Friday, May 19, 2017


 Over 30 years ago, I was working as an international flight attendant for TWA. I was also attending graduate school at NYU, getting my MA in American literature. But most importantly, I was writing my first novel. To be fair,  for many years as I worked as a flight attendant I wrote in longhand a novel which I threw in a dumpster on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village in 1982. I never finished that book, mostly because when I reread it I realized how terrible it was. For new writers this is an important lesson.  If you are anything like me, lacking in formal training on how to write, and therefore a total autodidact, you need that practice manuscript. The one where you make every mistake beginning writers need to make: thinly  veiled real life, imitative of writers  you admire, uneven prose, mistakes in plot – – if you even have a plot – – and characters and, well, in just about everything. I never finished that first  disastrous novel. But I might have. Instead the inner critic and editor in me recognized it for what it was, a bold and risky attempt to tell a story. I suppose that's what all fiction is. In nonfiction, which as you know I write a lot of, you already know your story and your job is how to distill it,  what to omit, how to organize the truth. When you write a novel however, you start with just that blank page and your enormous imagination. Lucky for me that imagination began forming stories when I was just eight years old. I would sit in my classroom and stare out the window and make up characters and stories. What if a little girl found an abandoned carousel that began to whirl when she got on it and brought her back in time? (that was in fact the first short story I wrote!) Here's a little aside:  my darling husband had a similar experience, beginning in fifth grade. As you know from my blog posts and the New York Times Vows section that I posted the link For here, our connections run deep. This early desire to become a writer is one of our greatest bonds.  His reasons for turning to predominately nonfiction writing are interesting ones, but he has the soul of a fiction writer too. And it is one of the things I cannot wait to see him do more of. OK. Enough digression. After that first novel, the Betrayal of Sam Pepper, landed in that dumpster on  Sullivan Street, I went right back upstairs to my tiny apartment, put a blank piece of paper into the typewriter, and wrote these words: to sparrow, her father was a man standing in front of a lime green Volkswagen van in 1969. That sentence remains as the first sentence to my first novel, somewhere off The coast of Maine.

 I knew nothing about writing books, publishing books, getting agents, or finding an editor. I just sat on those airplanes flying over the Atlantic at 35,000 feet and wrote my heart out. Oh! New writers out there! If I had one piece of advice to give you that would be it: write your heart out. Eliminate all of the noise of publishing and editors and agents and the literary world. Just write your heart out! That is what I did over the course of two years. And then one day my wonderful boyfriend asked to read whatever it was I typed and scribbled all the time. Hesitantly I gave it to him, because he was a huge and smart reader. I gave it to him and I fled my little apartment, this one on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. Why did I flee? Sheer terror.  Although I wrote poems and short stories and yes novels or attempts at novels ever since third grade, I really did not show my writing to anyone. Or at least not to anyone who really mattered to me. This was a guy I loved  like crazy and if he thought my effort was pathetic or week or futile I honestly don't know what I would have done. But alas, he did not think it was any of those things. Instead he looked at me and told me that he thought it was really good. And that I should go over to NYU, which was kind of around the corner, and show it to someone who taught writing there.

To make an eternal story short, I did that and had the great pleasure of studying with EL Doctorow,  Who did not read our stories but instead had us read many many novels that he then talked about from a writer's point of view.  Excited and engaged by this new literary world I had stuck my toes into, I took a workshop with a man named William Decker, who had been a senior editor at Viking and had edited the likes of Katharine Anne Porter, Hemingway, and Zane Grey. Bill Decker did read our stories and brought to them the cool critical editor's eye that I so desperately wanted and needed. It was Bill Decker who invited me to his apartment one afternoon, looking over Washington Square Park, and said the words I'd dreamed of since I was eight years old: you've got it. You're a writer. With those words I felt my cells actually fall into place. And when he recommended me to go to the bread loaf writers conference  in Vermont that summer he gave me a ticket into the world I had dreamed of since I was a little girl. That summer changed my life of course. I worked with Nicholas Delbanco,  who gave  me encouragement and suggestions that propelled me to turn the interconnected short stories I was writing into the novel that would become somewhere off the coast of Maine. From that two weeks on that mountain in Vermont, I landed an agent and very quickly a book contract. It took me a couple of years to finish that novel, teaching myself how to do it as I wrote.

In 1986, TWA went on strike and all of the flight attendants were euphemistically replaced.  I found myself, a year from the book's publication date, suddenly a full-time writer. One of the best lessons my parents taught me was to never become a victim. We are a pull yourself up by your bootstraps family, and no matter what comes our way – – and readers here kniw all of the things that have come our way – – you do not Give into them. You grieve. You cry. And you move forward, stronger than ever.  So with my mortgage due and no job in sight, I wrote my first short story that got published in mademoiselle magazine, and my first essay that was published in the Washington Post style section. And then I started a second novel, even before the first had been published.  In a matter of weeks I was a full-time writer.

 On May 21, 1987 somewhere off the coast of Maine was published. It became an international bestseller, and launched my career as a writer, a career which has had its ups and downs but never let me down. Many people think that the knitting circle was my first novel, probably because there were so many years  in between it and the one before it. Those were the years when my Gracie died and I was struggling to save myself and my family. But now you know in case you didn't before you read this, that my first novel came out 30 years ago this month. And that little book, that little gift of love, has never gone out of print. It has had four different covers in the United States, been published in more countries than I can count, and still gets me royalties every year. I admit sometimes the royalties are as little as $.80, but sometimes they are in the thousands still. A joy which has not diminished. Nor has seeing it on library, bookstore, and home bookshelves.

 I am asking everyone to join me in celebrating that gift of somewhere off the coast of Maine this month. If you haven't read it yet, please go to your favorite bookstore and get a copy. I would love for it to have a little burst of life on its anniversary.

write your heart out!