I’ve lived in Washington, DC, for one year in Cicada Years which is seventeen by traditional count. Our family arrived shortly before Brood X and here it is, back again already. And here I am, still in the swoon and sway of the wonder of this magnificent city.
There’s so much to say about DC, it’s impossible to pick one thing but I’ll try. Come for the Cherry Blossoms, it is not overrated, it is astonishing. Astonishing not just to see the sights at the Tidal Basin, but also to witness the simple yet nearly incomprehensible act of regeneration and beauty. There is no space to be jaded, the awe is real and on every face you encounter. If you can’t come for the Cherry Blossoms, come another time. Stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with travelers from around the world. No matter if it’s day or night, whether it’s crowded or just you and a few others, you will feel a kind of collective kinship. Before I moved to DC, I didn’t think blocks of stone could speak to me so thoroughly, but they can and do. They say let’s not forget, let’s work toward something better, let’s be in this together.
When I was quite young, my mom let me play with her old college typewriter. It came attached to the inside of its own little suitcase, which was interesting enough, but even better was the rough surface of the body, the smooth keys, the transfer of the shapes of steel-cast letters through the inky ribbon to the page. I couldn’t read or write but I aspired to become a lightning speed typist, guessing I’d need it someday. Fifty words a minute gets you a temp job in early ‘80s New York City. Not lightning speed, the bare minimum actually, but I managed it. Many years past then, I finally figured out how to turn type into stories and books. I had always known that was the endgame, but was a long time lost on how to get there.
If we’d met when I was elementary school age, I’d ask you to be my pen pal. I loved writing and receiving letters, I loved stationary and stamps and checking the mailbox or better, the post office a mile down the road from our cottage on Chautauqua Lake. I still love all these things. Write me, I’ll write you back.
In high school I wrote notes to my friends during class, ballpoint pen on ruled tablet paper folded into a triangle like a you fold a flag. I wrote notes when I didn’t have a novel propped open inside whatever textbook I was supposed to be looking at. I really should have paid more attention, but as my son says, I’m glad I skipped all those Spanish classes and read all those books, they’re really coming in handy now. (Acorn. Oak.). I did manage my way to Syracuse University and got to major in English and boy did I love that. Reading books, yes, that’s for me. In fact, my favorite thing in the world is and forever has been reading on the cottage porch at Chautauqua in the afternoon when the house is quiet and the sun is starting to slant toward the horizon and there’s a breeze coming up off the lake.
My first novel, THE SPEED OF LIGHT IN AIR, WATER, AND GLASS is a love letter to the District of Columbia and my answer to the question as to what all these monuments mean. The story begins with a vision I had of a boy asleep at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Why was he there? Why was he sleeping? This indelible mind picture took me to the Secret War in Laos and to the inside of the CIA, among many other places. My imagination delivered the truth of things and the truth of things delivered the fiction. This is my experience as a writer.
My scrappy reading and writing habits have come in handy. I wrote THE SPEED OF LIGHT with every spare minute I had at the time and in the most unlikely places. You could find me camped out, possibly on the floor, my laptop balanced on my knees, almost anywhere. A lot of that book was written at the Rockville Ice Rink during the kids’ skating lessons or hockey practice. Later I realized the rink is just a few miles as the crow flies from the graves of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. I like to think there was some connection there, Zelda anyway, who had a head full of ideas with no one quite listening.
Many thanks to RHP who will be publishing my next novel, AMERICAN ARCADIA. I pinned this story to the year 1985 which I saw as a turning point from a time of celebratory wild fun money rush antics to dark and still unexamined days. I did not set out to write about AIDS, but AIDS came to call. My hope is that I have handled this thread of the story with clarity, truth, and absolute respect for those lost and those left with the loss.
I stayed with my grandmother on Staten Island part of that year and rode the ferry to Manhattan and back each day of the workweek. It’s no small thing passing the Statue of Liberty twice a day and in 1985 she was covered in scaffolding, her torch taken down for repair. I had forgotten that for a long, long time. While working on AMERICAN ARCADIA, I was pushing to remember some details precisely and whoa, there she was, scaffolded for necessary repairs. The metaphors come to you if you let them, I find. As the Staten Island ferry made it’s morning trip, it was also no small thing to see the Twin Towers on the horizon grow from the size of a plastic city in a snow globe to looming above you in their mighty actuality. I’m in love with that cityscape and harbor. There is so much to say about the loss of 9/11. There is a lot on record of the exterior of those buildings but I wanted to add some description of their interior life, so we wouldn’t forget. As for passing the Statue of Liberty twice a day, I am a wild-hearted believer in everything she stands for. We are all travelers, we are all refugees.
AMERICAN ARCADIA was written in the studio of Susan Shreve. It is a beautiful space, the former workplace of sculptor Anne Truitt, but with all respect to her, it’s Susan who imbued it as a writing space of peace and power and filled it with a collection of nonstop badass writers as colorful and sharp as a brand new box of Crayolas.
My flash fiction and essays have been published in various online and print journals. Beyond that, I don’t have a whole lot of credentials to report, but hey, I’ve been around the block (as they say) and it’s breathtaking and mystifying and tragic as hell and I want to tell you about it through a bunch of made-up stories and hopefully between us we’ll find that elusive thing, the crystalline truth.