This was the brief talk I gave before my interview with Sarah Lester at the Maplewood Literary Award event on March 24th, 2018. It’s adapted from an earlier blog on writing in 9/12.
I should like to tell a story. It is a story of failure and motherhood. It is a story of post- 9/11, what I call 9/12. And it is ultimately a story of rebuilding one’s self, of home and community. Because the career I’ve had for the last sixteen years is intricately connected to our decision to move to Maplewood.
We were living on the Upper West Side in an apartment. My ‘office,’ such as it was, consisted of a corner of a room, next to a swinging door into the kitchen, walled off with a Japanese screen from my son’s nursery area. My husband wrote on a thin little table in a corner of the bedroom. Our books teemed everywhere. There wasn’t much light in the apartment. This was not sustainable.
But it was not sustainable for another reason. I had, in all honesty, lost my way as a writer. I had always been a fierce and disciplined writer, driven in some ways by guilt—the child of an immigrant, of hardworking teachers, I felt that if this was my job, I had to attack it like a job. I led a pretty monastic life, keeping my expenses low, my apartments small to make this vocation work.
And I did continue to write after I became a mother—a few weeks after my son Sasha was born I was in Bed Stuy, reporting on teenagers with AIDs. But just like the gray atmosphere of our apartment, there was a smudged quality to my vision, a sense of not being able to blend motherhood, the pressures and anxieties of making a living, and the act of writing. Even I—quite stubborn—was having a hard time of it. I felt like a graduate student peering into grown up lives, but somehow I could not figure out how to be and writer have that grown up life.
Worse, even after publishing two literary novels and a nonfiction book, I could not sell my third novel. I pause on this for a moment because we so often focus on success of an author’s life. But as every writer knows, particularly in the punishing environment of publishing, behind that gleaming surface, there is so much rejection and sense of failure and uncertainty and tossed out projects. And often for no good reason, just bad luck or bad timing. I was amazed to learn the other night at the Montclair Literary Festival that Tom Perrotta’s novel, “Election,” was actually sitting in a drawer, unpublished, when it was discovered for a movie.
For me, at this time, I had written a novel in a somber mood, in the wake of an ectopic pregnancy that had sent me into life-saving surgery. I woke up a week later in bed, loopy on painkillers, with an image of an elderly Bengali woman, the wife of a photographer, walking the amber-lit streets of the UPW. That novel, too quiet, too submerged, still waits in my drawer. I tried a few other projects but nothing quite held.
Here is the other significant part of our move: 9/11. Or rather, I should say, 9/12. The day after. The decades after.
They are connected.
My son Sasha was just over a year old on that bright blue sky day, and I will never forget leaving him with Marc at the apartment, biking down the West Side with phone chargers in my back pack, looping to the Red Cross where I’d hoped to donate blood. And then there was no need for chargers, no need for blood, just a police barricade, plumes of ashen smoke blotting that perfect sky. That night, our son snuggled in our carry-on, we joined others at the Sailors and Fallen Soldiers Monument and sang and sang, almost wishing we could never leave each other, this fellowship, on such a painful and numbing day.
And then Marc had to go to the Bologna Book Festival (where he’s leaving for tonight), and on a whim, we decided to put our apartment up for sale. If it sold quickly, we’d take it as a sign. It sold immediately, cash. We had to buy a house. So we drove out to Maplewood. We were so disoriented, so confused by NJ, we circled the area for two hours, with our realtor waiting on the porch the whole time. Sometimes I think that we bought our house on Ridgewood Terrace because I felt guilty for making the realtor wait so long.
No—in truth we finally realized we wanted to move because we could envision a more capacious life. Most people move for the schools, because they grew up in the suburbs. We did not. We moved for work space. We moved for the light sweeping down through the windows in my little study, the big oak tree outside my window, the third floor which could be our library. We moved to find something that could encompass all of who we were—writers, parents, people who liked to cook and entertain. Virginia Woolf has famously written about how every woman needs of a room of her own. As a mother, a co-author, I needed a room of my own wedged into my ever-expanding life.
Now I will say, it was not without its regrets: We are city people through and through and argue over what cafe used to be on what corner in the West Village. The day of our move, I sat on the pavement outside my building with two girlfriends sobbing. How could this New Yorker leave?
And yet I could.
Somehow one year after 9/11, we encamped to Maplewood, NJ, waking up stunned in an empty house on a quiet street on a hot August morning in 2002. We were not fleeing the city because of the attack. But we did, in some way, need to rebuild, rethink, remold ourselves.
Somehow having a home, and a study, and feeling nominally grown-up, something in me shifted as a writer. I was able to look up and around me. The smudged vision cleared. That physical capaciousness around me meant I grew more capacious within. My husband and I, each with rooms on different floors, traded pages, shouted ideas to each other, shouted at the other to stop shouting. We became co-authors.
Even this library had something to do with my inner spaciousness. So many times I walked into this cheerful place, the kids’ room, the adult room, and it gave me a sense of the hub bub of reading, of reading lives. The same is true when Words Bookstore opened up. In New York City, I had wedged myself into the narrow world of purely literary friends and ambitions. That sometimes eats away at you. I relaxed. I began to contemplate writing YA, which I’m not sure I would have done back in Manhattan.
And then there is 9/12, which also led to my re-envisioning as a writer. 9/12 is the world our children have inherited, and are shaped by: war, terror, counter-terrorism, Islamophobia, fear, immigration panic, security—and now gun violence. Soon after we moved here, a novel tore out of me, about the crackdown on undocumented immigrants, which became my first YA novel.
My writing life, on a gray and quiet pause button, suddenly hit forward. I learned within 2 weeks that I had sold Ask Me No Questions, was contracted for another novel, offered a teaching job in creative writing at William Paterson. And I was pregnant with my second son, Rafi. And we needed a second car! I think of that as the moment of twos: 2 books, 2 cars, 2 children. Life sped on, layered, stressful to the point of bursting.
The community we so impetuously moved to a year after 9/11—Maplewood—has proved to be a nurturing bath for that newly re-formed writer self. It is where I have raised my children; it is where we weathered illness and loss here, the deaths of two mothers, our house now filled to bursting with all we’ve inherited.
And somehow, amidst the hub bub of family life, I carved out my writing, some out of the anguish and concern and puzzlement at the times we are living through. Some motivated by just the drive toward curiosity or shadow pockets of history or personal obsession. Living in a house means there are that many more corners to stack up research books and novels. I often think our house is one great heaving ship taking in more book cargo, while chucking out others to create better ballast, so we don’t capsize and drown in print.
Sixteen years ago we decamped, we rebuilt, and re-envisioned. Nearly every day I wake up to this street of porched houses, and children scattering toward school, commuters racing for the midtown direct train. From my desk, just beyond the trees, I glimpse the rooftop of novelist Pamela Erens‘ house, the 2017 award recipient. It gives me quiet comfort to know she too is facing the page, so nearby. And solace too for a community that so values art and words and expression, even in the face of our worst darkness. This is my 9/12. This is how we begin.