Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Scary Thing About Writing

Dr. Ransom Tucker at Gifford Hospital, probably in the late 1940s.

It is an unsettling experience—humbling, even scary—to have your book read by the people who have inspired it, but this is unavoidable when you write the kind of books I do. I don’t fictionalize my stories; I tell the truth, as I see it. It’s the “as I see it” part that can be the sticking point. I am fortunate that my husband, who provides much of the entertainment in both Our House in Arusha and its sequel An Irruption of Owls, has so far made no objection to how I see him, even when I make fun of his accent (which I really shouldn’t do, as my French accent is way more comical than his American one). When I wrote Owls, I sent two crucial chapters to my son Thomas, now living in New Zealand, to make sure he was okay with them. I mailed off the pages ($25 flat rate) and waited. And waited. He hates them, I thought to myself. I’ve alienated him for life. I’ll have to buy a plane ticket to New Zealand, $2,000+ roundtrip, but worth every penny if it will allow me to repair the damage. Not sure, mind you, what I might have said that would cause distress, but you never know with kids. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that he drove his car off the road. But he did drive his car off the road, and it gave me one of the worst frights of my life. But I digress. When he finally called from New Zealand—weeks later!—he said that one of the chapters in particular “brought a tear to my eye.” (The right kind of tear. The other chapter got a passing grade.) My mother, another character in the same book, is no longer here to defend herself (much easier to write about the deceased than the living), but she comes off rather well, I think. Another “character” in Owls is my hometown of Randolph. Now, everyone who ever lived in Randolph has his or her own memories and impressions of that place, and they are obviously different from mine. One of the gratifying responses to the book so far has been the many people who say they remember my parents, particularly my father, who died when I was only seventeen. He was for many years the town’s only obstetrician during the postwar baby boom (talk about a demanding job), and I run into people all the time who remember him as the doctor who delivered every family member of their generation, or their children’s generation. In a private forum on Facebook where Randolph homies gather, the comments about my dad in response to the new book have been worth all the effort of writing it. My neighbors may agree or disagree with the way I portray their hometown. Either way, I hope they will continue to share their responses to the book, whether on Facebook, or here on my blog, or at the fish counter in the local supermarket. To be able to get a conversation going is a writer’s dream come true.

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