First Chill, Then Stupor: A Rough Draft of Anorexia in Multiple Parts

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The author’s student registration card, back in the day.

“But she’s not afraid to die,

The  people all call her Alaska…”

               –The Velvet Underground

Part One.

I have had a long history with eating disorders, starting at age fourteen. Even writing that simple, declarative statement and knowing that it could be read by others makes the words threaten to dry up, but the trope of deprivation and starvation that has run through both my novels makes me realize that this is a subject I need to pin down (and maybe exorcize?) once and for all.

In particular, I want to write about one prolonged moment when things were possibly at their worst, among years of so many ‘worsts’: a long-ago time I went away to a college in Staten Island, New York and was forced to return to Maine just one semester later. It isn’t a pretty story, and there isn’t much in the way of resolution to be offered here—but if the story speaks, in some fragmentary way, to anyone who has lived it, then maybe it is worth telling after all.

I grew up with blue-collar parents who had made it clear to me at an early age that they couldn’t afford to pay for college, which (coupled with my natural depressive state and lack of interest in anything except reading strange novels and watching old movies and pilfering old jazz records from my mother’s collection and filling my notebooks with the sort of furious, intense writing that only the most furious and intense of teenage girls can write) may have contributed to a subpar high school performance. What incentive did I have, really, to do any better? But after taking a year off after graduation to work as Rite-Aid cashier, I decided that maybe I did want to go to college, after all. It was late in the spring when I decided this, thereby limiting my options—most application deadlines are in January or February— so I went through the stack of college catalogues and brochures I’d received the year before, seeking out the ones that had rolling admissions and inviting photographs: a precious, naïve approach that led me to College X.

College X was located at the top of a great hill on Staten Island, a campus with meticulous landscaping and stately buildings and an arts program that I assumed would be welcoming. I am ashamed to say that, in my utter innocence, I thought in those days that Staten Island was a scenic suburb of New York, filled with quaint charm; I had Edna St. Vincent Millay-like visions of being young and merry and going back and forth all night on the ferry with a group of serious, likeminded fellow students.

What I got instead, upon my blind arrival, was something quite different. In my dormitory I was surrounded by girls with big, honking voices and brassy personalities—girls more concerned with teasing their hair and applying their makeup (the better to pass for legal drinking age when they attempted to sneak into those Manhattan nightclubs, on the weekends) than discussing great works of literature or listening to old records or doing any of the other things I liked to do. I knew at once that there wasn’t a kindred soul to be found. (The other girls knew it, too. I was sure I could see dislike for me in their eyes.) The boys seemed mostly interested in sports and in getting hammered—in other words, typical boys, not the charming, clever eccentrics I’d hoped to meet. (In retrospect I think I was a terrible snob; I know now that these brassy girls and these ‘typical’ boys maybe could have offered me something, and I could have offered them something in kind. But I didn’t know it at the time. It wasn’t until many years later, after I had come to value myself a bit more, that I understood the larger value of people—all people.)

The problem was more complicated than disconnection or disillusionment or disappointment, of course. I had brought my own problems, my own history to college with me: some half-assed suicide attempts in high school, and years of largely untreated anorexia and bulimia that made me eligible for a ‘suicide single’—a dorm room that I didn’t have to share with anyone else, thank God. Instead of a roommate, I had an omnipresent wind rattling at my windows, winds that blew fiercely enough to keep me awake at night; and when I think of being in that dorm room now I think of great coldness, of hands too stiff to write, of wearing four sweaters, a bathrobe, and wrapping myself in a comforter while still shivering. I had never been so cold anywhere in my life and would never know that exact kind of coldness again.

Without meaning to be at all immodest, there was a silver lining: I turned out to be kind of a dazzling student during my first and only semester at College X. I was dazzling in a way that I had never been during my public education. I literally memorized my textbooks, summarizing and paraphrasing their entirety into notebooks that grew as long as the books themselves. When I sat in my classes, I locked eyes with the professor as though he (it was usually he) held the secrets of the universe and might reveal these to me and me alone. My life quite literally depended on my classes and on earning the respect of my professors; accordingly, when not in the classroom, all the life went out of me as though a switch had been pulled. When not in the classroom, I had nothing to do but study, write long, manic letters to my parents, and write exhaustive lists of the foods I most missed eating—lists that might look something like this:

 

Baked beans with hot dogs

Shepherd’s pie

Homemade ravioli

Cheeseburger with bacon and skin-on French fries

Fried bologna with mashed potatoes

Carrot-walnut cake with cream cheese frosting

Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries…

I was very hungry, you see. I had a hunger that most people are fortunate enough never to know, and so when I wasn’t memorizing my textbooks I was thinking about food, caressing it in my mind,  offering daily devotions to it.

When I first came to College X, my weight was already well below the triple digits, and though I had no scale, my clothes grew looser and looser from day to day, to the point where I had to tie a piece of rope tightly around the waists of my skirts so they wouldn’t fall down—an ad hoc Ellie Mae Clampitt belt. Ironically, though, there was a constant presence of food in my dormitory: the smell of someone’s takeout pizza wafting down the hall in my room, the loud voices of the girls next door arguing about what kinds of Chinese food to order—and the warring impulses of self-control and denial and brute, base hunger began to drive me half-mad. The girls in my dorm had hearty appetites and ‘eyes that were bigger than their stomachs,’ as the old saying goes; too many times I had espied their boxes of half-eaten bakery cannoli and picked-over Popeye’s chicken resting at the top of the communal trash cans that were stashed away on each floor. Knowing that food was there, uneaten, eventually became too much to bear.

I reached a point of desperation where I used to sneak out of my room and night, barefoot and wearing only a nightgown with a winter coat over it and holding a large plastic bag that I brought with me on such missions, once I was sure everyone else was asleep. I rode the elevator and stopped at all fifteen floors to look at what was at the top of the trash, collecting the most tempting items to bring back to my room: an entire pint of fried rice, in one instance, and a half a dozen doughnuts (only a little stale) in another. Once I had filled my bag, I’d go back to my room, lay out my bounty on napkins spread on the floor, and begin to chew and savor each item before carefully spitting it into my metal trash can. Sometimes the temptation to swallow the food was too great, and at those times I would throw up in my garbage, later sneaking it out to be emptied into the toilet. I had learned this technique through trial and error over the past five years; throwing up directly into a public toilet is too dicey—too many pairs of girls coming in and out, pausing too long at the sinks to gab at one another and critique their own reflections in the mirror.

In terms of what I ate, it started with salads. Afraid to eat and terrified to be seen eating, I had developed a strategy for avoiding complete starvation: Armed with an empty margarine tub hidden in an oversized purse, I would descend the stairs of the campus cafeteria and approach the salad bar. I would fill a small wooden bowl with lettuce, cucumber, celery, take my tray to an isolated corner, and—when no one was looking—dump the contents into my margarine tub and depart, saving the salad to eat later in the privacy of my room. This once-a-day meal was the only food I ate during my first couple of months at College X.  Around the second month, one of the cafeteria ladies caught me ‘dumping’ my salad and snapped, “You can’t take food out of here.” Ashamed, apologetic, and near tears, I exited the cafeteria, though I remember having to stop and rest at the top of the stairs, clinging to the handrail; at that point I was already quite weak.

I wondered how I would be able to eat at all, now that I couldn’t smuggle my salad out.  Perhaps I could go into ‘the city,’ as all the girls called it, and buy my own lettuce in a grocery store. After all, hadn’t the brochure for College X promised ‘a campus just minutes from bustling Manhattan’? But I never left the island. I had heard tales of a city bus at the bottom of the hill that would take you to the ferry, but I was afraid that I would get off at the wrong stop or that the bus wouldn’t be the right bus or that I wouldn’t know what to do once I got to the ferry itself. Luckily, through the power of eavesdropping, I learned that a shuttle bus made free trips directly from campus to the Staten Island mall every Saturday, and it was there, at one of the drugstores, that I began to buy my weekly replacement food: packets of Cup-o-Soup (eighty calories apiece) that I could heat on a contraband hot pot kept in my room. Problem solved.

It wasn’t solved, though. Not by a long shot. The shame of my condition and the secrecy of my nighttime activities made me even more withdrawn, if possible. I began to be almost phobic about being seen in the halls, creeping out of my room only when I was sure I wouldn’t run into any of my floor mates. The girls on my floor had an unnerving, sociable tendency to keep their doors wide open, so sometimes I would leave for morning classes three hours early in order to avoid walking past them. I didn’t like the way people were beginning to look at me—the looks I was getting, the fear and revulsion that I thought I saw in people’s eyes.  Of course, I could camouflage my dwindling frame pretty well with large sweaters and voluminous skirts, and I have always the kind of facial structure—somewhere between round and square, with wide-set cheekbones—that never really grows thin, making it possible for someone looking above the neck to notice nothing amiss. Still, most were beginning to see that something was wrong. And apart from one sorority girl who cornered me in an elevator to effuse, “Oh my God, you’re so thin! It’s awesome!”, no one ever spoke of it to me. Not even the adults on campus seemed terribly worried about it. I had begun to see a couple of counselors on campus, but I was always a little too smart and too savvy for therapy, presenting myself in such a way that I charmed my therapists and made them think everything was hunky dory; one of them, a male doctor well past his prime, smiled indulgently and told me that a girl like me was enough to make him wish he were a young man again.

But in due time, even stealth and cunning couldn’t hide the severity of my condition. The real problem, I think, started with my blood circulation. After sitting in class for more than half an hour, I would completely lose circulation below the knees; by the end of two hours, when it was time to pack up my books and leave, my legs were so far gone that they would not support my weight, and there were several times when, attempting to pull myself into a standing position, my legs gave out under me and I fell down. To the onlookers—including my professors– I would laugh this off to clumsiness, fatigue—anything. The pins-and-needles feeling eventually gave way to stabbing, chronic pain in my lower legs. The pain became so severe that there were times when I couldn’t walk at all, and I remember some instances of walking to classes hugging the walls so that I wouldn’t fall down. One time, near the end of my term at College X,  my legs cramped up so badly leaving the mailroom that I had to crawl on my hands and knees all the way back to my dorm. “Are you okay?” one fellow—an upperclassman, by the looks of it—said in a tone that conveyed alarm but also indicated that he hoped I wouldn’t ask for help. “I’m okay,” I called back, crawling along, the autumn leaves and spare twigs of (certain trees) crunching under my hands and my feet, wincing as my knees would occasionally hit a stone.

(To this day, I don’t know exactly what medical condition was causing this pain in my legs, but I am sure that it had something to do with malnutrition, and I occasionally still experience vestiges of this pain—occasional shin-twinges that remind me of what used to be.)

The author today.
The author today.

Walking wasn’t the only thing that was difficult. With increased weight loss, every surface my body came in contact with hurt—chairs stabbed at me, my mattress was too hard. I began to carry a soft coat to classes so that I could sit on it like a pillow, but the chair still caused excruciating pain. I found that I began to go in and out of consciousness easily, without knowing how it happened or remembering when it started: I would wake up in strange places, on my cold dormitory floor face-down and another time on a remote section of campus, just after the first snow. My teeth, bereft of nutrients and already vulnerable from stomach acids,  hurt at all times. Toward the end of my stay I began to feel a frequent, painful urge to urinate, but when I sat down on the toilet, only a drop would come out. Embarrassed to be locked away in a bathroom stall most of the day and too weak to keep walking up and down the hall to the ladies’ room, I eventually hid an empty two-liter bottle of soda in my room and spent a great deal of time trying to pee in that.

And I wondered why no one wanted to be friends with me.

The worst of it were the odd flutters of the heart—the times when it seemed my heartbeat would stop for too many seconds, as though deciding what to do next—and the hallucinations that came toward the very end. I remember many nights laying there in bed, listening to the wind and still convulsing from the cold despite layers of clothing and blankets, my legs so swollen and pained that I could not move them. Sometimes, just underneath the voice of the wind, I thought I heard the voice of God talking to me: “You disappoint me,” he said. “I have turned my back on you.” (He didn’t have a voice that I can really describe, though whenever I think of the voice of God I think of Roy Orbison, whom Bruce Springsteen described as sounding like ‘God through a foghorn.’ This voice didn’t sound like that. He sounded mean, berating. He wanted nothing to do with my foolish self-destruction, and on that score I couldn’t blame him a bit.)

*********

“Read As Though Your LIfe Depends on It, Because It Does” and Other Writerly Advice

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A new interview is up atBook Marketing Buzz Blog (contents pasted below).

http://bookmarketingbuzzblog.blogspot.com/2015/04/interview-with-author-jan-elizabeth.html

Monday, April 27, 2015

Interview With Author Jan Elizabeth Watson

1.      What inspired you to write your newest story? I have always been interested in novels set in academia as well as literary crime novels, and What Has Become of You gives the reader a bit of both. Due to a variety of  influences in my youth, most notably having four older brothers with a taste for the macabre, ,I’ve had a lifelong curiosity about the darker side of human nature and what that says about us as a larger society. I also enjoyed playing with the idea of a protagonist who over-identifies with her students and, as a result, does everything wrong.
2.      What challenges did you have in writing it? Writing about the murder of several young girls brought me to a tough place emotionally, but I had to push my way through that sense of recoil. And creating Vera, my less than perfect protagonist, required a certain amount of letting-go as well; I was tempted at times to clean her up, to make her more admirable, but I felt that keeping her flaws intact was important to the story.
3.      This thriller revolves around the murder of a young woman. Why are so many stories built around the loss of someone? Loss is our greatest fear, and it is all the more fearsome because loss is unavoidable. We all are doomed to experience it at some point—most of us more than once. And although all loss is always painful, a loss that is greatly unexpected and unjust—the death of a vibrant young person under barbaric circumstances, for example—is something that grips our national consciousness.  We idealize youth and innocence even when we know that youth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
4.      What do you find most rewarding about being a writer? For me, it’s the process itself. When the writing is going well… when the sentences start taking on a fluidity and start humming with life… when the ideas start to coalesce and I know I’m writing something that’s true to my own voice and not quite like anyone else’s… that’s when the feeling of being a writer is most intoxicating.  If the writing eventually sees the light of publication and finds its audience… well, that’s just gravy.
5.      Your book is set in New England. What is it about that area that fascinates you and your readers? Having lived most of my life in New England and coming from a long line of Mainers, this is definitely the region with which I have the most firsthand experience. Being a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander is its own funny thing. We are proud people but also inherently modest, not liking to call a lot of attention to ourselves, preferring remote observation to stepping forward (the mere act of publishing a book goes somewhat against the New England character, even though our literary tradition  extends way back). There is also a great deal of Puritanism that is still alive and well in parts of New England. A true New Englander values things like thrift and  ingenuity and simplicity. I always say that I am a complex woman with simple tastes, and this simplicity comes straight out of my New England background.  From a writing perspective, I  like creating stories in which complex characters can pop against simple backdrops.
6.      Any advice for struggling writers out there? Read! Read as though your life depends on it, because it does. The worst mistake that any writer can make is to not be well-read enough and to not be well-versed in our rich literary history. Engage with the text to make note of the author’s sentence structures, the use of imagery, the selection of particular detail. Why were these choices made? What do these choices achieve? Read from a ‘reverse engineering’ standpoint, where you are taking the text apart in order to see how the author fit it all together. That’s the best way to learn your craft, consciously and unconsciously.
7.      Where do you see book publishing heading? I keep my eye blissfully trained away from the publishing trends, so I’m not one to foretell what ‘the next big thing’ is going to be. But what I do strongly feel is that the publishing industry is alive and well and not nearly as endangered as some seem to think. I was just at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis and was staggered by the number of booths in the Book Fair—staggered! Publishing companies in the thousands, ones I’d never even heard of, turning out good books not just because it is a business but because they still have such a tenacious belief in the power of the written word. It’s enough to give anyone hope.

Paperback Giveaway for What Has Become of You (Cat Not Included)

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Although it hardly seems possible that the hardcover of What Has Become of You came out a year ago,  the paperback edition hits bookstores on April 28th– and as you can see, I have a few copies to unload. To celebrate the paperback debut, I am giving away two free, signed copies by random drawing in exchange for an impartial four- or -five star review! (I kid, I kid– there is nothing required in exchange)

How To Enter: Send an email to janelizabeth.watson@gmail.com and put ‘Book Giveaway’ in the subject line by or before May 1st, 2015.

How Winners Will Be Selected/Notified: Entrants will be assigned a number and will be picked by random drawing on May 2nd. If you are one of the winners, I will send you an email notification and request your mailing address and if you would like your free copy inscribed to anyone in particular.

Bon chance!

How History, Speculation, and Invention Influence Me (AWP Panel Notes)

Below is the rough transcript of my portion of our AWP Panel Talk; the version I presented was condensed, so this includes some exclusive bonus info. Hope you enjoy! (Below also, me in vintage fur that has its own history.)

fur

When I think back to the role and influence that history, speculation, and invention have played in my own fiction, I have to go back into the trenches of my childhood, when I first started writing at age six.

Actually, I had begun writing even before that; by the age of three or so I was already penning stories on large pieces of paper and folding them up so that each had a folio and verso page. My earliest stories were written with pure imitative joy in a desire to duplicate the stories I love most, much in the way an amateur cook might try to duplicate a favorite restaurant recipe at home. My influences were Little House on the Prairie, old twentieth century school primers, and a series of somber-looking, crimson-colored books that contained all kinds of ghastly fairy stories—the story of “One Eyes, Two Eyes, Three Eyes,” where a girl is persecuted by her malformed sisters to the point where they slaughter her magical goat and bury its heart under a tree; or “The Red Shoes,” where a little girl has her legs amputated and goes up to heaven in order to avoid the horrible fate of interminable dancing. Thus inspired, I created my own stories with a similarly dark, old-fashioned bent, including one about two sisters whose shared mattress bled red every day, prosaically titled “Margery, Sylvia, and the Old Mattress.” It ended up filling about 200 pages of my spiral notebook when I was eight years old.

Later on, when I was in about sixth grade, I began to write a series of novels about my erstwhile celebrity crush—Simon LeBon from the British pop group Duran Duran. I had studied Simon in the way one might study a scientific construct, collecting article after article from Bop and Teen Beat magazine, and thereby had a solid biographical basis from which to work. But in my stories, Simon and I were girlfriend and boyfriend—involved in not a blissful, happy relationship but in one beset with soap operatic Sturm and Drang. Somehow I know that this would make for a better ongoing story.

Putting new twists on familiar elements pleased me terribly, and I suppose that is how many writers learn to love writing in this rather narcissistic way. I wasn’t thinking much about audience in those days. But with age and experience and the desire to publish, one hopefully can make the choice to marry consciousness of audience with one’s own writerly desires, and one way I found to achieve this was through the use of history, speculation, and invention. I also found that I’d had some real-life experiences, historical and personal, that I wanted to weave into my fiction in a non-literal way.

When I first started writing the very earliest version of what eventually became my first novel Asta in the Wings, I was a college undergraduate living a fairly solitary and interior life. I was slowly recovering from a severe and prolonged bout of anorexia which had brought my weight to as low as 60 pounds at my current height of five feet four, at one point. Because so many of my early years were blanketed with illness, I spent a great deal of time during the period of what I now think of as my convalescence quietly doing things that I loved: reading Victorian novels, particularly those featuring madwomen in the attic and enfants terrribles as well as essays on a series of strange subjects: The Black Death, old silent movie stars. Somehow, from all this, I imagined two young characters who, encouraged by a delusional, histrionic mother, lived their lives as shut-ins because they imagined a Black Plague raging outside. The first scene that I constructed from that story was a rough version of this one, with young Asta and Orion gleefully discussing the particular symptoms of this plague, rendered with a combination of historical accuracy and childlike embellishment: the swelling in the groin or neck, the livid spots that spread over the body like potato eyes, and the nosebleed that led to certain doom.

As for the children’s own health, their malnourishment was informed by my own anorexia, an affliction whose symptomology I knew not only from a personal level but through the many psychological casesbooks I’d read on the subject—and even a few tracts about starving saints and nuns who had visions as a result of their deprivation. Blending all this knowledge, Asta and Orion’s condition is described thusly in Asta in the Wings:

 

“While being thin did have its incoveniences—it hurt my bottom to sit on unpadded chairs, and I had to sleep with a pillow between my legs because my knees jabbed into each other—they served as daily reminders of our virtuousness and discipline, two traits that God himself would surely approve of, we thought.And I must admit to having a curiosity about all the bones that arose in me, bones most people don’t even know they have, cropping up with the immediacy of spring crocuses.”

With my second novel, What Has Become of You, I wanted to write a literary crime novel set in academia, and I had a variety of historical and personal resources at my disposal. Part of my Interest in the macabre, apart from the other earlier influences I have already mentioned, may have stemmed from a traumatic event that occurred in my hometown of Augusta, Maine when I was just fourteen years old. A girl who was one year ahead of me in school had been brutally murdered by a psychiatric hospital outpatient; as you can imagine, this rocked my small town, and while it seemed to explode the innocent ideals of many other kids around me, it somehow confirmed what I already knew was dark about the world, and I kept it in me like a seed that I knew would eventually grow into something.

Reading true crime became a guilty pleasure of mine, so it was rather easy to craft the serial killer who had cast a long shadow over my protagonist Vera’s youth. I knew that I did not want to write a conventional crime novel in the genre-novel sense, where every forensic detail is critiqued by ardent fans of the genre and where police procedural stuff has to be accurate to a tee; I wanted the crime elements to be loosely representational yet familiar enough for an audience to believe, which is the approach, really, that I take with most of my fiction. In this particular excerpt, Vera is reviewing files of serial killer Ivan Schlosser, including this excerpt from an interview:

Around four o’ clock every morning, when the last of Dorset’s barfies had simmered down and the farmers were not yet awake, Vera often found herself driven out of bed in an attenuated state of alertness. On this particular morning she was reading some of her files and transcripts relating to Ivan Schlosser, reviewing his confession of he murder of Heidi Duplessis.

Why would somebody deliver a voluntary confession? Was the question Vera had written at the top of her notebook page. Was there some kind of reward involved, real or imagined, in owning up to a crime that hadn’t been traced to him? Had Schlosser simply wanted to boast—to take credit for every one of his misdeeds? Looking over the transcripts of his interviews with Detective Leo Vachon, Vera could see no hint of remorse.

SCHLOSSER: I didn’t know I was going to stab her until my knife was at her throat (LAUGHTER), but once I started I knew it was the right thing to do. Didn’t expect her to scratch up my arms like that, though. She was a solid little thing. Big boobs, big shoulders. It took a few minutes before she went still. Then I took her into the bathtub and cut her up..

VACHON: What did you cut her up with?

SCHLOSSER: A tree saw.

VACHON: This was a tree saw you already had or one that you’d bought special?

SCHLOSSER: It was one that was in the basement of my apartment. I think maybe it was the landlord’s.I never saw nobody else use it. I know I never cut up a tree in my damn life. Just people.

What I would like to say in closing is simply this: How much of our fiction is speculative, inventive, and historical is a greatly personal choice, determined by what we love most and what we do best as writers. The burden for all of us who weave these kinds of mosaics together is still to create a story that has its own integrity, its own cohesion, and most of all, its own recognizable truth.

My First AWP– with a Kick-A$$ Panel

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I have somehow managed to avoid the chaos that  of the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, but this year I am not only attending, but also presenting with a stellar panel of writers.

What:  Presentation: History, Speculation and Invention in Long-Form Fiction

Where: Minneapolis Conference Center, Level 2, Room 200 D & E

When: 9:00 to 10:15 a.m.; Thursday, April 11th

Who’s Presenting?: Me, my girl Melissa Falcon Field, Christopher Robinson, Jaquira Diaz, and Sebastian Stockman.

What Are We Talking About?: Per the APA program, here’s a titillating overview:

Panelists will explore the use of literary mosaics to interface fiction and reality in order to transform stories of stories of suicide, poverty, war, and murder, divulging the tensions between history, speculation, and pure invention. Writers will discuss different methodologies of narrative form and discuss how research can both energize and betray readership when developing protagonists who share histories and incorporate insider perspectives to reveal less universal truths through long-form fiction. 

Bonus: When I return from my trip, I will be posting an overview of my portion of the presentation, where I regale you with tales of starving nuns, serial killers who use tree saws, the particular horrors of the bubonic plague, and so many more fun things! Stay tuned.

An Interview with Rising Literary Star Melissa Falcon Field, Author of WHAT BURNS AWAY

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January 27th marks the publication release of a glorious debut novel, What Burns Away, by Melissa Falcon Field. It just so happens that Melissa is not only a formidable new talent on the literary fiction scene but is also my dear friend of more than twenty years and one of the best all-around human beings you could ever hope to meet. I was thrilled when Melissa generously agreed to answer a few interview questions about our early days, her personal writing process, and the path that What Burns Away took en route to publication and its imminent appearance in a bookstore near you—and in true Melissa Falcon Field fashion, she really gave it her all. Enjoy!

 

JW: You and I first met at the University of Maine at Farmington in the early to mid-1990s, where we were both majoring in Creative Writing. Amusingly, I have a clear memory of my first impression of you. You were this ebullient, energetic, and remarkably focused young woman in jean shorts, and I simultaneously was impressed by your apparent drive and certain that you wouldn’t want to be friends with the likes of me. I thought of Sylvia Plath in her Smith College years– so radiant and ambitious according to everyone who met her, yet deeply complex and blessed (or cursed?) with an enormity of feeling. When I first read your writing in Fiction Workshop, it both confirmed and refuted this impression. Your early writing had such a unique juxtaposition of sharpness and lushness that I still see in your work today. It was through writing, I think, that we formed our friendship– that, and due to your general kind nature. Do you have any particular standout memories or impressions of our early time at UMF and what we learned there?

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MFF: Jan, I love that you remember the jean shorts, stonewashed no doubt, given the era. And yes, there is so much I remember of that time and place where both of our writing lives, and our more than twenty-year friendship, began. If I have it right, you were in black combat boots and a purple shift, a black trench coat over top, walking beneath a black umbrella.  On your shoulder you carried an enormous bag full of books, and with you, the air of something both sophisticated and girlish, both dark and illuminated, and immediately, captivated by you fashion and gothic tilt, I wanted to know you. What I remember most about our initial interaction was that it occurred in the basement of Mallet Hall, the dorm where we both lived, and you were heating up a Hot Pocket (dinner of novelists) in the microwave. While I stood there behind you waiting to warm up my coffee, you offered me bubble gum in a yellow wrapper. With me, I had my own gigantic bag of books, slung over my shoulder, ruining my posture, and you asked me what I was reading. I still remember that the book in my hand was a collection of Stepehen Crane stories, I was reading “Maggie a Girl of the Streets, and then I opened my canvas tote filled with others, Heart Songs by Annie Proulx, The Best American Essay collection that year, 1995, edited by Jane Smiley, and a few others I can’t quite remember. It was then, looking at my library books, that you asked me if I was a writer, a question to which I smiled and covered my mouth, a dream too big to admit to anyone. A few days later, to my great pleasure, I found you seated at the far end of the room, on the first day of my fiction writing workshop that term taught by the talented Pat O’Donnell, a life long mentor and friend to both of us, who lead us into deeper conversations after class ended about craft and character in our fiction. We carried those conversations out the door of the 209 B of Roberts Learning Center, to smoke cigarettes by the amphitheater, mulling over the stories we had read in class and talking about novel ideas of our own. Your plotlines—the one you fancied in those days, the ones you hoped to follow and write, were just as fearless and complex and unshakeable as your novels are today.  I, too, see hints of your early work in both of your books, which I loved, Asta in the Wings, and What Has Become of You, which I stayed up all night to finish the day the galley arrived. In our early years writing together, we were so lucky not only to have found each other for what would become life-ling encouragement, but also to study with such talented professors, the Poet Laureate of Maine, Wes McNair, and our equally beloved professor of literature, Dr. Dan Gunn, who taught Shakespeare, in a classes where you spent some time crushing on a French exchange student, and where I met and fell madly for my college sweetheart. But my most constant memory of our time at the University of Maine at Farmington is of you and I sitting on “the beach” in the old student union, across from the radio station, both of us lost inside the works of the masters we wanted to emulate, for me—Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver, Willa Cather, Andre Dubus, Jane Smiley, Styart Dyebk, Mary Karr, Annie Dillard, and our own, beloved UMF professor, Bill Roorbach, who had just published his first memoir, a dream we could barely imagine for ourselves.

JW: Although many readers will be ‘meeting’ you with your debut What Burns Away, you have actually been a hardworking writer and a talent to contend with for many years now. What can you share about the novel’s journey toward publication and how it found its eventual home with Sourcebooks Landmark?

MFF: It’s true I have been writing ever since my undergraduate studies in at the University of Maine at Farmington, and throughout graduate school, where I earned my MFA at Texas State University. But my journey took a tegmental route, when after my time in Texas, I joined Teach For America to become an inner city schoolteacher and work hard for national school reform. Although I wrote in the stolen hours between teaching and night school, where I worked on a second Master’s Degree in Education, it wasn’t until I went back to teaching college-level classes, after nearly ten years in urban education, that I was able to have enough continuity in my writing life to work on long form narrative, successfully. It was at that time, when I had the luxury of carving out four full days a week to dedicate to reading and writing exclusively, every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturdays and Sunday, that I wrote a full manuscript and the first draft of What Burns Away, was born, a draft I would rework for four years, yes a long time, before I put it away for just over a year after the birth my son and during my husband’s and my decision to move to the Midwest.  Shortly there after, once all our boxes were unpacked and my little boy began to toddle, I pulled out the manuscript and read every book I could that was written in a similar vein— Jillian Medoff’s work was huge influence at that time, and anything else tagged ‘domestic suspense’ by booksellers, and looked in the back to see who the book’s agents were in the acknowledgements. Then, I made a list of those agencies and agents, twenty in total, and sent out fifteen simultaneous, unsolicited query letters to those taking new clients. It took about six months for me to hear back from anyone, but then slowly requests for full manuscripts, and the rejections, came in. I ended up sending out ten full manuscripts of the novel in an earlier form. I got four rejections and six requests for phone calls. In the end, I had four offers for representation and I went with my beloved agent, Jennifer Gates at Zachary Schuster Harmsworth, because not only did she have the most enthusiasm for What Burns Away, but also she offered prescriptive ideas for revision before we sent it out, which was what I needed for my first book. Jen’s wisdom not only helped me make a more beautiful novel, but also led me to publishers who shared her same enthusiasm for What Burns Away. Shana Dhres, my wonderful editor, connected to Claire’s story and offered us a contract right out of the gate, and even before we entertained other phone calls, I knew the book would find its home with her at Sourcebooks, the largest woman-owned trade book publisher in the United States. It was all very exciting and I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am to these women, Jennifer and Shana, who helped make it all happen.

 

JW:  The protagonist in What Burns Away bears a few superficial similarities to you: she is from New England and transplanted to the Midwest, for example, and she has a young son whom she adores. In many ways, however, she is completely unlike you. I was fascinated by your choice to make her a climatologist by profession, and I was additionally impressed by the way the themes and metaphors of climate and elements reverberate through the novel. What made you decide to make Claire a climatologist? Was there extensive research involved in this process, and if so, what was the most fascinating thing you learned?

MFF: My protagonist, Claire, as you have mentioned is both like and unlike me. At the time I was revising What Burns Away, I was a new mother myself, lost to a cross-country move with an ambitious husbanded who had his head buried in work. And in that period of time, I will admit, I had come undone a bit, no longer certain who I was, or who my husband and I were together.  But Claire, as a fictional character, is a far more unhinged version of how I felt in those years and to complete the composite of her character, I did a ton of research.  Some of what I studied was climatology, and astronomy, I also relied a bit on my own upbringing in that year of Halley’s comet, but the most extensive research I did was on fire science, on arson most especially. With the help of librarian Katherine Clark at the Sequoya Branch of the Madison Public Library here in Wisconsin, I retrieved and read all of Michael Faradays’ Lectures from his lecture series at the Royal Academy of London, The Chemical History of a Candle. I also preformed a few experiments of my own, lighting Ping-Pong balls on fire and making homemade flamethrowers out of aerosol cans in my very suburban backyard, to the great distress of my neighbors. I knew I had to study fire to understand Claire’s draw to it, so I could sense how that danger brewing inside of her. Also, as a writer, I needed to rationalize how that danger would manifest itself in woman with a solid grasp on chemistry, physics and weather patterns, the kinds of deliberations made by a climatologist. The who draw of Claire’s profession came from my personal obsessions with both the difference and commonalities between the two settings in the novel, one being Madison, Wisconsin, to where I had just then moved, and the other being the coast of Connecticut, where I grew up. Both settings desolation in winter, and their equally severe weather patterns, led to my choosing atmospheric science as Claire’s career choice, her knowledge of science and weather something that helped me inform her motivations as I further developed the novel’s plotlines.

 

JW:  Without giving too much away, one of my favorite parts of your novel is when the reader gets to see a letter that a very young Claire Spruce had written to ‘Teacher in Space’ Christa McAuliffe. I also loved the epistolary sections of the novel where Claire is exchanging some pretty steamy and poignant messages with a pivotal character. As you were writing the novel– and again, without giving too much away– can you share what part of the process was most fun and delicious for you?

MFF: The sections of What Burns Away in which I write from the vantage point of Claire as a young girl and, in paticular that section in which she has written to ‘Teacher in Space’ Christa McAuliffe, are also among my favorites, Jan. Maybe because I still have all my letters from the students I taught over the years, which I thumbed through, searching out the right voice, for Claire, as a girl she once was—a girl with a very specific dream. And the incorporations of letters and emails within the book throughout are derived for my love for epistolary novels. There are so many I have enjoyed over the years, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and the 18th century works of Samuel Richardson, Pamela and Clarissa, Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, and a lengthy contemporary list, such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Color Purple, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette. What is exciting about the letters housed inside a novel, that story within the story, is the ways epistolary novels allow the reader access to intimacy through a private, often times secret, confession.  In What Burns Away the acknowledgments Claire makes about the past, and her desires in the present is yes, steamy and poignant, but also serves as a means for readers to access her private truth, even we see her spending her days trying to push that truth, and all that haunts her, away.  And it through those emails and letters that we learn the old, dangerous parts of Claire are still very much intact. For me writing those letters, both in terms of the tension and anticipation they build between Claire and the corresponded, was a wonderful exercise in thinking about the ways characters reveal themselves to each other in this world of social media, forcing me as a write to think the borderlines between the public and private landscape our characters occupy.

 

JW: As a writer, what is your greatest hope in terms of what you want your work to accomplish? If readers are discussing the work of Melissa Flacon Field 100 years from now, how would you like it to be remembered?

MFF: Like you, Jan, I have always loved coming of age novels, and for me, the onset of middle age is a kind of second coming of age. And therefore, I would like the work to be remembered for its work in capturing that moment when a woman realizes her youth is more behind her than it is in front of her, the ways this gives her pause, and all the ways she must decide what to let go of and what to hold close. The story is ultimately about identity; the ways characters in fiction redefine themselves, and in What Burns Away, it is “awakening” I am interested in as subject matter.  There is something about redefining Claire inside her famil dynamicy, later professionally, and in terms of her sexuality throughout that fascinates me. What was once sexy, what once felt like desire, is driven by different external factors. There is also un-shrouding of former definitions of self and personal history that I hope people remember, because Claire coming of age something she can’t stop it, and it is simultaneously happening to every one around her, and so there is a redefinition of beauty, too, finding what is left underneath the obvious youthful pretty. I loved writing a character in this space, acknowledging these things about her. The process of that surrender for Claire is brutal and transformative and why I felt compelled to capture that moment in What Burns Away.

Thanks again, Melissa, for your inspiring thoughts. I hope you savor every second of the  whirlwind that ensues with your book’s debut. 

 

 

 

 

Singing the Introverted Writer Blues: On Being Retiring in the Self-Promotional Age

Once upon a time, I had a dream of what it meant to live life as a Real Writer.  I had a dream that writers were people who jotted things down because they didn’t have the social wherewithal to string together more than a few stilted sentences in regular conversations. Writers, to my thinking, were people like me—those erstwhile kids in the classroom who had known the answers to most questions but never raised their hands because to call attention to oneself felt as unseemly and as uncomfortable as taking a dump in public. Writers were misfits: inept, maladroit, tortured—in short, all the things I was so naturally good at being. (In hindsight, though, I am sure that my view on writers was colored by the novels I read at an early age—stories of girls who wrote poetry in their garrets, glimpsing the moors beyond through a smudge of cleanliness in their otherwise filthy windows.)

But what do you suppose, Faithful Readers? I was wrong! I was wrong about everything! My foray into the land o’ writers  has taught me that many scribes have social skills beyond what I could have imagined. I suppose this should have dawned on me when I was getting my MFA and was surrounded by writing compatriots who were not always humble or reticent in touting their accomplishments. These were the types of people who, unlike me, were unlikely to dodge an acquaintance at Gristedes because they had forgotten to put on deodorant that day and didn’t want to inflict their stink on hapless victims. These were self-assured, charming people, and that alone should have tipped me off to the fact that a writer’s charm can hold him in good stead.

It wasn’t until my first two books were published that I realized my vision of the introverted writer was but a half-truth at best. I learned this swiftly as I participated in joint readings among co-presenters who were masterful and confident, whereas I meekly asked the crowd, “Would you mind if I sit down while I read?” (This, so that the  knocking of my knees would be less apparent.)  I participated in panel talks where my fellow presenters were so dazzlingly glib, witty, and self-possessed that I retreated into my turtle shell, speaking only when asked a direct question, and even then apologetically What I learned is that the writing world is filled with people who are not shy—at least not outwardly. And to be fair to myself (as I am always my worst critic and my worst self-effacer), I must leave room for the possibility that I come off as more poised than I feel. But in my own mind I will always be that little girl who is afraid to raise her hand and speak her mind—the girl who wants her written words to speak for her.

Am I handicapped, in this day and age where bold self-promotion and confidence seems to make or break a writer? I hope not. I still hold out hope that my written words do speak and that my readership might comprise people like myself who understand what it’s like to be on the margins and the fringes—people who are brimming with things to say yet are not saying them aloud, for whatever reason. If you are someone who has ever felt terrified by life, uncomfortable in his or her own skin, or torn between the compulsion to be reckoned with and the keen desire to remain in the shadows, I write for you. I write for you because I know what it is like to have a voice that still, in its own perverse way, wants to be heard.

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Why Endings Matter/Why Endings Don’t Matter

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”—Frank Herbert

 

I’ve been thinking a bit about Frank Herbert’s quote (which I identify with and agree with) versus how the general reader might respond to such an assertion. For many readers, the ending affects the overall impression of a book; an ambiguous or unsatisfying ending can leave an unfavorable impression of a book that might otherwise have gotten a rave review. Is this fair? I’ve learned long ago that readerly impressions have nothing to do with fairness. I can only speak to my own experiences as a reader and as a writer when I talk about the significance of a novel’s end.

 

Frankly speaking, a novel’s ending is almost immaterial to me because I always believe that the characters are going to live on long after the final page is turned. If the narrative was especially vivid and certain characters are still left standing, I like to imagine what might happen to them in ten years, in twenty years; I don’t necessarily like to have their fates sealed up, unless I am reading a Dickensian novel, in which case I expect that sort of treatment and find something comforting in it. There have been times where I have loved a novel so much that I have stopped reading it a few pages before it ends because I knew I couldn’t bear seeing its final words; similarly,  I find it difficult to say goodbye to loved ones and accept closure. (This reveals more about me as a person, I suppose, than it does about the way most readers think.)

 

As a writer, I love the open possibilities offered by the ambiguous ending. I love Thelma and Louise’s car perpetually poised in midair once it launches from the cliff. Does the car plummet, killing them both? Does it somehow make it to a neighboring cliff? Does an element of magical realism creep in, bringing both antiheroines into an entirely different realm? I like thinking that any and all of these—or none of these—could be the answer. As Emily Dickinson once put it,

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –

 

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It’s admittedly  a conundrum, wanting to give readers a satisfactory ending yet also wanting one’s characters to take on new lives in the reader’s minds—the new lives of richly imagined possibilities. With both Asta in the Wings and What Has Become of You, I know I at least aimed for a graceful exit. In regards to where that human need for a satisfactory ending comes from—I suppose it comes from the failure of our real-life goodbyes to sate us, as anyone who has experienced great loss can understand. We want our fictive endings to nourish us in some way. I understand that kind of wanting. But I also believe as Theophile Gautier seemed to believe, as written in one of his stories:

“Nothing, in fact, actually dies; everything goes on existing, always…Every art, every word, every form, every thought, falls into the universal ocean of things, and provides a ripple on the surface that goes on enlarging beyond the furthest bounds of eternity.”

 

When Life and Art Intersect… and When They Don’t

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Being the constant teacher that I am, I enjoy the process of being interviewed because I like answering questions almost as much as I like asking them. One recurrent question that never fails to amuse me is, “How much of your characters are based on you?” In particular, people wonder how much of Vera Lundy from What Has Become of You is drawn from real life.

Doubtless I’ve invited these questions because of a few superficial similarities between myself and the protagonist: these echoes and reverberations are ultimately scant, however. I refer you to a Q and A from a recent interview, where I explore these differences and similarities in more depth:

Q: In your latest Novel, What Has Become of You, Vera Lundy is your main protagonist. She is described as a petite community college instructor who has lived in NYC and now resides in Maine. When imagining Vera Lundy, did you see elements of yourself in her?

JW: When I was first formulating Vera as a character in my mind, I did base some surface elements on myself, as many fiction writers do. In fact, the opening scene finds Vera in a library, being scolded for attempting to re-shelve a book. I wrote this opening scene after this exact same thing happened to me at the Portland Public Library; I remember being so taken aback to be chided as such because I had worked at the Columbia University Library when I was younger and definitely knew how to re-shelve books, but it seemed like one of those moments where it would have been impudent to say anything. Somehow, this became my opening scene in What Has Become of You. Vera is also a teacher—one who is rather inept in the classroom—and I drew a bit from my earliest teaching experiences and anecdotes I’d heard from past colleagues when creating some of the classroom scenes.

Another obvious similarity between Vera and myself is that she is a born-and-raised Mainer who lived in New York City for a while and has found herself back in her home state—but, unlike me, Vera rails against being back in Maine, whereas I have developed a newfound appreciation for my home state and my hardy, funny, resourceful fellow Mainers. She is a more discontented person than I am, less comfortable in her own skin, and while this may make her an odd protagonist to root for, I found myself really caring for Vera and wanting her to make better choices and to take hold of her life as I got deeper into the story.

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In short, Vera’s choices are a critical factor in her overall characterization. At nearly forty years old, Vera is what many people might justifiably call a ‘difficult’ character. The vast majority of critical reviews of the novel have been extremely favorable thus far, and customer reviews on sites like Goodreads tend to be consistently kind as well… but where the criticism sometimes creeps in is in regards to the ‘likability’ of Vera. A few readers have voiced that they are put off by her poor judgment and lack of maturity. From a writing perspective, though, creating an adult character who still has so much to learn was wickedly fun. I certainly know many people forty and over who still don’t have much to show for their years on the planet and are still very much works in progress, but I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing, provided that there is at least some effort toward growth. We’ve all made our mistakes– myself included– and the only unforgivable mistake is the mistake one doesn’t learn from.

Vera is more or less seduced, in an utterly innocent way, by her fifteen-year-old student Jensen Willard. One might view this as an exercise in narcissism, for Jensen reminds Vera a great deal of her younger self, who was ostracized and misunderstood in high school. This over-identification proves to be a fatal flaw, in the literal sense of the term. I loved the idea of writing a teacher character who was so uncomfortable in her own skin, so ill at ease in front of the classroom, that she could be led by the nose by a much younger girl. Does this make Vera ‘pathetic’ or ‘insane,’ as has occasionally been suggested? Pitiable, perhaps, and surely unstable. But ‘pitiable and unstable’ has a wildly different connotation from ‘pathetic and insane,” when you really get down to the brass tacks.

My own teaching experience has been quite different from Vera’s, I’m thankful to say. Though I’ve occasionally had those moments of feeling ill at ease, I take pride in fostering healthy, nurturing, respectful student-teacher relationships that truly make students feel empowered and capable in all that they do. I recently received a Faculty of the Year award from my teaching institution, in fact– something that I am pretty sure Vera would not be eligible for.

The truth of the matter is, I like broken people, at least in the abstract. I like exploring their minds and allowing them to lead me by the nose for a while, at least for the duration of a narrative. When thinking about the issue of whether or not a character is likable (and how much likability matters to readers), I found that there have been a number of online articles written in defense of unlikable characters, and I found myself nodding in agreement with some of them; as someone whose favorite characters include Humbert Humbert, the Underground Man, Miss Havisham, and any of Beckett’s disaffected protagonists, I guess you could say that I lean toward characters who have something patently wrong with them. These are not people whom I would want to call up and ask out on a coffee date in real life, but I do not consider ‘coffee date-ability’ a determining factor in how I respond to any character, be it in fiction, film, or elsewhere. (Hell, I love the high camp of Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet, bur that doesn’t mean I want to go on a joy ride with Frank Booth.)

When I wrote my first novel Asta in the Wings, I was dismayed to see that there were some readers who thought the story of abused, neglected Asta Hewitt must have been based on real life. In reality, I had (and have) a doting mother who raised me attentively and responsibly. Perhaps it’s a compliment of sorts that people thought the book seemed realistic enough to be veiled autobiography, and it is true that Asta’s psychological makeup bears some resemblance to mine at her age– but the story itself is entirely made up, just as What Has Become of You is. I think many fiction readers take small kernels of truth and then sow an entire garden of realistic falsehoods from that, which is part of what makes the writing process complex, enjoyable, and ultimately very freeing– for isn’t it the license to make things up, to give ourselves permission to go beyond, is what makes a storyteller a storyteller?

 

 

New York Times Review of Books & Other Press Updates

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The last week has been an excellent week for reviews following the launch of What Has Become of You on May 1st. The one I’ve been anticipating most– the one most writers want– appeared in the Sunday New York Times Review of Books supplement, as seen below in pictorial form. “Guilty as Sin” indeed!

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Little old me appears on page 29, in an issue packed with such distinguished writers as Gillian Flynn, Anthony Doerr, and Michael Cunningham. You can read the review in its entirety under my ‘Reviews’ section, but the novel is described, in part, as a ‘shivery thriller’ that is ‘written with subtle skill.’

Also appearing this week was an Associated Press review picked up by such major outlets as the Washington Times and ABC.com, which closed with: “Vera is a tricky character, not entirely likable, but arguably identifiable to many of us, and Watson treads that line with grace and precision. There are several reasons to recommend this book, not the least of which is the intricacy of the plot, which doesn’t twist so much as it winds and loops in ways that even if one may predict where it will go, the how is still surprising.”

Huffington Post also had this to say a few days ago, in part: “Jan Elizabeth Watson latest novel is a lurid, murky book that swallows the reader up in a maze of mystery.”

What Has Become of You was also selected as one of Apple’s 20 Best Books of May (10 fiction titles and 10 nonfiction) on their iBooks page. If Apple likes me, then my nerd cred has risen exponentially, and that’s a good thing.

Pax et lux,

Janny

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