My mother, who was not a sentimental person, saved three things from my childhood. One is a letter on lined yellow paper, instructing her on how to wake me in the morning. (Murmur, don’t yell — that was the message.) The other two are maps of invented towns, both with “swimming holes,” candy stores, and other places I deemed crucial. These maps mark the beginning of my life as a writer. Drawing them was a way for me to imagine a physical space, the stores and amenities that made up a perfect town, and the people who lived there, a whole community, swimming, carefully crossing the RR tracks, walking their dogs.
As a kid, I spent many hours alone in my room, drawing maps, sculpting figures from clay, inventing an alphabet for a secret language. If a friend came over to play I’d eagerly go out, especially if there were street games, like kickball and bombardment. Otherwise, I was happy to be by myself.
These maps remind me that in so many ways, I’m still that child who spends hours alone in her room, imagining people and places, and also loves to play outdoors. They are also evidence of something else that defines my nature: I have what some people call spatial dyslexia. Though I have a heightened visual imagination, I cannot mentally map spatial relationships. I can work for years in a building and not know whether to turn left or right to get to the restroom, have gotten lost in my neighborhood and in the park where I’ve run for twenty-seven years.
Though I don’t draw maps anymore, I’m still obsessed with them, ask to be the navigator on car trips, and then get lost looking at the names of the towns and cities on paper maps, wondering who lives there, tracing where rivers start and empty, and what defines the borders of municipalities or states.
My two daughters are just the opposite. They’re both like homing pigeons, with internal compasses, and always know where they are. My older daughter, Charlotte, a filmmaker, has an amazing spatial sense. My younger daughter, Rachel, has intellectual disabilities and low vision, can’t name left and right, and yet has rescued me many times when I get lost while driving. She just taps on the window or points and says, “This way, Ma.”
I can’t recall how old I was when I was a mapmaker or when I turned to stories with only words, only that by the time I was an undergraduate at NYU, I’d begun to define myself as a writer and rushed through school to finish a half year early, determined to write a novel. I finished that manuscript and a second one, found no takers for either, and then, at twenty-five, signed up for a creative writing workshop and for the first time had readers and a community of other writers. My third novel, Departures, was published two years after I got my MFA at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
My foray into screenwriting came about because as an undergraduate, several of my friends were in film school at NYU. I took film history courses and watched hundreds of movies with them. After Departures was published, I cowrote a few screenplays, one of which was turned into a movie called Seven Minutes in Heaven, starring a young Jennifer Connelly. I turned this story into a young adult novel, too. During this period, my screenwriting partner and I worked as talent scouts for a friend who charged us with finding the new James Dean for a film in preproduction. Some would say we succeeded: while scouring the halls of middle schools, we found Matt Dillon cutting classes at the Hommocks School in Mamaroneck, New York, where he was a seventh grader. He debuted in Over the Edge, became a teen idol, and later won an Oscar for his role in Crash.
Maybe I would have continued on that way, writing fiction and screenplays, if not for the birth of my second daughter. When she was just six weeks old, she was diagnosed with a complicated disorder, an “accident in development” that resulted in a number of disabilities. I never intended to write about her or our family after her birth, but my agent asked if I’d consider writing a “nonfiction book” – memoir wasn’t yet the rage – about my experience. Initially I said no. I didn’t know how to write true stories. Eventually, though, I did write the book that became Loving Rachel by creating the illusion that I was writing a work of fiction, distancing myself from the characters called “Jane” and “Paul,” and letting their story play out in scenes. When the manuscript was in galleys, I gave it to two major “characters,” my husband and a physician, to see if I’d made any errors. Neither suggested changes. This experience enabled me to write Bereft – a Sister’s Story, a memoir about my sister’s murder and its aftereffects, and later, a very different “Rachel” book, Rachel in the World, about trying to help find a place for my daughter outside our home.
I’ve been the recipient of a number of grants and awards, including two National Endowment Fellowships in Creative Writing, three state grants in fiction and media arts, and a Fulbright Fellowship. My work has been translated into German, Dutch and Japanese and published in the UK.
I’m done with memoir, but I enjoy writing essays. These pieces have been published in such places as Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Saturday Evening Post and the New York Times Magazine. A recent essay, “Still Running,” originally in The Sun, was chosen for Best American Sports Writing 2018. I start an essay when I find myself gnawing on a problem or issue or when a subject demands to be explored. This summer, I took a break from a novel in progress and wrote an essay about the George Washington Bridge. First I thought it was just an ode to the bridge, but as the essay took shape, I began to see it was also a way to explore the question: what makes a particular place feel like home?
For me, New York City feels most like home. (I was born in Brooklyn.) Maine, where I have a cottage, is a second home. Pittsburgh is my permanent address. I’m a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and have been a member of the Creative Writing Program since 1991.
All three of these places have shown up in my essays, memoir, and fiction. But for me, fiction is not veiled autobiography. The characters and story in The Face Tells the Secret are completely different from the people in my life. The themes, though, are mine.
I’m thrilled that Regal House will publish The Face Tells the Secret in 2019.