A few weeks ago, the wonderful shereads.org site asked me to write about Cascade, but to write about something “true.” I wrote down a story that readers at my events always love to hear:
Way back when Cascade was a short story idea—an idea about artists in New York in the 1930s—the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum put me in touch with a few people who had painted for Roosevelt’s “New Deal” art projects during the Depression. I was interested in the fact that the government, for the first time, had said, 1, that putting artists to work was just as important as putting bridge builders to work, and 2, that art was for everyone.
One of the artists, James Lechay, lived down on Cape Cod. I arranged to interview him one summer Saturday, and although I was looking forward to it, I dreaded the five-hour round-trip trek. My plan was to zip down as fast as I could, interview him, then zip home in time for my evening plans.
But when I arrived in Wellfleet, the loveliest man was eagerly awaiting my arrival. Indeed, he had planned his whole day around it.
James Lechay was 91, and he would live only another three years, but nothing about him seemed particularly old. Even his house was cool and edgy—gunmetal gray, with modern lines and a flat roof, built to his specifications years earlier. He himself was tall, elegant, with soft white hair that fell to his shoulders. Inside, the house was serene and spare. A wall of glass overlooked pine thickets and the distant sea; his semi-abstract paintings lined other walls.
I saw that he’d set the table. He’d made us lunch. He had wine.
No, I didn’t zip anywhere that day. Instead, I spent a long and precious afternoon talking about New York in the thirties, and painting, and about the drive to create that never gets quite satisfied and which never goes away. In fact, I later read that he painted right up until a few days before his death.
My interview with him and two other artists turned into an article for an arts magazine, not a short story. But years later, I incorporated much of that research into Cascade. Some of James Lechay’s spirit inspired the character of Dez, and he completely inspired the novel’s last line.
The nicest true thing? Last year, when Cascade was in production, my husband and daughter gave me one of his paintings, the above “Barrels on the Beach,” for Christmas.
Outside, the day was grim and overcast, a few stray snowflakes starting to drift down from the sky. It was the kind of day that would turn to night without fanfare, with a gradual extinguishing of light, the kind of day that pierced you with melancholy and reminded you it was only December, that a whole winter had still to be gotten through.
Writer David Abrams runs a great blog called The Quivering Pen (Zola!). He’s extremely supportive to other writers and back in July, featured Cascade‘s book trailer in his Trailer Park Tuesday column.
He also runs a My First Time series, where he asks writers to talk about their first writing-related anything–first rejection, first acceptance, first success, failure. I’d wanted to do one for a while, but I’d also had so many writing firsts that it was hard to choose.
I could write about my first rejection letter, which was also a handwritten one from the New Yorker, and how at my fiction workshop, we passed it around like a pie we all wanted to bite from. I could write about my first acceptance–from Redbook magazine, back when Dawn Raffel was the editor and they still published serious fiction. There was even a big check involved (a first AND last). First surprise rejection: the time the Missouri Review asked for two rounds of edits, then said, um, sorry, no. First crushing disappointment: The New Yorker editor who left me a voice mail asking me to call, and when I did, heart batting against my chest, had this to say: “I just want you to know I fought for this story.” Then she quit the magazine.
As an editor at Ploughshares, I had many painful firsts. It’s never pleasant to reject someone’s effort, and particularly hard to reject an almost-right story, or a famous person, or an editor that published you. The best parts of that job were always discovering a wonderful surprise by a new writer, and then seeing that story end up in BASS or Pushcart.
So many firsts. How to choose? Well, it turned out to be easy, in the end. I received my first copy of Cascade from Viking, solid and real. A book with an ISBN number, a book that is catalogued at the Library of Congress. I experienced my first, joyous, book event and that my friends, is My First Time.
I was honored when Julianne Douglas asked to review Cascade for her beautiful book blog, Writing the Renaissance, and then when she asked me to write a brief guest post.
So much fascinating research went into the writing of Cascade that I had a hard time choosing a topic, but finally decided on “Why the 1930s?”
What really stands out for me about the 1930s and now, aside from all this “magic” we’ve learned to live with as if it is our birthright: not much else is really all that different.
Here are my thoughts on “Why the 1930s:” link
Wow, so it’s publication day. WOW! Today I do an interview for Boston Public Radio, WBUR Radio Boston with Anthony Brooks, then I’m going to go do my volunteering at the Brigham so I don’t have to obsess about me, me, me.
I want to thank everyone who has been so supportive: everyone who pre-ordered the book, who will come to events, who will spread the word, and who will write nice Amazon and Goodreads reviews before the cranky, mean, crackpots do.
I feel so fortunate and grateful today. Writing a book is lonely and an act of faith, and the response I’ve had from so many of you has made me extremely happy to be a creative human being alive on this lovely and magical earth we all inhabit.
And for anyone who is doing that uncertain thing—writing a novel with no real knowledge that anyone will ever read it—let me tell you: there is NOTHING BETTER than hearing this song while you are in New York meeting your publisher. So keep at it. xxx
See that middle stack there there on my bookshelf? That slim pile of magazines, journals, and anthologies contains the sum total of my various publications over the years. Every time I published a new piece, I added it to the stack with a sense of satisfaction. It was a slow-growing pile, but it was growing, and I gave it good company by shelving many of my favorite books around it.
That bookcase is adjacent to a fireplace, in front of which my laptop and I spent many wintry hours, struggling with the writing of a novel I wasn’t even sure, for a long time, that I wanted to write. See, the thing about writing short stories is this: there’s always hope in the mailbox. Even if you take your time with a story, like I do, you finish it, you send it out, someone accepts it, you look forward to seeing it in print, and you get on to something new. But by the time I realized I was deep into Cascade, deep into writing in a form I was unsure of, I’d published all the stories I’d written, and I knew it was going to be a long time before my stack saw anything new.
I could write a long post that only other writers might want to read, about the angst and joy of writing Cascade, and about the self-doubt that tried to weld itself onto a slender wire of underlying faith, but it will suffice to skip to #TheEnd:
Last week, I got my first printed copy of Cascade from Penguin. The finished jacket is more beautiful than I’d even imagined, with soft raised lettering and inside flaps that are a surprising and pleasing bright green. My initials are stamped into the front of the hardcover binding: MOH. Cascade is permanent and real, with a copyright page and a Library of Congress number.
When I get my other copies from Penguin, I will add one to the horizontal stack, but for now, I can’t resist setting this first one apart, shelved like any book, upright and ready to be read.
Coming up to my August book launch, my excitement is starting to give way to nerves. It’s funny how a year ago, when Viking bought my novel, I was thrilled. I was sincerely just happy to know that it would be bound, that it would have an ISBN number, that the Library of Congress would mark its existence.
But now, of course, I want people to read it. And to read it, they must buy it, and find it. But the reality of bookselling is that there are fewer real stores, fewer shelves, fewer chances of a new novel finding its way in front of the eyes of people who might want to read it.
I’ve told myself I’m up for the task of finding a readership. I will maintain an online presence, build an author platform, reach out to book clubs.
But sometimes life gets discouraging, as we all know. Last night I woke at 2am to the sound of my daughter’s coughing. She has CF and it’s been a lifelong up and down health issue, but one we are accustomed to and one we deal with in a positive manner. It’s always a shadow though, especially in the middle of the night, and then once awake, all I could do was consume myself with how many interesting-sounding, good-looking books are out there for sale. I imagined my book sinking into a tangle of late summer overgrowth. Finally I willed myself to stop, be positive, and go back to sleep.
This morning, the first thing I saw online was Teddy Roosevelt’s diary page on the morning of his wife’s death–so simple, so stark:
The light has gone out of my life.
I was instantly filled with gratitude for the universe that had sent what seemed like a sign: Fool, rejoice at what you have! The words that matter most are not the words in my book, not really. Didn’t I just write a post about how that book is out in the world and out of my hands?
The words that matter most are “you have your daughter, your husband, your family, your friends.” My husband and I experienced early loss: his beloved brother at 29, my father at 59, so we are perhaps extra thankful, aware that we are all so transient.
“Yes,” the universe then confirmed, “and now here is Nora Ephron’s eulogy in the New York Times for you to read and tear up at.”
I have always felt a silly but real connection to Nora because we shared a May 19 birthday. After choking up at the grief still so palpable on TR’s diary page, my eyes completely spilled over at Charles McGrath’s pitch-perfect eulogy to the woman who could make you smile and cry at once.
Nora Ephron’s writing was of a kind I admire most—the kind that touches at everything that is human and best in us. This ‘last list’ of hers is a list of ‘words that matter most.’ I hope she had pie at the end.
Nora Ephron: What I Will and Won’t Miss