It’s strange how writing finds one. I grew up in a small northern Michigan town on Lake Huron, not far from where the young Ernest Hemingway spent summers and an occasional winter. Closer to my own time, a girl named Alice Munro was growing up in the Province of Ontario, Canada, across the big lake. Both were to become literary icons of mine though this might have been hard to predict. There were few books in my house—at first. Still, there were stories. My mother, father, and I lived with my maternal grandfather, and on Sunday evenings and holidays, relatives would “visit,” which meant telling stories, often in Polish. Many of these were wildly humorous, judging by the whoops of laughter. My mother had her own stories to tell, applying Polish proverbs which lost their zing when translated into English. In time, I acquired stacks of comic books, dime-store novels with glossy covers, and best of all, library books.
The town library, housed in the Art Deco-style public high school, was an elegant room of cream-colored walls, dark wood shelving, and sconce-lighted alcoves. I don’t recall how I first found my way there; it was quite far from my own high school on the other side of town. But I do remember its aesthetic appeal and air of purposeful quiet giving it a churchy, significant aspect. Those plot-driven, dime-store novels were enthralling, but library books led to a deeper place in the heart. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea affected me profoundly. So did Jack London’s short stories. And too, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. There are forces in life, those works showed me. Often overwhelming forces. And yet we humans can meet them with nobility. Of course, at sixteen or seventeen, I wasn’t thinking in those concepts. The sensation was rather one of vague understanding enveloped in awe. It was then that I began writing fictional sketches for my high school newspaper—a few in a Jack London vein. I’m sure my classmates were thrilled. Nonetheless, the desire to write had set forth its first tiny roots.
But except for a few contributions to my college’s literary journal and a story that somehow won an Honorable Mention in an Atlantic Monthly contest, those roots lay dormant during my years at Aquinas College downstate and then at the University of Michigan. My mother and father had lived in Detroit during the Great Depression and later told me stories about seeing out-of-work men selling apples for nickels on street corners. The message was clear. Focus! I had a scholarship and then a fellowship to maintain, as well as a job to find, and so, focused.
The MA in Literature led to college teaching positions in Michigan, England, and Pennsylvania—mainly several sections of Freshman composition each semester, with one literature course almost as a reward. Eventually hungry for something more, I entered the PhD program in English at the State University of New York at Binghamton (now Binghamton University) an hour’s drive north of where my husband and I were living in Pennsylvania.
Soon, it seems in retrospect, we were living in Honolulu, where I was an Assistant Professor at the University of Hawaii’s West Oahu College, after a one-year visiting position on the Big Island. This was wonderful, of course, but here is where things become a bit mysterious. First, let me add that my hometown prided itself on sitting astride, nearly, the 45th Parallel. A sign along the highway south of town proclaimed: “The 45th Parallel Halfway Between the Equator and the North Pole.” But now there I was, somewhere just below the line of latitude called the Tropic of Cancer, on an island far out in the Pacific, and living in a hillside neighborhood overlooking the glitter of Honolulu, and . . . taking out a yellow pad and some pencils and beginning a short story about wildfires in northeastern Michigan. Remembering, of course, stories I’d heard as a child. It was the strangest sensation. Trade winds blowing in through screens, the patter of rain on tropical foliage, yet I was some six thousand miles to the northeast and a century away in time. Chills came as scenes and characters leapt to life on that yellow pad.
And as if that weren’t enough, one day around that time, a friend of ours showed us an article he’d just come across, about a prominent author teaching creative writing at SUNY-Binghamton. “Isn’t that where you went to school?” he asked. Yes, and what’s more, I was using one of this author’s novels for a class.
A butterfly changes course. A breath of wind tilts in some new direction. Events cascade into a shifting pattern of causality. In time I was sitting across from John Gardner, a writer then at the forefront of contemporary American literature. His desk was mounded with student papers and books. He was reading the fire story I’d begun in Hawaii.
What followed were three years of auditing John Gardner’s graduate seminars, an apprenticeship during which I learned that all writing is rewriting; learned to trust the process; have patience. Be the servant of the work. When Gardner died on a brilliant September morning in a motorcycle accident on a curving rural road, his students were bowled over by grief. I vowed to keep writing. It seemed the only thing to do.
Since then, I’ve published several works of fiction: The Importance of High Places: Stories and a Novella; A Soldier’s Book, which was a Finalist for the 2007 Michael Shaara Award for Civil War Fiction; Dead Center; Waiting for the Queen; and The Anarchist. Stories and essays have appeared in various literary magazines as well as in trade publications and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, American Fiction, Love in Bloom, and The Available Press/P.E.N. Short Story Collection. Two plays earned recognition, and one was produced. Along the way, I was further encouraged by awards from the Pennsylvania State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
My husband and I live in upstate New York now. We have two grown children and, currently, three rescue kitties.
In the Fall They Leave: A Novel of the First World War, is forthcoming from Regal House in 2023. I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of the RHP family.