this double for validation. Until then, they felt less than real, less than achieved. Only words—formulated and offered—could give my life the definitive stamp of reality.

So I spoke to her, my imagined twin, but it was I who contributed her half of the dialogue. This left me puzzled and uneasy. Where was she? I overheard that my mother had had several miscarriages and that one of those pregnancies was twins. It wasn’t out of the question, then, that I too could be a twin and my double had died at birth. I imagined that my family had conspired to keep this secret from me, thinking it would distress me, but the uncertainty and puzzlement were even more distressing. The vanished twin would explain why I felt vaguely lonely and kept trying to talk to someone exactly like myself who would understand me effortlessly, and why she didn’t answer. Later on I learned that some fetuses start out as twins but one embryo fails to develop; perhaps it emerges with the placenta or just melts away somehow. I cultivated the notion that I’d been half of such a pregnancy—this notion exonerated my family from being unduly secretive–and that it was my undeveloped, unborn double whom I kept trying to talk to. That must be why my early novel had twins as its main characters, and why one of them had to die.

I didn’t finish that novel in the seventh grade. Either the term was over, or Creative Arts was abandoned, or I lost interest or didn’t know how to proceed with the plot. From that effort, though, I grasped instinctively that writing was a place to indulge one’s fantasies and try on costumes, to mask and multiply the self.

After I grew up, the story about the twins kept nagging at me. I moved around a lot and carried the idea with me, but was never able to make any headway. In the early years of my married life my husband got a Fulbright grant to study in Rome. While I was there I tried to concentrate on writing, but I was not successful. All I could come up with were the beginnings of novels filled with violence and mayhem that led nowhere. It frightened me to think that I could harbor such violent fantasies, and so I would abandon them. Not a very professional attitude, but I was far, then, from taking myself seriously as a writer, and from accepting my lurid fantasies with the equanimity I later acquired. Sometimes in desperation I thought of reviving that old mystery story about the twins and the hotel room that I’d started in the seventh grade, but I never got beyond thinking about it.

Years later, during a wretched period spent teaching in Southern California and after I had written several other books, again I attempted that unfulfilled mystery begun in the seventh grade. Again the identical twins, again the melodrama. As before, one would die and the other live on, forever missing her sister. And again I found myself yearning for a double—a gifted writer–who perhaps could help out by providing a first draft. First drafts are always the most difficult part of writing and I have always wished someone could do them for me. Afterwards, I’d be more than happy to rewrite as much as necessary.

This time, even without an accommodating double, I did manage to write a good bit, but again never finished. I couldn’t work out the plot, but even more, I couldn’t work out what it all meant, what it was for. The story was a series of calamities befalling a family, but it had no underlying purpose. I think I simply enjoyed heaping tragedy at the doorstep of this unfortunate family, out of a masochistic anger that I had agreed to teach in southern California, alone and alienated. Evenings I would eat dinner in front of the TV news. It was 1991. I watched the Gulf War—missiles exploding in air like a fireworks display, the commentators insanely gleeful about the new technology—and I watched the Los Angeles police beating Rodney King with their clubs, a scene shown every evening for weeks. After dinner and the war and the beating, I read. My stint in Southern California was ten weeks, so I was reading the longest novel I could find, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, which vividly depicted the fourteenth-century plague. Decaying, pustulating bodies lay crammed together in smelly shelters, while two forcibly separated lovers searched for each other. No wonder I took out my frustration on that poor family I invented.

For a long time after that, I carried those melodramatic pages with me—one twin doomed in adolescence, the other doomed to live bereft—wherever I went, but couldn’t make anything coherent out of them. Meanwhile I kept writing other books.

* * * *

Very soon after the September 11 attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, I enrolled in an evening course in Harmony. I’d started picking out tunes on the piano when I was four or five years old, and at six I began taking lessons. Even though I took piano lessons for thirteen years and became a fairly decent amateur pianist, and even though I went diligently through all the scales, chords and arpeggios, I never achieved a coherent understanding of theory and harmony. For years I mused on and off about remedying this lack and even tried on my own with books, but had little success.

The attack itself was so arresting and unanticipated that I could barely think about anything else. Writing felt impossible. The event was a boulder in my mind that I couldn’t get past. That entire autumn, the downtown site was all everyone in New York thought about and talked about. A half mile north, you could see thin curls of smoke still rising, slow and reluctant. When I closed my eyes the iconic images of the debris lined the insides of my lids. The newspapers were filled with stories of the dead, new and unforgettable gory details coming to light daily, alongside the dense, specious language of political and military maneuvering.

One night, as I was leafing through a brochure of concerts and courses offered by a local music school, my eye caught a description of the Harmony course. The next minute I was filling out a form in the back of the brochure. I suppose I wanted to focus my attention, if only for two hours a week, on a subject as far as possible from downtown Manhattan. That must have been why I chose that moment, of all the moments since I stopped taking piano lessons, to become a student of Harmony.

The class was held in a building near Lincoln Center that in the daytime served as a public elementary school for children gifted in music. Our room was a first-grade classroom, not too different from the seventh-grade classroom in which I had begun my mystery novel about the twins, but everything was on a smaller scale, befitting younger children. The walls were lined with the letters of the alphabet in capitals and lower case, as well as with pictures of animals, their names printed below in that clear type-face used for small children. There were children’s drawings hanging on the walls too. In the midst of the mourning outside those walls, the downtown air thick with the smell of smoke bearing the traces of charred flesh, it was soothing to gaze at crayoned pictures of A-frame houses with curling smoke—innocent smoke–wafting from squat chimneys, of daisies and horses and tricycles, trucks and dogs and oceans made of parallel wavy lines.

We didn’t sit in the tiny first-grade chairs—they were stacked up against a wall while we used metal folding chairs—yet there was a sense of miniaturization about the class. Everything, including the room itself, was small and enclosed and manageable. At the front, to one side, was an old upright piano. Facing us was an old-fashioned blackboard. Three horizontal rows of chairs were set up, six chairs in each row, but they were not filled. The class had about eight or ten students, but some nights only five or six attended. I never missed a class. It was the happiest time of my week; I looked forward to it.

The teacher was a very animated, slight, good-looking mustached man named Victor, around forty or so. On the first night Victor instructed us to go out and buy a small music notebook, which I duly did, and I took it to class each week, along with pencils with good erasers, feeling that I was back in elementary school, though I enjoyed the Harmony class more than I had ever enjoyed elementary or any other school, far more than I had enjoyed the seventh grade, despite the bonus of Creative Arts.

Victor was an ideal teacher. He always arrived promptly. He shimmered with energy and taught with enthusiasm. He moved swiftly and wrote swiftly on the blackboard, his rendering of the notes possessing a dashing grace quite different from my clumsy, childish efforts. He began the course with the most fundamental aspects of theory, the major and minor scales, the chords, the intervals, all of which were familiar to me, but I didn’t mind the repetition. I had learned it piecemeal, not in any orderly fashion. Now I loved the order, the diagrams, the mathematical underpinnings, the way everything fit into a stable and superbly logical whole. Victor progressed weekly from the simple to the more complex, making everything clear and manageable. He taught us about the circle of fifths—the major and minor scales arranged in a perfect circle, a rational, balanced miniature universe—and he made it so clear that I thought I could never forget it. But I have forgotten it, mostly.

Along with the technical material, Victor regaled the class with savory anecdotes about music, musicians, and amusing moments and milestones in the history and development of harmony, and I took copious notes in my little notebook. As he spoke, in his witty and animated way, about the intricacies and subtleties and private jokes of harmony, it seemed there was nothing else of importance in the world except this subject, Harmony, which was of surpassing, crucial importance. For those two hours, my attention was heartfelt and thorough. Everything outside was forgotten; it was as if the attacks had never happened. Only harmony existed.

In school I had never been one of those students who crowd around the teacher after class, yet here I often stayed a few extra minutes to ask Victor questions. These were not merely pretexts to prolong the respite, however. I had serious and pressing questions about harmony and felt I could not go home unless my curiosity was satisfied. Today I remember none of these questions or their answers.

Each week he gave us homework. We had to devise simple harmonies—eight or so bars of music–for four voices, bass, tenor, alto and soprano, which meant making up four little tunes that fit together according to the principles of harmony. I enjoyed doing my homework—not least the very idea of homework–and would usually do it as soon as I got home after class, so I wouldn’t forget the points in the lesson that needed to be incorporated in the homework. Each week Victor would put one person’s homework assignment on the blackboard and we would analyze it to see how well it conformed to the principles of harmony. The night he asked for my assignment I was quite excited. I tore it out of my notebook and handed it to him with a flourish, which made him laugh. He dissected my homework, and though it contained a few small infelicities, overall it was fairly successful, and I was as proud as if I were in first grade and had read aloud, to near-perfection, a passage from a Dick and Jane primer.

As the term drew to a close, he suggested that we might want to take the next course in the series on harmony, in which the homework would no doubt be more complicated. I considered taking this course but never did.

I no longer remember any of the other students, yet I think of them, vague warm bodies in the seats around me, as my companions during that awful time when, outside of Tuesday night’s Harmony class, the city was grieving and awash in confusion. I still have my little notebook with all my homework assignments and class notes—the one assignment I ripped out to hand to Victor sticking out with its jagged edge. I look at it sometimes, without opening it, and am reminded of that oasis of harmony, Tuesday nights at six-fifteen, moving from the luminous blue-skied shocked autumn into the cold winter of resignation, through the various kinds of intervals, through consonance and dissonance and inversions, and always the perfect foundation of the circle of fifths, while outside the little room came anthrax and Afghanistan and the daily funerals and the recovery of body parts.

When the course was over I thought maybe it was time to write something again. If I stop writing even for a couple of weeks I worry that I’m not really a writer anymore, and that feeling returned in force. I would have to write something about what had just happened in New York City, because it was still a boulder in my mind and nothing else could get past it. But where to begin? Once again I remembered those old pages in my desk drawer about the doomed twins from the family on whom, in my loneliness and frustration in southern California, I had heaped tragedy, a tragedy that hadn’t added up to anything useful in a literary sense.

I took out those old pages, and in this new context of the terrorist attacks, they made sense. At least I saw a way they could begin to cohere. As before, one twin would die early on, and the remaining twin’s grief would linger, evoking a series of memories. But the story of her life would have to be redesigned, for along with the private tragedy would be added the greater, public tragedy, the two permeating each other, their context broadened and deepened. The narrative would no longer be an assemblage of pointless mayhem, but could take a useful place in the larger world, as an attempt to make a pattern out of what had happened. It would have the shape and the purpose it had lacked before. Instead of creeping around the boulder in my mind I would drill my way through it.

So at last I was able to finish my story about the twins. Years after it was begun, my story had found its meaning. I jettisoned the hotel setting. By that time I had stayed in many hotels and was no longer awed by their glamor. But more important, in this new context, hotels no longer mattered. They were like the crumpled up newspaper that you use to set a good log fire and that disappears in the blaze of its own making. Far more significant than hotels were communal grief and shock and their aftermath, the need to undergo and assimilate them. Those would be the core of the story I began at eleven years old in the seventh grade on Friday afternoons at two-fifteen in Creative Arts, decades before anyone ever dreamed that the World Trade Center would be built, still less that it would be destroyed one sunny autumn morning.

 

How come so much of your writing, both fiction and non-fiction, takes place in Brooklyn? And in Manhattan too, for that matter. Your newest book, Not Now, Voyager, has a lot of both places.

Maybe I should be called a regional writer. I grew up in Brooklyn, and even though I moved away at seventeen, it left its claws deep inside me. So much of what I’ve seen and done since is measured against my early memories, the house, the street, the school, the neighborhood. Not that they’re all great memories. The truth is that when I was living there, all I could think of was escape. I thought Brooklyn was boring. It was boring. And yet now, I seem to find it fascinating, in retrospect. It was a kind of closed community, with its own ways and habits, and those kinds of places are always intriguing to look at. (Today Brooklyn is completely different, of course, no longer boring. When I go back there, sometimes to look at the ocean or walk on the Boardwalk in Brighton Beach, it feels exotic.) As far as Manhattan, I’ve lived in the same neighorhood for many years now, and it feels like its own little enclave. I’m not so aware of place when it comes to architecture, stores, and so on. It’s more the feel of a place that grips me, the look of the sky at certain hours, where the sun sets, the sounds and smells, the general aura. I’ve written about other places I lived in—Rome, Honolulu, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis. But I always return to New York. It’s the place that feels right for me.

 

How come you’ve traveled so much, especially when you say in Now Now, Voyager that you don’t like it?

Some of it was for pleasure—visiting European countries for the first time as a young person. My husband and I lived in Rome long ago when he had a year-long Fulbright grant, and that was great. It wasn’t traveling—it was living. I had a grocery store, a bakery, all the things you need for a life and don’t get as a tourist. A lot of my traveling has been for work. I never had a permanent teaching job because I wanted my time for writing, so for years I lived like a nomad, taking one-semester jobs here and there, all over the country. But I was always a bit of the outsider, and I liked it that way. I didn’t want to be part of a large institution and have to obey its rules.

 

How did you manage to write so many books and teach and raise a family?

I really don’t know. Sometimes I wonder myself. I guess because I didn’t do much else. I don’t really like vacations that much. I like working. Those early books—I loved writing them. When I could sit at my desk and dream—that was what I liked best.

 

You have two grown daughters, I’ve heard. How did having and raising children affect your work?

Oh, what a question. I could write a book about it, and maybe someday I will. It’s very hard, as everyone knows. Almost impossible. Many contemporary women writers have families, but if you think about it historically, the writers we remember today, the very best ones, say Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen—they didn’t raise children. Still, I don’t think I would have been a better writer without children. I probably would have been worse: loving and raising children taught me about life, and gave me so much to write about. When my kids were young, I would swear to myself that I’d put my work first; I thought a serious writer had to do that. But whenever the kids needed me or even wanted me, I dropped everything to be with them. Sometimes I wanted their company as a relief from writing. And I was very lucky: I had daughters who loved reading and writing, so I could spend hours reading to them and with them, which was part of the world of books that I loved. They entered into that world with me. The hard part, of course, is dividing your attention and your emotional energies, because both activities are so intense and demanding.

 

Do you ever think of what you might have done if you hadn’t become a writer?

All the time. I think I would have been good at running an organization or program of some kind—not a corporation, maybe a non-profit. I like to make order out of chaos and to tell people what to do. But I never got the chance to boss anyone around, except when my kids were very young, and that didn’t last long. I always wanted to play old popular tunes in a piano bar and have people drop bills into a wine glass on top of the piano. I wanted to sing and dance in musical comedy. But I think those things are pretty much beyond me now.

 

Do you think you’ll keep writing forever?

Probably. I used to write because I loved it, and it was an escape from daily life. Now I think I write more out of habit. It’s simply what I do once I’m up and dressed. I like translating—I’ve translated several books from Italian. Maybe I should have been a translator, I mean full-time. Translating has all the pleasures of writing, finding the right words, the right phrases and rhythms, except you don’t have to make the stuff up. That’s the hardest part.

 

Are you glad you started publishing when you did, in the 1980s?

I certainly am. I feel like I got in under the wire, before publishing started selling out to the conglomerates and the whole industry began disintegrating. I was at the tail end of a long and wonderful tradition of honorable book publishing that’s pretty much history now—or exists only in pockets here and there–which is very unfortunate. And I was lucky in having a terrific editor, Ted Solotaroff, who was loyal through my first six books and became a close friend. It’s much harder for younger writers now.

 

Do you have any advice for younger writers?

Nothing about how to get published. Business was never my strong suit. My main advice is, Read. Read great books carefully and learn from them. Don’t read only your contemporaries. You can learn a lot from the dead—remember they were once alive and struggling too.