9780393249187_custom-6d99ab5183fa2e212a7f36feafc85944b3bfa3d0-s300-c85There was a time when, at least in England, theatre mattered, and by theatre one must also include television drama and plays written for radio; in those days a director could draw from the same stable of actors and often directors: stage, screen, radio. There was really no shortage of opportunity for original plays, which led to many novelists also writing scripts. Money is money, exposure is always good, and learning how to do more than one thing with your craft is a kind of gift. Finished your book? Great—write a script. Quality was usually high back in the late 70s and early 80s, and sometimes the plays chosen, cast and taped were either banned outright from broadcast, such as Roy Minton’s Scum, written in 1977 and only seen fourteen years later, or Dennis Potter’s 1976 BBC play, Brimstone and Treacle, which had to wait eleven years before it could be shown, or so controversial that they made the editorial pages of the stately broadsheets of the day. Many of the actors who appeared in them are still box-office draws: Dench, Mirren, Nighy, McKellen, Irons, among others. The late 70s and 80s were, at least in the UK, thought of as the Golden Age of Television. Then there were only three channels: BBC1, BBC2, and ITV, this last one an independent station that drew programming from both regional and London sources. Channel 4 was still in the future. The major TV slot for original plays was BBC’s Play for Today, which meant that what you wrote for these weekly 50-minute slots uninterrupted by commercials (one paid, and still does pay, for a television license simply to operate a set in the home) should reflect what was happening now in Britain. Unlike in the great big United States, where the effects of anything short of a Supreme Court decision or a government shutdown often takes time to roll out and be felt, in Britain the fan would get very messy the moment the shit hit it. Back in 1977 there were several different labor-related slowdowns and strikes that would result in piling garbage on London streets, striking fire brigades being replaced by soldiers on army equipment, and electrical outages often preannounced by time and location in the London Evening Standard. These had an immediate effect, and the public was polarized between those who supported Labour and the trades unions and those who were vehemently against them, the latter being responsible for electing a Conservative House of Commons and causing the rise of the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher.

Periel Aschenbrand

Periel Aschenbrand is the guest. She is the author of two memoirs, the latest of which is called On My Knees. It is available now for pre-order and will be published by Harper Perennial on June 18, 2013.

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Memoirs fall into two general categories – shockers and quests.  Both feature a before and some kind of cathartic after, but they do it in different ways. The shockers are voyeuristic reads in which we witness the writer crash and burn and then resurrect –   from depravity/abuse/some kind of trauma.  The quests are journeys where the writer is trying to figure something out and the reader is invited along for the ride.  It’s “watch me” vs “come with me”.  Shockers are narcissistic, quests are universal.  They aim to address the human condition, and despite the specificity of the individual journey, allow us to recognize ourselves in someone else.

David McGlynn’s memoir, A Door in the Ocean is a quest.  It’s also a beautifully written book marked by precision of language, acute observation and the sense that the hard work of defining what’s important to him and why has not been shirked.  He struggles – in his life, and on the page – to define the meaning of family and religion and morality, and to show us the struggle. It’s a brave book.

What’s the difference between New York City and Paris? “New York is fried, Paris is baked,” Baldwin tells us. When he leaves Brooklyn for a two-year stint in Paris, he hopes for more of a contrast than that. What he finds is that the world is smaller than even Disney could have imagined. “The Great French Dream didn’t sound much different than the Great American Dream, only with More Vacation Days.” Even the costumes are the same. “Hey, is it me,” he asks, “or did Parisians ditch berets for Yankees caps?” All the Parisian men he knows dress like him, in jeans. Shockingly, two-thirds of his ad agency colleagues lunch on McDonald’s (albeit in courses, with chicken nuggets serving as the entrée). Even the president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, is an American-style leader, all flash and bling.

Is The Rules of Inheritance about how you inherited a bunch of money and acted like a Kardashian?

Sadly, no. It’s more depressing, gritty and uplifting than that. Both of my parents got cancer when I was fourteen. My mother died when I was eighteen and my father when I was twenty-five. I’m an only child and these losses left me very much alone in the world, and going through something that none of my peers had really experienced. The book is kind of a coming-of-age story. It follows me through cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, through various relationships I cultivated with men and with alcohol. It’s definitely a grief memoir, but it’s also a lot more than that. You don’t have to have lost someone to relate to someone who is trying to figure themselves out and fucking up a lot along the way.

 

Aren’t you kind of embarrassed to publish a memoir?

For a long time the word memoir really made me cringe. When people asked what I was working on, I would go to great lengths to avoid that word. I’m actually a big fan of memoirs, but there can be something really trite and embarrassing about them, especially given our culture’s obsession with the intimate details of other people’s lives.

 

So, why did you write a memoir?

Well, when I was grieving and trying to figure out how to move through my life as a young woman without parents, I turned to other people’s stories for answers and solace. These stories often came in the form of memoirs, and I found some of them enormously helpful. That’s all I really want from my book — to help people.

 

For some reason no one has really asked you about the writing style you used in Rules, although it’s kind of unusual. You don’t indent your paragraphs and you don’t use quotation marks. What’s up with that?

It’s true. People like to use the same three words to describe by book: gritty, poetic and heart-wrenching, and they talk a lot about how well the book flows, but no one comments on the liberties I took with the writing style. I don’t indent any of the paragraphs, I let a lot of lines stand alone and I don’t use quotations. A lot of this has to do with the poetic nature of the writing and the way I wanted the language emphasized, but I also just wanted the writing to have a kind of immediacy that I think gets lost with a more formal approach. And I also just felt weird using quotes around sentences that were based on memories.

 

Got it. Makes sense. I heard you’re working on some weird afterlife book now, doing seances and stuff. Is that true?

No seances. Yet. But yes, I’m working on a nonfiction book in which I explore different beliefs about the afterlife in an attempt to work out what I believe for myself. If you call it a spiritual memoir I’ll shoot you. I’ve been doing all kinds of fun stuff for it though — seeing mediums, getting hypnotized to find out about my past lives and taking Kabbalah classes. Stay tuned!

Chapter 1

 

After the argument with my mom, everything started spinning. Tilt-a-Whirl vertigo. Hoping a prescription for glasses would make the world appear the way it should again, I made an appointment with the optometrist for the morning of Friday, March 17, 2006.

The receptionist led me to a small examining room down the hall. The doctor had me read the eye chart, then asked me to identify a series of letters through various lenses. He dilated my pupils and checked the back of my eye. My vision, he declared, was twenty-twenty.

“Then why does everything keep spinning?” I asked.

“It’s probably neurological. You’d have to get more tests to know.”

I walked back to campus wondering what kind of disorders he had in mind. Turning off Waterman Street, I passed through the brick archway leading into Brown’s campus. Students were stream­ing to and from class, pouring out of buildings, playing Frisbee on the muddy quad. My cell phone started ringing and I hoped it was my mom calling me back. Normally I talked to her a few times a day, and I thought of her as my best friend as much as my mother.

But everything had changed three months earlier: New Year’s Eve, my twentieth birthday. I’d chosen to spend the night with friends instead of with my mom, and it had cost me. She’d thrown me out of her apartment the next day, and our argument had ended in my father’s driveway, where she stopped only long enough to toss my clothes onto his lawn and tell me that this was what I’d wanted. Since then she hadn’t answered my phone calls and I’d seen her only twice.

My sophomore spring was passing in a daze of vertigo attacks. I kept hoping my mom would stop being so stubborn and just call me back. I reached for my phone as I cut across the quad toward my art history class, which started in five minutes.

My brother’s name appeared on the caller ID.

“Have you talked to Mom today?” Brad asked.

“No, why?”

“Her boss called and said she didn’t show up for work.”

“Maybe she went to New Hampshire. I don’t know, but I have class now.”

“You have to get home.”

“Seriously?”

But he didn’t have to tell me twice. Immediately I knew some­thing was wrong. My two older brothers and I always knew where our mom was. We talked to her morning, noon, and night; she never turned her cell phone off, not even while she was at work.

Growing up, she’d attended every sporting event and school func­tion, juggling a full-time teaching job as a divorcée with primary custody of my brothers and me. Until our overblown argument on New Year’s Eve, she’d been completely dependable and I could always reach her.

She was never late for anything and called her boss by six in the morning if she needed to take a sick day. This was the first time in fifteen years that her boss had to dig up her emergency contact info, which listed Barbara Ann—our mother’s closest friend from the Massachusetts suburb where we’d grown up—as the person to call if something was wrong. Barbara Ann had called Brad, who immediately called our older brother Chris and me.

“Go now, Lindsay.”

My family refers to me by my full name only when there’s a problem.

“I have to take an exam at one. I’m leaving as soon as I finish,” he said.

A junior at Cornell, Brad was sequestered in upstate New York and the drive home was at least eight hours. I could make it from Rhode Island to Mom’s apartment in Massachusetts in two hours by train. Considering I didn’t have a three-hour economics mid­term to suffer through first, I knew I better get going.

Students strode by me as I stumbled to a nearby bench. I could feel another bout of vertigo coming on, the ground swooping up to meet the sky. The four barrels lining the path started to spin: Trash, Paper, Bottles, and Mixed Containers. I shut my eyes to still the chaos. I gripped the edge of the bench and waited for my best friend Cassidy to meet me before class, like always.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “You look sick.” The bells rang out, signaling twelve o’clock classes.

“Something happened. I can’t go to class.”

“What is it?”

The last of the stragglers disappeared into buildings around the main green as I told her about my mom not showing up for work. We hurried off toward our dorm. Cassidy and I had met a year and a half earlier in an art class. She’d arrived from Vermont with a unicycle and an old guitar, which was enough to impress me. Sophomore year we were sharing a dorm room and trading thrift store T-shirts and beaded necklaces.

I threw my toothbrush and a change of clothes into my back­pack. Cassidy looked up the train schedule online.

“The next one leaves at one thirty. C’mon, you should eat first,” she said.

We went to the dining hall and I got my usual meal of salad and Diet Coke. The students around us were maddeningly carefree with their soft-serve cones and their campus newspapers. Instead of waiting around for the train, I felt like I should be hitting the road immediately, borrowing a friend’s car or hitchhiking. I stabbed a fork at my lettuce as the dread in my stomach turned to nausea. Cassidy kept saying it would all be fine. I pushed my plate away and looked up at the giant clock on the wall. I wanted to believe her, but the minutes were moving toward one o’clock impossibly slowly.

Cassidy reached for my hand as we walked downtown to the train station, her fingers glinting with the silver rings she always wore. My backpack thumped against my spine. I wanted to be overreacting, wanted this to be a false alarm, but something in Brad’s voice had faltered from his usual tough-guy stoicism.

I hugged Cassidy and bought a ticket for the northbound train.

“I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding,” she called across the terminal.

 

The train was packed with people leaving Providence for the week­end. I took the window seat beside a blue-suited businessman and began scrolling through the contacts saved in my cell phone. Starting with the A’s and working my way through the alphabet, I called friends and relatives—many of whom I hadn’t spoken to in months, if not years—to ask them if they’d heard from my mother lately or happened to know where she was. I tried to sound casual. I phoned old friends we’d sailed with every summer in Rhode Island, soccer moms from our hometown of North Andover, and the neighbor across the hall in Mom’s apartment building in New­buryport. I called information for more numbers. Everyone was quick to assure me that she probably just needed a long weekend away. I thanked them and moved down the list, feeling dizzy and trapped on the slow-moving train. My phone started to beep. I called my older brother Chris and told him to meet me at the Newburyport station. He’d left his office job in Boston and rushed to Mom’s apartment as soon as Brad had called a few hours earlier.

I sat pinned against the window, restless at every stop. My phone battery died halfway down the list of people who might have said, “Your mom’s right here.” The train crossed into Mas­sachusetts, groaned through Boston, and slid up along the coast, finally pulling into Newburyport. I was the first one off the plat­form.

Chris honked from the parking lot and I ran over and got into his Ford Explorer. He’d been pacing our mom’s apartment for the past few hours, trying to figure out where she’d gone. The drive­way was empty; her car wasn’t there. Chris said he’d even called the police, but they told him that people skip work all the time, and a person wasn’t officially considered missing until seventy-two hours had passed, unless we had reason to suspect a crime had been com­mitted. Even after Chris explained that this was extremely unusual behavior for our mother, the police officer said there was nothing he could do until Monday. We should try to relax; she probably just went away for the weekend.

But even as Chris told me that he’d called the police, I resisted the idea of involving them. As scary as it was to not know our mother’s whereabouts, I had no doubt that my brothers and I would find her. We knew her patterns and all the likely places she might have gone. Beyond her unswerving reliability, Mom had raised us in an air of intense privacy; as kids we weren’t supposed to tell anyone that our parents were divorced. Calling old friends to ask if they’d seen her lately made me feel like I was breaking her rules, but already I could sense that something more important had snapped.

As soon as I got in the car, Chris handed me our mom’s red suede purse, saying he’d found it in her apartment. Mom had given me this bag for Christmas two years earlier, and I’d returned it to her when I grew tired of it.

“Start looking through there,” Chris said.

“She always takes her purse.”

“I know.”

“What am I looking for?”

“Just look, Lindsay!”

At twenty-four, Chris was four years older than me, old enough to boss me around. He resembled our mom more than Brad and I did, with his narrow nose and chestnut hair. I started digging. Mom’s Wet n Wild lipstick was down to a dark red stub. I sifted through her drugstore reading glasses, a scattering of receipts and blank sticky notes, a handful of spare change, a hairbrush tangled with strands of dyed brown hair, a bottle of beige foundation, and her black wallet, bulging with credit cards, small bills, and creased photographs of my brothers and me. I couldn’t imagine where she would be going without all her essentials. I threw the bag on the floor and told Chris to drive faster.

A few minutes later we pulled into the driveway of the white clapboard house on High Street. Mom had been living in an apart­ment on the third floor for the past year and a half. I’d been prepar­ing to leave for my first semester of college when she announced that she was done with North Andover.

“The boys are gone and you’re leaving too. Why would I want this big old house anymore?” she’d said at the time.

So Mom sold the house we’d grown up in amid talk of start­ing over. She rented an apartment in Newburyport, a picturesque coastal town forty minutes from North Andover, where she planned to make new friends, find romance, lose weight, and do all those things that amount to a second chance. We didn’t know anyone in Newburyport and weren’t sure why she was moving to a town that would double her commute to Woburn, where she worked as a special education teacher. My brothers and I didn’t question her motives, though. With the ocean just down the road, it seemed like a good place to start over. If Mom had any fears about a new beginning, she kept them to herself.

I took the stairs two at a time, up three flights, and reached for the spare key above the door frame. I threw open the door wanting to believe that Mom would be waiting on the other side, ready to put this whole misunderstanding behind us. The apart­ment was cluttered, same as always—books stacked beside the couch, an empty coffee mug on the table, and Mom’s brown cor­duroy blazer draped over the back of a chair. It looked like she had just run out to the store. Needed eggs, maybe milk. Like she’d be right back.

But her key chain was hanging on the hook in the kitchen, crammed with at least twenty keys, including the one for the Subaru Outback she’d bought a few months earlier. I never under­stood why she toted so many keys—I couldn’t imagine what they all opened—but along with her purse, Mom took this hefty ring wherever she went.

“Chris, did you see this?” I said.

“She must’ve taken her spare car key.”

“Then she won’t be gone long.”

After plugging my cell phone in to charge it, I emptied the purse and made a paper trail of receipts and sticky notes, trying to retrace our mom’s footsteps. A crumpled receipt for gas pur­chased at an Irving station near her office in Woburn, her Ameri­can Express card swiped at seven fifteen a.m. on Thursday, March 16. Meaning she’d gotten to work the day before about a half-hour earlier than the other teachers, who came in at eight. My mother was always punctual and often early, but never late—which was why her boss was alarmed enough to dig up her emergency contact info when she didn’t show up by midmorning.

A receipt for groceries purchased at Market Basket four days earlier: milk, cheese, hummus, and French bread. Photos devel­oped at CVS, a whole roll shot on the sand dunes of Plum Island, a barrier island between Newburyport Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean: sunsets, driftwood, and fishermen casting offshore. It all fit into her routine. I was about to give up and hurl the empty purse across the room when I noticed one more receipt, folded and tucked in an inner pocket.

“Chris—”

“What’d you find?”

“A receipt for a Budget rental truck.”

The yellow copy, dated Wednesday, March 15, made more sense to my brother than it did to me. Apparently the moving truck was all part of the plan. Mom had recently bought a house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, fifteen minutes south of the ski condo where we’d vacationed for years. After almost two decades of working as a special education teaching associate, Mom was looking forward to an early retirement within a few years. The apartment in Newburyport was never supposed to be permanent; she was just taking some time to figure out where she wanted to settle down. Brad had planned to drive home on his upcoming spring break to help Mom transport a storage unit full of furniture to her new house. The truck was scheduled to be picked up the following week.

I had always envisioned my mother by the sea—she had dreamed of owning a bed-and-breakfast on a Rhode Island bluff we sailed past every summer—but she took a turn for the moun­tains instead. Normally she included me in every decision, right down to making the grocery list. But things had changed since our New Year’s Eve fight. We’d barely spoken since, and I knew next to nothing about the house she’d bought. Still, I hoped that’s where she had gone.

Chris called Budget rental and learned that Mom hadn’t picked up the truck early. My next thought was that she’d gotten in her car and driven north, wanting to map out the furniture arrangement in her new house or shop at the nearby outlet stores. Maybe her cell phone had run out of battery power en route. She would plug it in and call one of my brothers or me when she got there, but the worry was in the waiting. She phoned at least one of us every morning by the time she got to work. She was my morning alarm, and instead of saying prayers at night, I talked to her.

Chris had already called 411 and requested the phone number of our mother’s future neighbors in New Hampshire. Once con­nected, he introduced himself and asked if they’d seen any cars in the dirt driveway beyond their barn. Any lights on in the windows? They said the property looked deserted but promised to keep a lookout. The Budget receipt implied that Mom was following a plan, one she’d eagerly shared with my brothers and the details of which she’d stubbornly kept from me in the wake of our argu­ment. Even if I didn’t know where the house was located or what it looked like, a house in the mountains sounded simple enough. For years Mom had been saying she needed to simplify; things were finally falling into place. I held on to the yellow scrap of paper as if it were irrefutable proof that things were still as they should be.

There was also the possibility that she hadn’t gone north yet. Maybe she was just playing hooky and would come walking into the apartment any second. She would apologize for making us worry and relay an amusing story about her day off. Since this seemed just as likely, we decided to wait it out. Instead of chasing after her, it made more sense to remain at home base and wait for her to come back.

Brad got on the road at four, right after finishing his midterm. He had transferred from Boston College—Mom’s alma mater—to Cornell for his junior year. He called Chris and me at least ten times during his ride. We leaped for our cell phones, thinking Brad was about to say that he’d gotten hold of Mom, while he was hoping to hear that she’d just walked into the apartment. As the hours wore on, the calls became our way to keep Brad awake on his drive. After feeling exhausted for weeks, he had finally gone to the doctor a few days before. Tests revealed that he had mono, which explained his fatigue, fever, and sore throat. We were worried that he would fall asleep at the wheel and flip his truck into a field full of cows.

On his sixth or seventh call, Brad told us to go to every gas station that Mom might stop at on her way out of town. He was hoping they’d have security cameras recording the pumps. A video clip of a white station wagon pulling into the frame and a fifty-three-year-old woman pumping gas. How it would tell us what direction Mom took or where she was heading, we didn’t know. She’d bought a half tank the day before at the Irving station near her office, but we figured she’d top it off if she were planning a getaway.

We left a note on the kitchen table before leaving:

Mom,

We came home to see you. Please call us.

Love,

C, B, and L

Mobil, Shell, Texaco, Getty—we checked all the Newburyport stations without any luck. The pumps were old and the signs dis­playing the prices had not yet gone digital. The thought of security cameras in such a quaint suburb was absurd. We got on I-95 north and looked for gas station symbols on the blue service signs that lined the road every few miles. Six p.m. and the sun had set with­out our noticing. The interstate pulsed with yellow headlights. We followed an exit toward a Getty station and entered the adjacent convenience store, where the clerk on duty was a few years younger than me. He flipped through the day’s receipts to see if he could find one that matched our mother’s credit card number, but we grew impatient watching him dig through the thick wad of paper slips.

“She drives a white Subaru Outback. Midfifties, five-four, chin-length brown hair, probably wearing jeans, looks like a mom. Anyone like that come through?” Chris asked.

“Lots of people come and go,” he said.

“Do you videotape the pumps?”

“The tape’s locked in the office, but the manager comes in at eleven.”

“Think he’ll be able to show us the tape?”

“Don’t see why not.”

“Okay, we’ll come back then.”

“Actually I might’ve seen someone who fit that description this afternoon.”

Music to our ears. But even if our mother had passed through, it told us nothing about where she’d gone next. Still, it was some­thing.

Chris and I got back in the car. We knew it was time to call our father. In the seventeen years since their divorce, they’d never learned how to get along. Mom had done her best over the years to convince my brothers and me that he was not a good man, and even less of a father.

“We have to tell him,” Chris said.

“Fine. You call.”

He was probably in the middle of dinner, but like our mother, Dad always answered the phone.

“Dad, it’s Chris. Something’s wrong.”

“What?”

“It’s our mom.”

“What about her?”

“We can’t find her.”

“Can’t find her?”

“She didn’t show up for work. We’ve been looking for her all day.”

“She’s probably up at your ski condo.”

“She’s not there,” Chris said. “Brad’s driving home from Cor­nell and Lindsay’s with me.”

“Call me tomorrow. I’m sure you’ll hear from her by then,” Dad said before hanging up.

Chris slammed his fist on the dashboard. “Dad thinks we’re overreacting.”

“What did you expect?”

Chris swallowed whatever he was about to say and looked out the window. I knew Dad wouldn’t share our immediate alarm. Our mother was hardly his favorite person. It baffled me that my parents had been married for almost two decades. Mom acted out of emotion, Dad out of logic. He was a Princeton man, an engi­neer, and then president and CEO of a high-tech company until selling it at the age of fifty. He had also married another woman whose name was the same as my mother’s: Michele. An unfortu­nate coincidence as well as a constant reminder to my mom that she had been replaced.

Dad and his new wife lived in a beachfront mansion along with their beautiful towheaded child, Maggie. At fourteen years old, I suddenly had a new sibling. In my mother’s eyes, this was against the rules. A man was supposed to have only one wife, one set of kids. Even as my mom was so keen on starting over, it seemed she had never forgiven her ex-husband for seizing his own second chance.

Dad’s version of starting over included undertaking the resto­ration of an enormous old house as well as an early retirement so that he could be a stay-at-home parent. When he wasn’t occupied with Maggie, Dad was building cabinets, gutting old bedrooms, landscaping, and otherwise trying to restore his property to a Gats­byesque splendor it hadn’t seen in decades. He was a Renaissance man, still as fit and handsome as he was when my mother met him in college. His eyes were the same deep blue as the waves that broke on West Beach, right outside his bedroom window. By all outward appearances, his second chance had panned out quite nicely.

Chris and I drove around Newburyport for a while, checking parking lots for a white Subaru while speculating about where our mom could have gone. We went back and checked her apartment for any clues we might have overlooked. We called her cell phone several more times, but it continued to go straight to voice mail. Even though we still had at least an hour before we could view the gas station video, we got back in the car. Being on the move was easier on our nerves than sitting in the apartment; we were hoping to spot Mom’s station wagon or even pass her on the road.

But it was hard to tell what kinds of cars we were passing. March in New England meant the sun went down by six p.m. and the only light thereafter came from headlights, an indifferent moon, and a smattering of stars. Chris pulled into a liquor store parking lot off the highway. The adrenaline-pumped afternoon had collapsed into utter fatigue. Worrying was tiring. We reclined our seats, hoping to rest until eleven o’clock or until Brad called again, whichever came first. He’d been driving straight for the past six hours and had about two more to go. I shut my eyes, but I was no closer to sleep when a policeman rapped on the driver’s side window and beamed a flashlight in our eyes. Chris rolled down the window and we both sat up a little straighter.

We knew the officer would be of no use until several more hours passed, so there seemed little point in explaining our pre­dicament. Easier to just let him assume we were causing trouble outside a liquor store on a Friday night. We rolled up the windows and got back on the road, and for a few minutes I hated the cop, even though he’d done nothing wrong. It never crossed my mind to turn my frustrations on my mother, who had put us in this pre­dicament in the first place.

Ten thirty. We cruised through Newburyport, past the board­walk and the waterfront restaurants, looping through the brick-faced center of town for the fifth or sixth time. Everything was closed. Coming up on eleven, we drove back to the Getty station. The same kid was sitting behind the counter, no manager in sight. Apparently the manager was taking the night off and had forgotten to press the Record button on the camera that morning. The kid told us this without looking up from his magazine. We got back to Mom’s apartment just before midnight.

We did our best to not wake the neighbors, but the wooden stairs creaked and groaned and our footsteps echoed up through the halls. We opened the front door, willing Mom to be dozing in her easy chair, feet up on the ottoman, wineglass on the end table. But the lights were just the lamps we had turned on before leaving.

We called Brad to tell him about the dead ends we’d run into at the gas stations. He was still a half hour away, and I pictured him cruising in the fast lane, palming the steering wheel while going over the possibilities for the hundredth time: her new house, a weekend getaway, a dead cell phone battery, an explanation that would make perfect sense when she returned. Even as he told himself to stay calm, I knew he was as scared as he’d ever been, a fire-alarm fear difficult to explain to anyone but Chris and me—because we felt it too. It was completely out of character for our mom to take off without telling us. Her mood swings could be brutal, but her temper always cooled quickly, and she was nothing if not consistent in phone calls, care packages, and visits. She was the glue that held us all together.

I crawled into my mother’s bed, searching for her body’s inden­tation. Chris lay on the couch, a trail of receipts stretching across the floor in front of him. We called out to each other in the dark.

“She probably just went away for the weekend,” I said.

“It’ll make sense in the morning,” he replied.

Neither of us sounded convinced. I pulled the blankets up under my chin. Minutes or hours passed, marked by the faint whoosh of cars on High Street and the dim beam of headlights across the ceiling, like signals from an erratic lighthouse. I finally fell asleep, tangled in the roses of my mother’s sheets.

 

Excerpted from MISSING, by Lindsay Harrison. Copyright © 2011 by Lindsay Harrison.  Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

 

Your wife, the daughter of Korean immigrants, decides to repay her mother’s sacrifice by buying her a convenience store. Tell us about your first reaction to her idea.

Well, I looked forward to getting free snack food and earning dividends on the hefty profits Gab thought we could make. I even looked forward to working a shift now and then – I thought that would be kind of funny. The humor dissolved pretty quickly once we started looking at stores and putting together the numbers, at which point we realized this would change our lives. And that was before we opened.

 

At what stage of owning the deli did you begin to conceive of it as a memoir?

I didn’t start off thinking that way at all, and didn’t take many notes, until one day when I was feeling miserable and went to see a friend who owned a coffee shop in Manhattan, and he said, “Don’t let this period be forgotten, write it down, because as miserable as it is, you’re going to remember and cherish it the rest of your life.” And he wasn’t a writer, just someone who’d gone through the travails of starting a family business. So I started keeping notes, but even then it wasn’t for another year that I seriously thought about writing about it. For one thing, I hadn’t written much in the first-person before – I kind of frowned on it, to be honest; I was raised to use the pronoun “I” as little as possible, especially in writing – and had never taken much interest in New York as a subject. At some point, though, I realized I’d had sort of a classic New York experience, like the Griffin Dunne character in “After Hours” who’s sitting in a café one night and ends up getting chased by a Mister Softee truck and turned into a sculpture. That idea, that a dull, everyday person can be transported at any moment to some utterly improbable place – is one of the essential myths of New York, isn’t it? Anything can happen.

 

Tell us a little about working with the famous George Plimpton at The Paris Review. What did you learn from him? What do you miss most about him?

The first time I met George he was in his boxers and black kneesocks and he got mad at me for calling him “Mr. Plimpton” instead of “George.” Then he walked out of the office and I didn’t see him again for about three weeks. He was not a heavyhanded editor. He wanted people to do things on their own and exercise their own judgment. He was trusting. He had a light touch. This not only made him the ideal boss for a bunch of 25-year-olds but delightful company –- the most delightful company most of us who worked for him ever had. That’s what I miss most about George –- just hanging around with him.

 

While you are working at the Review, the magazine is struggling, just like the deli. Did your experiences there help you with the deli, and vice versa?

Those were not the best years for either the deli or the review, but I’m not sure there was ever a time when either one wasn’t struggling at least a bit. That’s one of the lessons I hopefully learned, to recognize things for what they are. It’s very New York to be petrified of stagnation and constantly pursue the cutting edge, but as Willy Loman the coffee salesman says in the book, “Why change if you’ve got a winner?” Indeed, why? Why not leave things alone? Of course, a WASP would say that: we hate change and want the world to go backward, or at least stand still. It’s not always the appropriate attitude, but accepting the status quo – as in a corner store that does what it’s always done, and does it reasonably well – shouldn’t be something you’re afraid of, either.

 

You ended up really liking working at the deli. What most surprised you?

There are, I hope, a lot of reversals to be seen in the book. For instance, early on I talk about a job I had as a teenager pumping gas, and I say that while I liked the work, who knows how I would have felt about serving strangers the rest of my life. Customer interaction was definitely something I struggled with when we opened the deli, but by the time we closed it was my favorite part of the job. This is something I’ve also noticed about my mother-in-law, who’s spent half her life at cash registers: she really seems to enjoy it.

 

Overall, what was the best part of the experience?

Seeing through my mother-in-law’s eyes. There’s another moment early in the book where Kay wants us to put in what I see as a ridiculously low bid for the deli we want, and when I challenge her to explain why, she says the owner won’t respect us if we don’t come in low. Now, I have no idea whether that turned out to be true or not, but my mother-in-law is a smart businesswoman and it was moments like those that not only helped me to understand her better, but to see the world a little differently. The things I learned from Kay weren’t qualities that tend to be associated with the literary world, where the job is basically to be discerning and smart. They were things like consistency, stamina, lack of self-pity and fearlessness. In a sense it was an attitude – how to treat people, how to handle pressure and conflict.

 

What do you miss most about owning your deli?

Having my dogmas shaken up. You know you’re doing something worthwhile when things you felt totally secure in believing or never even questioned start coming under assault. And I miss Dwayne, our sandwich maker, who died in 2009. Half of Brooklyn misses Dwayne.

 

Now that you’ve been a shopkeeper, can you give us the inside scoop on New York’s Korean delis?

They’re struggling. The heyday of Korean delis is over. There’s no official count, but talking to people in the business, you get the sense that New York has only about half the Korean delis it used to, and the rest will largely be gone in another ten years. The city is killing them with fines, the rents are beyond insane, and there’s too much competition from Duane Reade and Subway. Koreans aren’t the only ones getting out, incidentally – everyone is, or wants to be. When I talk to deli owners now, they say I should be glad our family sold our store when we did, because it’s worse now than it was then – and back then people said it had never been so bad.

Now, New York being what it is, I don’t expect the Korean deli to be seen as anything other than a blip in the city’s ethnic history. Certainly they played a role in the overall change of the New York’s livability over the last few decades. (I know an author who claims that by staying open twenty-four hours and being bright nighttime presences on what were then dark and scary streets, Korean delis played a critical early role in the turnaround.)

But as a New Yorker I do think it’s worrisome. New York has always had an image as being open to newcomers – you know, the cliché about anyone being able to make it here if they’re tough enough and they sacrifice. The deli is an iconic business because it’s the kind of job anyone can do – you don’t need any qualifications or experience. You don’t even have to speak the local language. It’s hard to imagine New York doing well if delis aren’t viable, and I worry about what happens if New York stops being seen as a great place to come and get ahead. New Yorkers probably think that will never happen, but honestly, stranger things have happened in the city in the last few years.

 

How has your wife’s family responded to you writing this story?

We were living together during much of the time it was being written, and often I’d come up to the dining room table from my desk in the basement and ask, “Does anyone remember how much a ‘Cash-in-a-Flash’ ticket cost?” or something like that. So it was something we were always talking about, and Kay’s response when I told her I wanted to make her a focus of the book – no surprise to anyone who knows her – was fearless and enthusiastic. (I think she said, “Is there going to be a movie? If so, I want to be in at least three scenes.”) For all of us I think there wasn’t a question after the deli closed that there was a story to be told. It was one of those experiences where you look back and say, I’m not the same person I was when this started. We kind of digested those feelings together.

 

How would you react if your children gave you a deli when they were older?

I’d disown them. No, seriously, that’s a great question. I’d never thought of that. You know, I used to think that the key to a happy life was having just the possibility of things changing in unexpected ways, that tomorrow you might find yourself doing something you’d never thought of. A deli forecloses on that – you have to reconcile yourself to doing the exact same thing in exactly the same place till possibly the end of your life (though it has its own set of pleasures, which I didn’t quite appreciate before). I like the idea that my children would give me a store, because it combines those two things – an unexpected change with the sedentary pleasures of running a small business. I hope I’d have the guts to say yes.

 

As a literary form and commercial endeavor, the modern memoir is overwhelmingly popular. A quick perusal of the non-fiction stacks confirms this. From Donald Rumsfeld to Annie Dillard, the memoir is ubiquitous. Too, as a confirming note, there is the backlash, as there is always a backlash against things trending popular. I site Neil Genzlinger’s recent anti-memoir diatribe in the New York Time’s Book Review of a few weeks ago. It begins: “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.” In his essay Genzlinger reviewed four memoirs, giving just one the nod. He took the others to task for various reasons. One author, for instance, had not earned “the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy.” Ouch. He argued that if you did not have an extremely unique experience or were deemed to be less than “a brilliant writer,” you were “obliged to keep quiet.” The current plethora of memoirs is, he reasons, a result of “our current age of oversharing.” His essay trespassed to the edge of being mean-spirited and the dust-up caused a flurry of activity in literary circles. (A backlash to the backlash confirming the maturation of a trend, indeed.)

Evolution

By Joe Daly

Memoir

The Happy Time Page was a kick in the balls for a kid like me.

On any given Sunday afternoon, 10 year old Joe Daly would have enjoyed building a Lego fortress and defending it against Cold War adversaries, watching the Boston Red Sox find a new and eye-watering way to lose, or listening to KISS albums on the little turntable in his bedroom.

Tragically, that was not how 10 year old Joe Daly spent his Sundays.

No, in those formative years, Sunday afternoons were reserved for the soul-whipping agony of writing for The Happy Time Page.

It was my mother’s idea.

The Happy Time Page was a feature in our local Sunday paper, wherein kids were encouraged to submit essays or poems on a generic subject that changed each week.  The front page featured winning essays and poems, as well as the results of the weekly drawing competition that would make a guy like Ted McCagg head straight for the bourbon. Think of it as a print-version of The Nervous Breakdown, but without all the drugs, sex, travel, and introspection.

The best works were displayed on the front page of the section, with the author’s name prominently displayed beneath each piece.  This is what everyone was shooting for- publication.

The only requirements for the essays were that they be on topic and at least fifty words.  Fifty words.  That’s where I hit the wall.

With a gun to my head (or the threat of television privileges being revoked), I could probably come up with twenty five words about baseball, spring, or some other subject like that.  But fifty words?  That was a whole afternoon, shot all to hell.

See, I had zero ambition to write.  I was as motivated to write fifty words as a heroin addict would be to take a spinning class.  I could speak relatively well for my age, but transcribing my thoughts with pencil and paper (I made too many mistakes for a pen) was a Herculean challenge for both my young mind and my tired hands.

Nonetheless, at my mother’s insistence, I would spend Sunday afternoons slogging through fifty word essays with the speed of climate change.  It would take me upwards of two to three hours to churn out one of those pieces, with my mother requiring me to sit at the dining room table and write until I had a finished product.

During those two hours, after finishing each sentence, I would count the words on the entire page, praying that I had just completed the sentence that brought me past fifty words.  On the odd occasion when I would allow myself to finish a thought even after reaching the fifty word minimum, I would expect the type of recognition generally reserved for Nobel Prize recipients, and would be baffled and resentful when such accolades were not received.

My mother would proofread each essay and returning each to me with several suggestions, all of which I would adopt without debate, simply to see the exercise come to a close.  Although my mother’s own schooling ended at the age of sixteen, she had a great sense of the written word and she would coach me on finding concise and at times, even elegant ways of re-stating my thoughts.

Most of the time she would just ask me what I meant when I wrote a particular sentence.  I didn’t realize it then, but the way we would discuss each sentence and the different ways of expressing a single idea gave me a new approach to writing.  I’m not saying that I enjoyed it, but as the process evolved, churning out fifty words became a less odious task.

When the essay was finished, she would proofread it a final time and direct me to write out a new copy in pen, which she would then drop in the mail the following morning.

I stopped submitting pieces for The Happy Time Page as soon as I reached the maximum age requirement.  I think my mother was bummed.

***

I ignored writing as a form of anything other than homework for the next twenty years.  My first real publication came in law school, when I wrote an article for my law school’s IT Journal.  If my article was approved by the editorial board, I would not only receive academic credit, but more importantly I could add the distinction of “Law Review” to my transcript and resume.

Articles were either accepted or rejected, with a select two or three being published in the school’s law journal, alongside the works of prominent judges, scholars, and attorneys.

To my surprise, I enjoyed the hell out of the process of writing my paper.  Weighing in at a couple hundred pages, the format required that I submit two pages of footnotes for every single page of original thought.  I had an editor who, unlike my mother, received quite a bit of resistance in matters of style and tone.  It was exhilarating to feel passionate about something I wrote.

My friend Michelle also wrote for the Law Review and we agreed that if one of us were published, the other would have to buy a pair of cowboy boots for the lucky writer.  More than anything, we both just wanted our papers to be accepted so we could collect the credit and graduate on time.

When the articles were reviewed by the editorial staff, we were stunned to discover that we were both nominated for publication.   A week later, on a sunny Saturday afternoon on Chicago’s west side, we went boot shopping together.

Here’s how I earned those cowboy boots.

***

The first true labor of love that I published was an article about a band from San Diego called The Rugburns.

I spent colossal chunks of free time on AOL’s music message boards in the mid-nineties, becoming a regular on the boards for The Rugburns after hearing their anthem, “Me and Eddie Vedder.”  Ironically, one of the people whom I met on those discussion boards would, years later, draw my attention to Brad Listi’s blog, and eventually to The Nervous Breakdown.

I found immense pleasure in writing about music on those discussion boards- especially where I would write a lengthy essay on an interpretation of a song or how certain music made me feel.  My posts were pompous and at times self-important, but gradually I learned to discuss music in a way that allowed me to express my point of view without insisting that others agree.  Writing about songs and artists flowed very easily for me, and the writing skills that I acquired in law school helped me present those ideas with clarity and in some cases, persuasion.  I loved the challenge of finding creative ways to express my feelings about music.  Talking about music was a passion, but writing about it was a rush.

One day a girl contacted me about The Rugburns.  She had read some of my posts about the band and wondered if I would be interested in submitting an article for a zine she had just launched called “Lunatic Fringe.”

I agreed and a couple months later, I published my first piece about music.



***

Even after I began practicing law in 1994, music was always my number one passion.  I would much rather be listening to Soundgarden bootlegs than working weekends to impress my bosses.  In 1996, I spent a week touring around the midwest with The Rurburns.  It was one of the most significant experiences of my life.  So much so that when I returned to Chicago, I quit my job as a lawyer and began immersing myself in all aspects of music.  I took up guitar, I expanded my musical tastes into new genres, and at the suggestion of an entertainment attorney, I began studying how the music industry worked.  I had amassed a number of contacts in the music business- artists, managers, and quite a few contacts at some pretty big record labels, and I soon found myself writing promotional biographies for bands.  When a band was in the final stages of preparing to release a new album, their label or management would pay me to write a short biography of the band that would be included with the CD and press kit that was sent out to radio stations all over the country.

The pay was lousy, but money mattered little to me in that regard.  I did it for the sheer enjoyment, although at times it was a character-building experience.  I received a request to do a bio for a solo artist, and without much guidance, submitted a first draft to the artist and label.   The artist’s PR agent ripped the draft apart so ferociously and so personally, that I took almost a year off from writing any other music bios.

Another time a label hired me to do a biography on a band whose music I could not relate to at all.  It was a hard rock band and I’m a hard rock guy, but I just could not get there from here.  Still, I had to sit down with the band and find out what made them tick.  The following exchange actually happened:

I asked, “So what are you guys trying to convey when you play live?”

“Dewd, we just like, want to like, try to you know, like, get people with jobs and shit to like totally forget their day, you know?  It’s like, some guy works like forty hours, you know, and we just want him to come to our show and like, forget about his week.  If we can make just one person forget about their week, then it’s all worth it, dewd, you know?”

“But they could just stay at home and get drunk to forget about their week.  We need to highlight what makes you guys different.  They should forget their week not because they’re drunk, but because your music is memorable.  Does that make sense?”

“Exactly, dude!  See, you get it.  Alcohol only makes our music sound better!”

On the other hand, I had the privilege of writing biographies for some fascinating artists who were releasing jaw-droppingly good music.

To this day, I still take on the odd band bio, although an inflexible requirement is that I actually like the music.

***

SPIN Magazine is, depending on the reader, either a pretentious conclave of indier-than-thou hipsters, or a vital alternative to the commercially-savvy and creatively bankrupt Rolling Stone.  While SPIN can sometimes trip over its own emo-ness, overall it gives exposure to bands and music that other mainstream publications might ignore.

Other than reading the magazine occasionally, my first real connection to SPIN was sleeping on the floor of their suite at the Driskill Hotel during the South By Southwest music festival in 1997.  My college roommate Dan was interning for SPIN, doing a lot of hustling for the magazine for little or no pay.  In return, we received a place to crash, a great view of the main stage, and we got to smoke pot in the suite with The Supersuckers.

Dan went on to secure the best job in the world- making mix tapes to send to college radio stations for the magazine.  He spent his days listening to new (and free) CDs and making mix tapes of his favorite songs. Thirteen years later, I have yet to hear anyone describe a better job.

As Dan became more plugged in at SPIN, he made many connections, one of whom oversaw the magazine’s online column, “It Happened Last Night.”  IHLN featured reviews of notable concerts and events across the country.  They kept a list of writers and photographers in major cities across the country so that when a cool show was happening that they wanted to feature, they would reach out to the local writer and get him or her to the gig.

One day, while literally stepping onto a plane in Cabo San Lucas after an entirely undeserved vacation, I received a text from Dan.  SPIN needed a San Diego writer.  Black Francis (The Pixies, Frank Black) was playing a solo show there that they wanted to review.  They had seen one of my artist bios and wondered if I might cover the event for the magazine.

A couple weeks later, I published my first music article for a major publication.  I remember sitting backstage with Black Francis and Warren Zanes (The Del Fuegos), talking about our favorite pizza joints in Cambridge, MA (where I used to live), and thinking how awesome it would be if this were my actual job.

***

My friend Dana had been a Brad Listi junkie for quite some time.  After hearing her incessantly raving about his writing, I began following his blog, and eventually The Nervous Breakdown.  I instantly fell in love with TNB.  The authors were talented, down-to-earth, and they wrote about subjects to which I could easily relate.  Also, the comment culture was fun and people seemed to actually support each other, with fascinating conversations occurring along with the featured articles.  I chose to lurk rather than participate in any of the conversations.

Dana would pepper me with entreaties to apply to write for TNB, which I resisted for a number of reasons.  Mainly, as someone who had neither published a book, nor had any sort of platform, I was worried that I would have nothing to offer the site.  I am grateful that she persisted because sometime at the end of 2009, I submitted an application.  A month later I received a welcome letter from TNB with instructions on how to get started.  The only thing left to do was write.

I agonized over my first article for two weeks, starting and scrapping ideas for three or four different columns.  Finally I chose to write about my first band back in Chicago, and on a Saturday morning in February, 2009, I began writing.  I finished that evening and spent the next 48 hours proofreading the piece ad nauseam.  Each time I started to publish it, I chickened out and proofread it again.

Finally I threw caution to the wind and hit the “Publish button.”  J.M. Blaine left me my first comment.  As the day wore on,  I began receiving and replying to comments from the very people I had always read and admired.  Nine months later, I have met many of these authors in person and I am in contact with several on a regular basis.  TNB is my online home.

***

As I published articles on TNB, I would post links to each piece on Facebook, asking my friends to take a look if they were interested.  One day after posting a link, I received a note from a college friend whom I had not seen or heard from in close to twenty years.  He had read some of my work on TNB and said he enjoyed them- especially the pieces about music.  He wondered if I might be interested in talking about book ideas.  As fate would have it, he was a literary agent.

***

In July, 2010, I was laid off from my job.  Instead of jumping right into a job search, I decided to see what it would feel like to write for awhile.

I am now in the process of completing a proposal for my first book.  It might never see the light of day, but in the course of the past month, it has been the most fulfilling work I have ever done.  I sit at my laptop in my kitchen or at a local coffee shop, and with the sounds of Sigur Ros, Dead Confederate, or The Stone Roses wafting from my headphones, I write about things that matter to me.  I laugh out loud, I research obscure details about bands and music, and I occasionally run upstairs to sift through papers and photographs to jog my memory as I write.

When people now ask what I do, I really have no answer.  I clumsily say something like, “Well, I’m out of work now, and just writing to make use of the time…”

But once in awhile I boldly answer, “I’m a writer.”

It feels fucking awesome.

***

My mother would have been 77 years old next week had she not succumbed to cancer in 1989.  The older I get, the greater the clarity I have with my past, and especially my time with my mother.  As I look back on those Sunday afternoons in the dining room, wishing I were doing anything but writing for The Happy Time Page, I now see the gift that she has left me.

I am both humbled and grateful.

Thanks, Mom.



Your first book, In My Skin, was about you becoming a heroin addict and then a sex worker before getting clean. The second, The Romantic, is about what happened next, when you moved to Italy to get your shit together. How embarrassed are you to have written a second memoir?

Embarrassed and horrified enough that, in order to prove I am correct in thinking that you should do things that terrify you in order to mature and progress as a human being, I forced myself to publish yet another book all about myself and my insistence on this maxim and the various ways I ill-advisedly dated several men in succession in pursuit of this very path. Like the relationships, I may yet regret the book. But then, I don’t believe in regret, so what I am I on about? Onwards and upwards, that’s my motto.


Is it true that you were celebrated in the media for having been a prostitute (and thus, having had lots of sex) but for writing in the new book about having had consensual sex as a non-prostitute, as a regular woman living her life, you were mocked, insulted and pruriently interrogated about your promiscuity?

Yes.


Does this give you the shits?

Don’t. Start. Me.


Not meaning to dwell on the sex issue, but is it true that you had better sex as a prostitute than you did in the several relationships described in your new memoir?

Hell yes. Er, I mean…


Moving on. What are you readers like?

I get all sorts, from 14 year old boys in Germany to dear old ladies in country Australia. They send me presents: a dictionary, a stuffed toy, a pair of stockings, and a book of homely epithets (though later the person who sent me that, when he unexpectedly got my number from the phone book and rang me at home at 7.30 one morning to ask advice about his niece who had started taking ecstasy, responded to my polite request that he not stalk me, wrote a letter saying he’d now burnt my book and thought I would be happy to hear he’d realised he had been stupid to think I was a nice person: his fault, he said). Many of my readers manage to meet me and not blink at the fact that they’ve read about my vagina. The majority of them are not psychotic but they like to give me hugs. One elderly man always encloses a couple of stamps wrapped carefully in tissue paper so I can write back without inconvenience.


What is the weirdest thing about being a memoirist?

The feeling, whenever someone gives me a compliment on my writing, or more particularly, on the life I’ve lead, that they’re actually talking to someone over my shoulder. I feel like I’m the friend of someone called Kate Holden, the only person who’s ever heard her stories, and as the sole custodian of her secrets, I am her representative in public. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m doing her a favour or not. I keep forgetting the punchline to her best jokes.


You said you don’t believe in regret. Brave words. Surely there’s something you regret?

Ah I’m not so big on wishing the past were different: that’s a great way to waste your time. But I regret that, as someone who writes of lot of personal pieces, it’s not more widely appreciated that I know just how narcissistic such writing is, and that I’m constantly trying to mock myself for it. People have such a way of taking the publication of a book all about yourself as an example of ego. They don’t notice that my books are all about what a fallible, sometimes-irritating nit I am. This interview, perhaps, might be an exhibit for the prosecution.


Heroin, or writing?

Heroin was nice enough but it costs too much, in everything. Writing is the best buzz, and it’s free.



I have never met Bill Clegg, but we seem to have a lot in common. I learned in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, that we’re both white people who come from dysfunctional families in rural towns who nursed dreams of getting out. We both moved to NYC after attending uncool colleges, with no plan other than to “become something.” We both became literary agents, falling into a career we seemed thrillingly, finally suited for. We both love photography, and Bill Eggleston in particular. We’re both single and into dudes. We both had problems with painful urination as children and we both have abused illicit substances with abandon. For me, it was Vicodin — or any fun pill I could get my hands on. For Bill, it was alcohol and crack.

In New York’s Whitehorse Tavern there’s a table held sacred by many, table five. A quick glance suggests nothing out of the ordinary about this piece of battered furniture, its surface worn smooth by the bottom of countless glasses, its landscape dulled by the tears of broken dreams. However, this table holds a distinction held by no other table in the literary world. It’s the table that Dylan Thomas had his last drink at before being carried across the street to Saint Vincent’s Hospital where he died shortly thereafter. The Tavern has become a Mecca for wannabe writers and misunderstood artists, all trying to capture a piece of the agony that fueled their hero’s creativity. Pathetic hustlers of the English language, all trying to one up themselves by walking on the razor’s edge, flock to places like the Whitehorse. Those in the know want to sit at the table where the great bard himself finally met his end after playing a game of whiskey roulette with hand of death.

It’s sad that writers feel the need to emulate their idol’s demise, following in the footsteps of someone else’s self-induced madness. Many of us write, trying desperately to stay one step ahead of the emotional train wreck, begging fate for an end to the destructive storm that is our world. Our words keep us one step away from the darkness, those desperate hours that haunt us when the silence falls. We never get ahead of our insanity, always running in place and never going forward. One step from the madness and ten miles from sanity is where I stood at any given moment.

I sat at that table, whiskey in hand, not pretending to be a tormented writer, but because I wanted to toast the man who gave all of himself to his art until in the end, there was nothing left but the shell of a withering soul. I came because I was thirsty for something else in life. I came for the rightist of wrong reasons.

It was a cold winter night when I stumbled into the Whitehorse, desperate for something other than the void that my life had become. I was going through the motions, breathing with the shallowness of a man with no convictions. I was a man with no past or future, just a stagnant mechanized existence. I had just spent the better part of two hours listening to the relentless ranting of a fashion designer, a woman who went on and on about how brilliant she was. The first rule of literary survival I learned was simple; anyone who claims to be brilliant usually isn’t. They’re rubes, simpletons who’ve thumbed through college outlines of all the great books, higher learning through a series of Dummy’s and Idiot’s Guides. They’re pretenders to an intellectual throne far beyond their grasp. They’re the people that say all the right things at all the right times, always making a point to throw in the names of whoever is on the top of the avant-garde heap. “Blah, blah, blah… Andy Warhol. Blah, blah, blah…” On and on again until you want to die. “Blah, blah, I know more than you, blah.” My mind was spinning from an evening spent in a room full of cultural vampires. Enough was absolutely enough. Having told this room full of simpletons “I’d rather cut myself with broken car glass than listen to one more nanosecond of this dribble,” I was out the door and into the tavern in under five minutes.

The place was empty, as if the plague had just rolled through Greenwich Village. That was fine by me. I liked an empty bar, devoid of people working hard to preserve their livers in a bottle of whiskey. I didn’t drink a lot but when I did I didn’t need some buzz kill sitting next to me, waxing on and on about his broken dreams. New York is filled to the brim with tales of heartbreak and guaranteed schemes that fell apart just before the payoff. It’s a city that serves as a beacon to the mentally unstable artist and greedy yuppie alike, both of whom were big fish in the little ponds of their hometowns. Now they’re surrounded by bigger fish in the biggest pond of all, nasty giant fish with a taste for blood. In the end they’re eaten alive by the unforgiving nature of life in the city. The bowery is paved with the carcasses of some of the most brilliant artists I’ve ever met and the jails are filled with scheming yuppies. New York’s a town designed for hustlers and tricksters out for their own gain.

The waitress came back to the table with my drink, a double shot of Black Label Scotch, neat no ice. I stared down into the placid amber liquor, peering into its depth as if Buddha would swim to the surface with a lifesaving piece of wisdom written just for me. Nothing happened, other than the soothing smell of the double malt wafting up to my nose. “God I need some fucking peace,” I said to myself. My nerves had just started to calm down, as I lifted the heavy glass to my lips. The silence was perfect, dead like me, empty and void of the sounds of desperate bar people desperately trying to sound as if their lives had meaning. There was no blah, blah, blah to kill my buzz.

The first slug of scotch went down, burning my throat with that acrid warm feeling hard liquor has. My shaking thoughts suddenly started to smooth out like a plane after it’s flown through a turbulent patch of sky. I could breathe again, taking in the squalid barroom air with renewed faith. It was a perfect moment in time, one that could never be repeated, so I savored it with the enthusiasm of a man who discovers a hundred dollar bill in an otherwise empty wallet. For that brief moment all was well in my world. Everything was, as my wife would say, peachy.

Suddenly the silence was broken by the slamming of the tavern’s door. Looking up to see what idiot ruined my perfect moment, I saw him enter the bar, the worst possible sort to run into when you’re out for a quiet evening of destroying your liver. Sammy the Gimp scanned the room looking for a familiar face he could extract a free drink or dollar from. I quickly lowered my head but not before his eyes met mine. “Shit” I muttered. My evening would now be spent trying to get rid of Sammy. I looked back up knowing his smiling junkie face would be beaming in my direction. Sure enough it was, his scrawny wrist limply waving in my direction. No point in putting off the inevitable. I nodded which was the universal gesture amongst junkies to “come on over and waste my precious time.”

Sammy was one of those old time junkies that had the word loser burned into his forehead from years of failed schemes, broken promises and too much time on Riker’s Island. Getting involved with anything Sammy planned was a sure fire ticket to the joint. He was an idiot but he did have a certain charm. Sammy had an innocence reserved for the mentally retarded that made you feel bad for him, bordering on almost liking him. His toothless grin lit up like a roman candle as he limped over the table.

He got the name, Sammy the Gimp, after being shot by a junk dealer on Avenue A down in Alphabet City. He bought a large quantity of dope on credit and didn’t pay his bill on time. Unfortunately, the dealer had a large number of other deadbeat junkies also behind on their payments, so an example would have to be made. Sammy was that example, being stabbed 23 times. One of his injuries was a lacerated leg muscle that caused his cartoonish limp. When he was in my presence he was a nuisance at best. When he wasn’t around to step on my last nerve I felt bad for him. He was somebody’s little boy once, a son born to proud parents who could never have imagined their boy becoming a junkie. I watched, as if hypnotized, as his left foot dragged across the sawdust floor making the sound of sandpaper on steel. When he got to my table he clumsily pulled out a chair which sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard as it scrapped against the floor. He finally settled into it. God, this man was noisy.

“Johnny my man, how the hell are you?”

“Just fine Sammy. What brings you uptown? This isn’t your normal watering hole?”

“I was looking for you. Well, actually I was coming back from Harlem and I ran into that loud mouth skirt maker…”

“Fashion designer, Sammy, fashion designer, there’s a difference” I added.

“Yeah, whatever, she makes skirts, doesn’t she?”

It’s amazing how a simpleton like Sammy can somehow come out ahead in a conversation. He was right, the “loudmouth” did make skirts, and it was a funny thought to think of her as a skirt maker rather than that know it all fashion maven. I tried to keep quiet, as if my silence would propel The Gimp out of the tavern but Sammy picked up where he left off.

“Where was I? Oh yeah, I ran into the skirt maker and she said you insulted her then stormed out of the party over at Izzy’s place.”

“I didn’t want to listen to another second of those wannabe art-types rambling on about the state of art in New York, as if any of them really knew what was going on. Jesus, the shit that pours out of people’s mouths would lead you to believe that there’s a bad case of verbal diarrhea going round.”

“Verbal diarrhea?” he asked.

“Verbal diarrhea Sammy, didn’t you have something pressing to say?” I knew I was about to get the lowdown on some surefire scheme guaranteed to get me rich, loaded or both. Wanting to get it over with, I forced him to get to the point. There’s nothing worse than having to wait for a loser to spit out their plan knowing that you’d end up having to get involved in order to get rid of them. He continued, spitting wet lumps of peanut out of his mouth.

“Here’s the deal.” A chunk of gooey nut lands on my hand. “I was up in Harlem, going up there to cop this new shit that’s supposed to be off the charts but there’s no one home at the Buster’s place. I mean no one in sight. I knock on his door and nothing, not a peep. I bang on the door for ten minutes. I figure they’re in the back room so I try the door knob. The doors unlocked so I walk on in and guess what, guess what the fuck I saw?”

“Tell me Sammy, just tell me and get it over with.”

“Hey man, I’m trying to do you the favor here.” More peanuts fly out.

“Yeah, you’re right. Sorry Sammy, go on.”

“So I go inside and they’re all fucking dead. I mean shot up, guts hanging out, faces blown off dead. You couldn’t tell the boys from the girls.”

This was more than I needed to hear. The Gimp managed to show up at Busters after someone had put the fix on the dealer and now his big mouth is guaranteeing me a spot on the morning police report. This is what I meant about losers, they go to do something as simple as coping dope in Harlem and end up walking in on a gangland slaying. Then they start telling everyone who will listen, their tragic tale which eventually means that the guys who pulled the trigger will find out. They’ll start looking for Sammy which means they’ll talk to everyone who knows him with my name appearing first on their list. God damn gimpy footed little bastard had dragged me into his sad sack pathetic world once again. Even with my glaring eyes burning a hole through his forehead, my eyes saying “I’m going to skin you alive,” he kept talking.

“So I look around to see if there’s anything of value and I see a paper bag.”

“What paper bag?” I asked, knowing that the bag most likely contained drugs, money or both.

“The paper fucking bag filled with the purest heroin I’ve ever tasted.” My mouth dropped open. I was now officially sucked into one of The Gimps fucked up schemes because I couldn’t resist that damn drug.

I sat with Sammy at table five in momentary silence as if he’d shut up long enough for the enormity of his great fortune to sink in. To his left I could see the ghost of Dylan Thomas smiling as if egging me on to indulge my addiction. I’m sure Dylan wanted me to take my own version of that last drink and join him permanently at the table. The lure of drugs had overpowered the knowledge that anything Sammy touched turned to shit. All I could think about was that bag, that big fat bag.

“So Sammy, what did you do with the dope?” Saliva was now dripping from my mouth, slowly pooling on the table’s surface.

“What do you mean, I have it right here.” At which point he started to pull out an enormous freezer bag of white powder.”

“Put that away man. Are you crazy? You can’t walk around with that, you’ll get caught.” This was becoming a nightmare at a hundred miles an hour but I was too blinded by the thought of getting loaded to care.

“What am I supposed to do with all this junk man? Hey man, you want a little? You can have it for free since you always looked out for me.”

“Sure Sammy, I’ll take a little.” The drool started pouring from my mouth until I had to wipe it away with a napkin for fear of someone thinking I was having a medical emergency, a bad bout of dope-luster’s disease. Unbeknownst to me, The Gimp had prepared some “to go” bags of junk back at Buster’s place.

He signaled me to reach under the table, which I gladly did. My hand slid past a hundred years of chewing gum stuck to the table’s underside, past the rusting piss stained post that held it up until I felt the soft plastic skin of the bag. Taking a quick glance before shoving it in my pocket, it appeared to be close to an ounce. I looked back at Sammy who looked almost thoughtful yet resigned in the dim red lights of the bar. It was then I realized that Sammy wasn’t long for this world. His eyes were begging me to help him. Whenever drug dealers got shot up and some junky came along and stole their stash, they ended up paying with their lives. Nothing is free in this life, especially drugs. I felt bad and had to give The Gimp fair warning. As I started to say something Sammy cut me off.

“Listen man that stuff’s nearly pure so don’t use a lot. In fact, maybe you should smoke or snort it.” There was a glimmer of genuine concern in his beady little eyes.

“Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind. Listen Sammy, you need to get rid of that stuff. It’s going to bring you a world of hurt. Someone’s going to be looking for it.”

“Yeah man, I know. I’m going to start selling it one dime bag at a time.”

“That’s the wrong answer Sammy. You’ll get killed if you try to deal it on the street. The first thing everyone’s going to ask is where a lowlife like The Gimp got such good shit, no offense.”

“None taken asshole” he muttered. I continued.

“Look, we need to take this to Nick the Wop over on Grand Street and dump it. He’ll give you half of a fair price but you’ll be alive to spend the money.”

“What’s your end of the deal?” There was a sudden note of hostility in his voice.

“You just gave me an ounce of primo shit that will keep me high for weeks. I also sort of like you and I don’t want to hear about you getting killed.”

“Everyone laughs at me Johnny. They call me a loser behind my back.”

“That’s because you are Sammy. We’re all losers. Look at what we do, swinging smack everyday at the end of a spoon. We’re all fucking losers, one no worse than the next.”

“You’re not a loser.  No one ever calls you that.”

“I am. You just can’t see it because I hide it well. Let’s call Nick and see if we can get this mess cleaned up. Go ahead and keep some for yourself and we’ll dump the rest with Nick.”

I left Sammy at the table, getting up and walking to the payphone by the men’s room. I got a hold of Nick and filled him in, giving him as little information as possible, saying my “friend” needed to make a fast transaction of dope for cash. He figured my “friend” was The Gimp. Nick agreed to meet us in an hour. After a little chit chat about Sammy’s ability to fuck things up, I said goodbye and walked back to the table. Sammy sat with a smile on his face and powder hanging off his crooked nose. The look of disgust on the bartender’s face filled in the missing pieces. In my absence, Sammy had snorted a pile of product in plain sight and was now in the twilight zone, the good twilight zone. I filled Sammy in on my conversation with Nick, having to stop and start as Sammy fell in and out of a heavy nod. After having tipped the bartender an extra twenty dollars, I had him call us a cab. As the Tavern started to fill up with the usual repressed homosexual college jocks desperate to save their masculinity through alcohol abuse, Sammy and I shuffled out to meet the cab. In a moment we were off towards Grand Street. I took a big snort from my bag of dope and within three minutes I was pleasantly numb.

The city at night, with lit up windows and neon signs, becomes a visual wonderland passing by in a blur. It’s like a perpetual string of Christmas lights spread throughout the concrete landscape, a warm fuzzy fist full of eye candy for those on the nod. Everything suddenly feels great. Everyone’s suddenly your best friend. Nothing hurts anymore and you become the dream of yourself you could never be in a state of sobriety. Everything is just a pleasant state of flux. Even riding in the yellow cab of death is fun. Even the driver amped up on crack for three days makes you smile. He’s your friend, your best friend. The normal potholes and torn up asphalt that jarred your kidneys to the point of no return feels like the gentle bounce of a trampoline as we sped down 3rd Avenue, towards Nick’s office.

Nick’s office was a loft space above a dim sum joint on Grand Avenue. While Nick was Italian, thus the nickname Nick the Wop, he felt more comfortable in Chinatown where, according to him, “everyone fought for a better deal but no one ever fucked you for a buck”. Nick was a connected guy, having worked his way up in a Brooklyn numbers crew, but was forced to quit when he got strung out. The Family doesn’t allow junkies. However, even without the Mob to back his play he still carried a serious reputation. Fuck with the Nick the Wop and you’d discover pain you never knew existed.

By the time we got to Nick’s office, Sammy and I were heavily sedated. Exiting the cab, I was hypnotized by the numerous neon signs, their Chinese symbols becoming more interesting when illuminated in a red or green glow. Sammy grabbed me by the arm as I started to walk into a Chinese record store in search of something other than what we had come here to do. Apologizing, in that whiney junkie voice we all get when smacked back, I turned towards Nick’s office.

Nick was in the business of fencing stolen goods. It didn’t matter what you had, from tubas to goldfish, from diamonds to women’s diaphragms, Nick could find a buyer for everything. Of course he’d give you pennies on the dollar but he assumed the risk and no one would ever know where the merchandise came from which was what I wanted. Sammy liked to brag about his big scores which usually amounted to nothing, except in this case. He’d be found out via the junkie internet, a series of payphones up and down Manhattan’s east side, within twenty fours which would earn him a trip to the morgue. Setting him up with Nick would keep him marginally safe.

To get into Nick’s, you had to walk through the dim sum joint, through the kitchen and up the world’s worst set of wooden stairs. This routine worked well since you’d never know Nick was here unless you had prior knowledge. After convincing Sammy that Nick really had an office here and he wasn’t being set up in some awful way, we made our way through the kitchen and its nonplused workers.

“You’re kidding Johnny, Nick’s back here?”

“Yeah I know, it seems a bit strange but it’s the perfect cover.”

“I don’t know Johnny.” He was getting nervous, like a cornered rat.

“I don’t know Johnny” I replied back, mimicking that dopey dog from the Davy and Goliath cartoon. “Look, I’m doing this to help you, you little fuck. I’m trying to save your sorry ass.”

He muttered something, looking at me like a broken hearted puppy which made me feel worse. Man, why did I get involved in this fiasco in the first place. I knew The Gimp was trouble and I still sat there listening to him. Before I had second thoughts, thinking about kicking him to curb, I smiled and pointed to the stairs. “Get the fuck up there Sammy,” bringing the kitchen’s conversation to a standstill.

We made our way up the stairs which lead to a large hallway covered in garish red felted wallpaper. Nick once told me that the rest of the building was a whorehouse and its madam had a thing about the color red. Everything was a shade of red. The hallway was lined by doors every twenty feet or so. However, finding Nick’s door was easy. We just looked for the door guarded by a three hundred pound gun totting thug. Straightening ourselves up, we approached the humorless man with the shotgun in his paws.

“What do you want?” He was brief and to the point.

“We’re here to see Nick, he’s expecting us.”

“Hey Nick,” the goon shouted. “There’s a couple of fucking junkies to see you.”

That’s great, I thought. Fifty nine minutes with Sammy and I’m lumped into the category of “fucking junkies.” Of course it didn’t help that I was nodding while I stood there, the perpetual string of drool now extending past my jacket well on its way to the floor.

“It’s alright Bruno, it’s just Johnny from Brooklyn and The Gimp. Let them in.”

“Get the fuck in there and don’t make any trouble, assholes.”

“Relax tough guy. I’m a friend of Nick’s.”

“Tough guy, fucking tough guy, you little shit?” The goon was pissed.

“Is there a problem out there?” Nick screamed.

“Nothing boss.”

Before the tough guy with the shotgun could do anything, Sammy and I slipped through the door. Nick smiled when he saw me, his smile suddenly turning to a frown when he saw Sammy. He didn’t like Sammy but business was business and this was well worth the trouble of bringing The Gimp along. I had Sammy hand him the bag of junk, which he immediately tested.

“Jesus, this stuff is nearly pure. How’d you get it? I hear that Buster’s place got shot up a few hours ago. It’s too bad Buster wasn’t there or you would have got away with it clean.”

My heart sank upon hearing those words. I assumed that Buster was killed since nobody would be stupid enough to steal from Buster unless Buster was dead. Nobody would be stupid enough… then there’s Sammy. Shit, I knew the loser’s credo, “everything they touch turns to rust, all schemes fail then crumble to dust.” Not only was I with Sammy now but I had an ounce of Buster’s product in my pocket. What the hell was Sammy thinking?

“Fucking Sammy, what the hell were you thinking? Didn’t you look around to see if Buster was dead? Do you know what’s going to happen if Buster finds out you walked off with his stash?”

“Relax” Nick said in his deep raspy voice. “No one is going to know anything about this. Here’s the solution, the fix to your problems.”

“Here we go” I muttered to myself. We were on the losing side of a coin toss and Nick knew it. We and I say we because I was with Sammy which made me guilty by association regardless of the actual facts, were screwed. There was one way out and I knew what it was even before Nick uttered a single word. We’d get to leave here alive and without fear of Buster ever knowing Sammy took his junk. The only drawback was we’d only get that out of the deal and nothing else. There’d be no money handed over, only the promise of silence. Nick continued.

“You’re going to give me the heroin and I’m going to keep my mouth shut, get rid of the junk and that will be that.”

“What about my fucking money.” Sammy whined.

“Your money you shitty little gimp? There’s no ‘your money’ involved. This stuff wasn’t yours to begin with and I’m doing you a big favor, saving your life by fixing this problem. Actually you owe me.” The Gimp looked like he was going to blow a gasket so I chimed in.

“Just shut up Sammy. Nick’s right. We walk away now and it’s a case of no harm no foul. Nick gets rid of this stuff and you’re off the hook.”

“Johnny, you told me you’d help me,” Sammy whined.

“Yeah, but I didn’t know that Buster was still alive. You might have taken a look at the bodies to make sure he was among them. I’m sorry Sammy but this has to play out this way. It’s either that or Buster’s going to come for you.”

On that note Sammy started crying. Another great scheme fallen apart, burning the word loser just a little deeper into his soul. I felt bad, hell even Nick looked upon The Gimp with pity filled eyes.

“Listen Sammy, I’ll give you an ounce for your troubles. This way you can have a good time and you won’t feel so bad. You just have to keep quiet about this or I’ll kill you myself. Are we square on that Sammy?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I mean abso-fucking-lutely.”

“Listen Sammy, I need to talk to Johnny about something so go wait out in the hall and for God sakes don’t get Bruno pissed off, alright?”

“Okay, Nick,” he said in that damn dopey dog voice.

After Sammy left I sat down on Nick’s couch to talk to him. Sitting next to me, his expression told me the news I was about to hear would not be good. I knew Nick from the old days. He always took care of me and vice versa, but time had changed us both to a point where we ran in different circles these days. We weren’t as tight as we used to be. I couldn’t ask for the favors I used to ask him for. Sammy was headed for a fist full of hurt.

“Johnny, this isn’t going to bode well for The Gimp. I mean I’ll get this stuff out of here and more importantly away from you two but Sammy’s got a big mouth. I can’t have this blowing back on me. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I got it Nick. I don’t like it but I got it.”

“You’re a good kid Johnny and I’ll keep you out of it but you know what has to be done if push comes to shove.”

I knew what had to be done. I knew I couldn’t say anything to Sammy because I was a “stand up guy.” Mind your own business where I came from and you lived a long life. Walking out into the hallway and facing Sammy was more painful than I thought it would be. I wasn’t a thug and didn’t have the stomach for this life. I had one chance to do something right which was protect The Gimp. I begged Sammy to let me send him out of town for a few weeks, anywhere he wanted my treat. The only condition was that he left that night. He thanked me for the offer but said he wanted to go home, catch another buzz and think about it. What could I do? I couldn’t repeat what Nick told me because I gave him my word I’d stay out of it. On the streets you’re only as good as your word. When your word’s gone so are you.

I took Sammy home by taxi, offering to stay with him until I could convince him to leave town. He smiled and told me to go home, he’d see me tomorrow and we could have a good laugh about it then. I left his rundown tenement building on the lower eastside, knowing there’d be no happy ending yet silently praying for one. I made my way back to Brooklyn, finally nodding off at about five in the morning.

I awoke the next afternoon to the phone ringing, echoing through my empty loft, pounding my ears like a jackhammer on crack. Picking it up, I mumbled

“Yeah, who is this?”

“It’s Nick. I just wanted you to hear it from me rather than some fucking junkie on the street.”

My heart dropped to depths I didn’t know existed. I knew what was coming as if the story would have some other ending. I constantly played a dangerous game with people who played for keeps, playing it for years but always escaping injury and death. However, at this single moment it all caught up to me, all the close calls and narrow misses. It was payback time and it was long overdue. Someone had just paid for my fucking sins, Karma with a sideways payback.

“Buster’s people found Sammy this morning. They cut his fucking left hand off. They cut his fucking… they shoved it down his… never mind. I’m sorry Johnny. I know you tried to help him.”

“Yeah I tried but obviously I didn’t try hard enough.” I thought I was going to start crying. Nick sensed this as well.

“Look Johnny, it was only a matter of time before Sammy’s mouth caught up to him. This wasn’t your fault. You’re not part of this world kid, you’re better than us and that’s a good thing. You don’t have to live this way. You don’t have to be an animal, but you have to quit using dope. It will kill you in the end. I have to hop but I wanted to tell you that you’re not in the loop on this one. Buster was convinced that you had no part in Sammy’s bullshit.”

“Thanks Nick, I mean that.”

“Listen Johnny, I got more than expected for Sammy’s score. I felt bad about jerking you for the money but Sammy would have blown the deal back to me so I had to play it the way I did.  I left something for you in an envelope. Bruno stuck it under your door this morning.”

Looking across the room I could see the envelope near the front door. After hanging the phone up I opened it up, finding roughly four thousand dollars inside. I pulled out the ounce of junk I still had, poured out a line and soothed my trampled nerves. Calling a travel agent, I discovered that this was a great time of year to head west. Booking a one way ticket to San Francisco for the following week, I decided to go back to my hometown. Nick was right. I could get out of this way of life. I could go out on my own or in a casket, my choice. Sammy’s death was the final straw. I didn’t belong in a world were men’s hearts were tempered like cold hard steel. My metal was weak like tin, rusted from tears of regret and sorrow. Before exiting New York, I stopped by Nick’s and took him out to lunch. When we parted he said something that stuck.

“Kid, I wish you well out California. Go follow those dreams of yours. Write that book you keep threatening to write but don’t ever come back here again and don’t use my real name if you write about you and me. Don’t come back to where you don’t belong. Me, I don’t have the devil’s chance of leaving this life but you, you have a ticket out. Use it or the last thing you’ll see will be Bruno’s shotgun right before it takes your head off.” He didn’t have to say another word. I became a ghost and simply vanished.



When I thought about the task of a “self-interview,” my first response was: But I interview myself all the time—only I don’t imagine that the folks who came up with this idea want to know the answers to, “Wait—why am going through another winter in the Northeast?” or “I know I want that third cup of coffee, but do I need it?” (Can’t imagine that would be of much interest.) Then again, I think that most acts of writing are self-interviews of sorts.


What do you mean?

Well, like many writers, I write to understand, more fully, what I think or feel about something—the writing (hopefully) has some sort of momentum to it, in that I’m writing towards an explanation or understanding. Using the example of my book, Much to Your Chagrin, the writing process was sparked by a very particular question: what the hell happened to me? The book covers the year before I turned thirty, which was an unexpectedly tumultuous time, a time when everything should have been coming together—in life, love, and career—but instead fell unceremoniously apart, because my life then was built on false ideas. As it turns out, the unraveling was a good thing—it brought me to a much more authentic place, in terms of being able to make decisions about how I wanted to be in the world, based on my honest desires, as opposed to what I (erroneously) thought others expected. But when I sat down to write, three months after that year had ended, I didn’t understand any of that. And so the writing process was such a joy—and yes, cathartic—because I was able to relive and examine the events of the prior year, which, thanks to a persistent anxiety and depression, I hadn’t been fully present for the first time around. I feel so grateful to have had that experience.


Did you always plan on publishing your story?

No. When the year ended, I tried to plow through and write the story of what happened, but I was writing it in the first person, and it made me cringe, every time I sat down to say that I did all of the unseemly things. This showed in the writing. After I had one hundred pages, I sent it to my former thesis advisor, whose opinion I trusted. She agreed: something just wasn’t working. At the time, she said, “Why don’t you try it as a novel?” But I hadn’t written fiction since I was a kid and so that thought was too daunting. Instead, I gave up my ambition. I thought, maybe it’s just time for me to exist without having to cling to a project, especially if I’m clinging out of fear.

Around that time, I happened to pick up a Village Voice and flip to Rob Breszny’s amazing horoscopes. Mine (Aquarius) said something to the effect of, “You are pregnant with ideas, so you should treat yourself as if you were nine months pregnant…” I read that and thought, I want to give birth to my ideas. So I started eating healthy, doing yoga and writing every morning, spilling the contents of my head onto the page, without any expectation that they were going to result in a publishable idea. (At the time, I hadn’t kicked my chain smoking habit and was avowedly single, so it’s no wonder that my joke, “I’m pregnant!” didn’t go over well with even the most good-humored of my friends.)

In any case, three months after this, I got the idea to write the same story in the second person; from that point on, the writing flowed in a way I’d never experienced. All along, I told myself that this writing was only for me. I’d been burned by producing things I thought other people wanted or approved of and so it was really important to separate the process from any ideas of publishing. A month after I finished the first draft, I put it away, unsure of what to do. At the time, the whole endeavor felt so personal and was still so raw that I couldn’t conceive of it as business. And since a great deal of the book centers on my heartbreak after a romantic relationship with my literary agent falls apart, I was doubly self-conscious about sending the book out (especially to male agents).

After a lucky meeting, I was contacted by a literary agent who’d heard about my book; we met, and she quelled a lot of my anxieties about publishing. Her interest and understanding about the relevance of the subject matter to a wider audience was, too, heartening.  After a few weeks of deliberation, I decided I did want to share my story. My hope was that if the process was healing for me, then perhaps it could be healing for someone else, too.


And, eight months since publication, how do you feel about that decision?

Great. So much has changed since that time, now two and a half years ago. Both personally and professionally, I’m in a much different place. Now the book is business and not just a personal story. Since a lot of what happened that year was so painful, I used to feel—especially before publication—guilty when a friend would say, “Gosh, since starting your book, I feel like you’ve been keeping me company.” I’d say, “I’m sorry. I was terrible company that year…” And I guess that came from the memories of not even wanting to be around myself, especially when I was really depressed and not able to envision a way out or anything better. But as time has passed, I don’t feel that way anymore. Instead, I’m more loving and accepting of that year–and so when I read or speak about Chagrin, I always try to remind myself that the story is simply an offering. Plus, life, while never perfect, just keeps getting better—and I can thank, in part, those experiences for bringing me to this place.


Was there anyone whom you were particularly nervous about reading the book?

Yes. My boyfriend read it fairly early on in our relationship, before publication. Given that one element of the book covers a series of failed relationships, it’s safe to say: I was terrified of what he’d think. But, another underlying thread of the book is my desire for love and part of that experience is sharing one’s whole self, not just the attractive parts. So as risky as it seemed at the time, it was also necessary—and ultimately, in large part because he’s wonderful, a positive experience for both of us.


What’s been the best part of publication?

It’s given me a stronger sense of ownership over my own life, by being able to say, This is what happened, through my eyes. And if that sounds very basic, it is. But it was still a challenge, at least for me. The publication process has, too, taught me a lot about the importance of taking greater responsibility for all aspects of my life, including my career. And of course, I love love love—can’t emphasize this enough—hearing from readers who say that the book resonated with their experiences, thoughts or feelings, especially when said experiences, thoughts or feelings were things they felt were unique to their lives.


What are you working on now? And is it related in any way to the themes in Chagrin?

Writing-wise, things are thankfully moving again, after a period of strictly focusing on book promotion. I’m excited about a new project that has been budding for a while now. It’s fiction, and beyond this, I’m not prepared to talk about it, mostly because I’m not even sure what it is myself. It’s related to Chagrin in the broad sense that writing that first book gave me a certain confidence in exploring elements of the human experience that had heretofore seemed too daunting to delve into. Other than this, I am also excited to be working on a screenplay adaptation of Chagrin, as well as a concept for a film based on a summer I spent boxing in Prague, while conflicted about my engagement to my then-boyfriend of several years.


When do you do your best writing?

I guess the best writing comes only after I’ve committed to a routine, which is not easy, even though I know that’s what works. To make a living, I teach and also freelance, so structuring my time is really important. Right now, I’m reading The Gathering by Anne Enright, which is exquisitely written. And of course, being moved by the work of other writers helps me see new possibilities in my own work.

Also, as a volunteer with the fabulous New York Writer’s Coalition, I run a weekly writing group for women over fifty at a Baptist Church in Brooklyn. As with all NYWC groups, this group is grounded in the idea that every human being has something unique to say. We write together, as a group, and then share our work. This has been such a valuable part of my writing process, too, helping me stay focused on writing-for-writing’s sake. Plus, there’s something about the act of writing by hand (versus writing on my laptop, which I’m more likely to do if I’m alone) that puts me more in touch with a visceral perspective.

Speaking of that which is instinctive, I dance regularly with an amazing group of women, as part of a workshop called Zodiac Dance. Having an outlet for movement is so liberating, the value of which is definitely beyond verbal articulation. Witnessing others’ unique expressions is enlivening, as is having the opportunity to move myself. It’s the best! Oh, and every week, the playlist is fantastic, so that’s an additional source of stimulation.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes:  Thank you, NervousBreakdown, for asking me to do this interview!  And best of luck with your new venture!