Sherwood, Frances 1940-
Sherwood, Frances 1940-
SHERWOOD, Frances 1940-
Born June 4, 1940, in Washington, DC; daughter of William (a lawyer, biochemist, and linguist) and Barbara Sherwood; married three times (first marriage lasted two years; second marriage lasted twenty-five years); children: (first marriage) daughter (deceased); (second marriage) Lark and Leander (twin sons), Ceres Madoo (daughter). Education: Attended Howard University, c. 1960; Brooklyn College, B.A., 1967; graduate study at New York University, 1968; Johns Hopkins University, M.A., 1975. Politics: Liberal. Religion: "None." Hobbies and other interests: Flute playing, folk and country western dancing, baking, gardening, travel, pets.
Indiana University, South Bend, creative writing and journalism instructor, 1986-94, professor of English, 1994—; writer.
Teaching fellow at Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, 1973-74; Stegner fellow in fiction, Stanford University, 1976; visiting fellow at Yaddo, 1986; O. Henry Awards, 1989, for the short story "History," and 1992, for the short story "Demiurges"; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1990; finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award, for Vindication ; nominated for Nebula award.
Everything You've Heard Is True (short stories), Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1989.
Vindication (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1993.
Green (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
The Book of Splendor (novel), W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to anthologies, including Best American Short Stories 2000; contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Greensboro Review, Sonora Review, Playgirl, Seattle Review, Kansas Quarterly, California Quarterly, Sequoia, and Cream City Review.
WORK IN PROGRESS:
Firebird, a novel.
Frances Sherwood garnered critical acclaim for her first novel, Vindication, a fictionalized biography of the eighteenth-century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft; at the same time, she became the center of a literary controversy. Vindication closely follows the historical details of Wollstonecraft's life, although at certain points Sherwood creates situations and a psychology for the character, which prompted objections from some reviewers. Ironically, the very inventiveness Sherwood displays in Vindication—a novel which caused Margaret Forster to "worry" in the New York Time Book Review that readers will mistake the fiction for biographical truth—was also perceived as a compositional strength. Forster stated, "If I had known nothing about Mary Wollstonecraft I would have loved this novel."
The Wollstonecraft of Vindication is first portrayed as an abused child. Her father regularly beats his wife and children, while the family's nurse sexually molests young Mary. Tragedy occurs frequently throughout Wollstonecraft's relatively short life: she is cheated out of her inheritance by her indifferent brother, her most meaningful relationship (with childhood friend Fanny Blood) ends abruptly in death, her romantic entanglements (with painter Henry Fuseli and adventurer Gilbert Imlay) result in her own obsessive behavior and psychological breakdown. When Fuseli breaks off their affair to remain with his wife, Wollstonecraft goes mad and is committed to the London asylum for the insane known as Bedlam; this ironic fictional event is particularly offensive to critics who view Wollstonecraft as an early pioneer for women's independence. "There are instances where Ms. Sherwood is not simply filling in gaps but inventing events that never happened and that are alien to the spirit of Wollstonecraft," stated Forster in the New York Times Book Review. On the other hand, Richard Eder noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that "Sherwood's accomplishment is to give her Mary, with whom she takes various historical liberties, a voice and a mind that dart erratically as if released from a dark room into the light.…Her growing notion of what women should be comes in dizzying flashes, like stars from a blow to the head."
As Wollstonecraft matures, she fails at several different attempts to live independently of a husband—including a stint as a governess in Ireland, a position from which she is dismissed for refusing to beat the children—and ends up sick and desperate on the doorstep of her publisher, Joseph Johnson, who takes her in, employs her on his journal, and encourages her writing talent. Through his efforts Wollstonecraft publishes her best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, a manifesto demanding equal rights for women. In Johnson's house she also meets such nineteenth-century luminaries as Thomas Paine, William Blake, and William Godwin (she will eventually marry Godwin, by whom she will give birth to Mary, the future wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of the gothic classic Frankenstein). While Wollstonecraft flourishes as a writer, she is witness to certain defining details of the era. "The excesses of the French Revolution are acutely observed through Wollstonecraft's eyes," noted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, who praised Sherwood's "meticulously rendered background detail."
The research that Sherwood gathered on the life of Wollstonecraft persuaded her to write a novel, rather than the straight biography she had initially conceived. "I was fascinated by the history of underwear, plumbing, food," the author told Gayle Feldman in Publishers Weekly. In researching various aspects of the late eighteenth century, Sherwood uncovered elements that, while not directly related to the historical Wollstonecraft, enhance the spirit of her fictional counterpart. "In the novel, Mary's first love is gay, but in reality she didn't fall in love with him. But that gives me the opportunity to talk about discrimination against gays. The book is full of fabrications, but I also hope it is authentic," Sherwood was quoted in Publishers Weekly. In Newsweek, Laura Shapiro observed that "Sherwood doesn't try to outdo the facts; she plunges into them, discovering (or creating—it hardly matters) a horribly mistreated child, a tormented woman, an angry feminist, a passionate writer."
Vindication, stated Shapiro in Newsweek, "is startling, depressing, enlightening and unforgettable, and that doesn't begin to do it justice.…This astonishing first novel exerts a grip on the imagination that can't be shaken off." Eder commented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that "Vindication makes the feminist as real as the woman; something that Camille Paglia also aims at, in a way, except that Paglia is a polemicist, not an artist. Sherwood, the artist, yokes two battling souls in a personage as bright and unstable as the blue light and red shift of a quasar." In response to the controversy surrounding Sherwood's fictionalization of Wollstonecraft's life, Catherine Texier remarked in Harper's Bazaar that "after reading Vindication, I plunged into a couple of Wollstonecraft biographies, trying to find out what Sherwood had made up. Less than I expected, it turns out.… Sherwood's major twist is her characters' eroticism. Mary's infatuations are turned into full-fledged sexual liaisons, and her love affair with Imlay becomes a kinky fantasy of S&M games and cross-dressing." Texier concluded that the novel "reads like a fast-paced, literary bodice-ripper." Such was the intention of Sherwood, who told Contemporary Literary Criticism interviewer Jennifer Brostrom, "I wanted to create an authentic sense of what life was like during this time, and I also wanted to write a really juicy book that people would want to read—a real page-turner."
Sherwood followed Vindication with another coming-of-age novel, albeit one set in the twentieth century. Green follows Zoe McLaren, a teenager in Monterey, California, in the 1950s. Zoe, a free-thinking misfit in her straitlaced Mormon family, describes herself as "Raggedy Ann coming apart at the seams." Until, that is, she meets another outsider: Margo, a "knee-grow" girl adopted into a Jewish family. Through Margo, Zoe is introduced to sex via a would-be poet first, and Margo's father second. She then meets her future husband, Greylen ("Grey") Cloud, who claims to be Native American. The couple embark on an emotional journey that takes them to beatnik-era San Francisco, where a drug-addicted Grey abandons Zoe with their infant daughter. "She is finally acquiring a sense of self when Grey returns—and brings tragedy," according to a Publishers Weekly contributor. The same critic praised Sherwood for believably "evoking the California scene of the 1950s, from bomb alerts and uptight nuclear families to Beats, astrology and alternate lifestyles." "As she did in Vindication," commented Antioch Review critic Gerda Oldham, Sherwood "writes about a young woman in conflict with her world."
In Vindication, Sherwood wrote of the mother of Mary Shelley, who envisioned a man-made monster in the gothic novel Frankenstein. But the Frankenstein tale—actually a version of the ancient legend of Prometheus—had been explored in fictional form before, most notably in the tale of the Golem, a medieval monster/savior created by Rabbi Judah Loew after he breathed life into a lump of wet clay. In 2002 Sherwood revisited this tale with The Book of Splendor. Set in Prague at the start of the seventeenth century, the novel tells how Rabbi Loew creates the Golem to protect the Jewish community after Emperor Rudolph II threatens a pogrom (attack) against them. But the Golem, called Yossel, proves to have intelligence and empathy, if not a voice to express them. Yossel falls in love with a young married seamstress; she, Rochel, is "the real protagonist" in this novel, said a Kirkus Reviews critic. Indeed, Booklist reviewer Gillian Engberg compared Sherwood's book to Beauty and the Beast as a story that "explores creation and death, physical and divine love, exile, redemption, and the conviction that nothing is as it appears." The love scenes between Rochel and Yossel, said New York Times writer Richard Eder, begin with "caresses, then much more. Ms. Sherwood writes with quiet but arousing eroticism; no small achievement for a coupling of maid and mud."
Violence, upheaval, and death come at the heels of Yossel's heroic quest to protect the Jews. Eder cited a "stunning" climax and concluded that Sherwood "projects her readers, as if by time machine, back to a place where everything is still to be discovered. We do not feel that her characters are keeping appointments. Rather than moving confidently backward out of the clarity of Now, we move uncertainly forward from a foggy Then."
Frances Sherwood contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
One day when I was hiding out in our first grade cloakroom, already a disgrace to my illustrious family for membership in the lowest reading group, Dick and Jane beyond my comprehension, the blackboard a muzzy fog, I was staring hard at a Superman comic book. Suddenly I could read it. It was a revelation, something utterly magnificent and irrevocable. A world opened up to me. I had a tool, a mission, a way to survive. The simple narrative accompanying the grainy pictures gave me the gist of things past, present, and future. I needed glasses, it turned out, but I could read.
I was in first grade in 1946; our family was newly back in the states from Brazil where my father was employed by the U.S. government to buy rubber for the war effort; and my parents, looming, unpredictable giants, were intellectual snobs. No comic books were allowed in the house, so I sneaked them, traded them with other kids at school, collected them zealously, spent all my allowance money on them until my cache under my bed was discovered and my parents began to read to me real books. As I recall they read Little Women aloud when I was in third grade and Jane Eyre when I was ten, Jane Austen the next year. By then we had moved from Ossining, New York, to Pacific Grove, California—the land, I anticipated, of cowboys and cowgirls, dude ranches, palomino ponies. Indeed, I had visions of having my own horse in the backyard, but instead, my brother, Peter, and I walked to the Grove Theater for every Saturday matinee with our quarter allowance to see Zorro, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Dale Evans.
Quite the tomboy until I was twelve, I played hard all day, mainly pirates, cowboys and Indians—pretend games with different scenarios—and spent hours, since we lived on Monterey Bay, poking around in tide pools. Each tree, roof, set of rocks was a climbing challenge until I had to be rescued by the Fire Department from the steeped, tiled roof of the Lutheran Church; and since then I have been afraid of heights. At twelve, I branched out into jacks, jump rope, hopscotch; I collected paper dolls and dressed them for various occasions; I played house where I always got to be the mother, doctor where I got to be the doctor. My prized possessions were my dolls from around the world. These stayed on little pedestals on a shelf over my bed with my scatter pin collection, my miniature china animal family collection, my silk scarf collection. I had one beautiful doll from F.A.O. Schwartz, Jennifer, who had brown skin, blond hair. My grandmother Bennion handmade her many outfits, which I carried around in a little suitcase.
Of my three brothers, it was Peter, only three years younger than I, who was my closest companion. Steven was seven years younger, a solitary kid, and Morris was not born until I was seventeen. In California, my father worked at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station getting his graduate degree in biochemistry. We were supported by various grants, my grandfather Sherwood's trust fund, and later with my mother's wages as a salesperson at J.C. Penney's. Of course, living where we did, I read and loved the author John Steinbeck. Cannery Row was about two blocks away and Salinas was a short drive inland. The poem "Roan Stallion" by Robinson Jeffers was a local masterpiece, and in our community, despite the heavy conformity of the fifties, the idea of writing, of being an artist, was not foreign to me at all.
I learned to touch-type on our big, upright Underwood typewriter by copying Shakespeare sonnets. It was assumed that I was smart enough to marry a professor, the only kind of man who would marry me since I wore glasses. I envisioned sitting up in the attic of a big ramshackle house in a university town, mother of a bunch of kids who would run upstairs to me after school and I would put my writing away, get them milk and cookies. I was certain I could be a writer, for had not other women like George Elliot, George Sand, the Brontës, Dorothy Parker, Mary McCarthy, and Doris Lessing written? It never occurred to me that I could also be the professor.
When I started to study writing formally in graduate school writing programs, the truism was to write about what you know, write what you are; but from the time I was a kid I always wanted to write about everybody else, write what I didn't know, using my subjects as an entry into the unknown, thereby gaining admittance to other minds and making new friends. Just as I had loved my foreign doll collection, I had always wanted to see the world, travel, take voyages of discovery, approach distant shores, go on safaris, expeditions, trek inland, travel in time and space.
I am a postcard writer; I pretend I am something of a foreign correspondent when I travel and when home I use cards with beautiful pictures to send letters. I am fussy about my pens (they must be fine point) and I love good stationery. I send lengthy e-mails, but except when I travel, I never keep a diary or journal. Thus when writing autobiographically (as I do rarely, if at all), I find myself thinking of myself as a character, referring to myself as "she" to discover myself as if I were something new.
She was never an introverted, lonely kid. She had a constant companion in her brother, Peter, who was three years younger, easy to boss around. They were attuned to tides, the fog horn, the bark of the sleek seals. Summers were spent walking along the railroad tracks to the Grove swimming pool. For a nickel they could get a Sugar Daddy candy bar which with conserving sucks could last all morning. Frances, a double daredevil, climbed roofs, stayed out on rocks when the tide came in, jumped from the end of the pier into the cold Monterey Bay water, the snaky seaweed whipping her legs. In the afternoon, they had to practice their instruments—Peter, the violin, Frances, the flute—and clean the house before their parents got home, bringing Steven from the child care center. Frances' favorite was to throw herself across her bed and read books from the library, Modern Library books her father bought for her, and her mother's fashion/home magazines. She and her brothers, Peter and Steven, also became mood readers, with the three kids in the morning in bed together, touching toes, wondering if the giants were going to be happy today.
In high school, I was social, not super-popular, part of a circle of girls who got good grades in English. Our counterparts were the boys who did well in math and science. We circled around each other warily. Then, there was always the knowledge that my family was different, and while I took pride in that, open school night was pure torture when my father in his acid-holed blue jeans and the French peasant chambray shirt my mother made, and she in long skirts, drippy earrings, dropped in and interrogated my teachers. My mom dressed dramatically like a California Frida Kahlo, smoked like a fiend, and drank beer. I suppose my parents were bohemians, although I didn't recognize that term at the time. They were also dilettantes, not quite what they seemed to be. I regarded my father as a brilliant scientist who had once been a lawyer, who had worked his way through law school playing jazz piano, and before that had been a translator and interpreter for the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War; and before that a Whiz Kid at the University of Chicago, and before that a world traveler, and before that the son of a doctor and brilliant and beautiful socialite. I was to find out later that my father was one of those perpetual graduate students forever writing his thesis, had not ever really practiced law, and had been rescued from the Spanish Civil War by his mother. He did correspond with Timothy Leary about LSD and perhaps took LSD in his lab, and he wrote one paper on the biological basis of schizophrenia published in a scientific journal; but at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, he was a kind of persona non grata. He could have fooled us, and he did.
My mother, although not college-educated, gave the impression of being one of those naturally gifted people, a woman who knew her own mind, the rules of grammar, and how to make things. She was an artist, I think, who would have received recognition if women's work made of yarn and wool had been called art at that time. She was basically, despite her public appearance of warmth and cheer, a sad person. We had moved to California from New York State after she attempted suicide in a small hotel in Manhattan. Supposedly it had been a shopping trip and when my brother Peter and I were put on the train back home to Ossining, I was the one who remembered the name of the hotel, since I was by then an accomplished reader and read signs, the back of cereal boxes, train schedules as if my life depended on it. When I was in high school and read Dorothy Parker's "Big Blonde," I connected that story with my mother's New York suicide attempt, and strangely I was also reminded of it with the Mary McCarthy story, "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt," although it was my father who was the unfaithful one (he bragged of sleeping with Judy Garland on a lonely train going through the Midwest, and of other conquests) not my mother, who adored him unto death.
When I read Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," I understood the emotions in that story—confusion and regret. My father was in the export-import business, going back and forth between Brazil and Argentina to the United States when we lived in Ossining. I was born in Washington, D.C. at the Garfield Hospital on Sixteenth Street (where the Malcolm X Park is now located) when my father was in law school at George Washington University, and as a family we did live in Brazil from shortly after my birth until I was five. Portuguese was my first language, and I was so mad when we came back to the United States, I refused to speak English for several months. In New York City, I was sent to the Downtown Progressive School for kindergarten, and after Brazil, I was so gratified to see a Negro girl in my class I ran up to her and hugged her, and began speaking Portuguese. Those things can be verified.
But I'm not sure exactly about the many tales of derring-do—Judy Garland on the train; my mother's job when I was born, which was described as Secretary to the National Democratic Committee, as if she were Secretary of State and not part of the typing pool; and my father's claim that he was the cultural attaché at the U.S. embassy in Brazil.
The story goes that in Brazil there was a little house in the backyard of the Big House. Maria and her family were the helpers. In the shared yard was a huge tortoise, a gift from a man who lived on the hillside and had begged for money to bury his wife. Our whole family was invited to the funeral in our yard, described via hearsay in my story, "The Sex of Roses in the Summer." I thought of Maria as my very own mother, no matter that she had her own children, until the day my father insisted that Maria's husband go to the hospital. He had TB, indeed died in the hospital, and because Mr. Sherwood had insisted that he go to a place that had in essence killed him, Maria put a curse on the family. A wooden bowl of oatmeal, with cigars and other things stuck in, was placed on their doorstep. That and a visit to the snake venom farm are my main memories of early childhood. Of course there are also memories of the beach, the mosaic sidewalks, the trolleys, the sun. And when I visit tropical countries, even now, I feel at home, and in the East and Midwest, I mourn the sun all winter long.
Pictures of my mother in youth and early womanhood show her to be very beautiful in the style of the time, her waist cinched, shoulders exaggerated by shoulder pads; sling-back, open-toed high heels; and her hair in rolls combed away from her face. Her story—and this is part of the family mythology—was that although from a prominent Salt Lake City family, the daughter of a wealthy sheep rancher whose entire herd went off a cliff in a storm one night, she had to go to work when she was fifteen. While there was a lot of idealized rhetoric in our family about the working class, my mother was working class in terms of education, income and the jobs she could get; and when left a widow with her youngest child only a year old, she had a very hard time supporting us. While I was in high school, and my father was still alive, she got a job at J.C. Penney's as a salesperson. At dinner, like an elaborate story, she would tell us about her day and how she "outfitted" entire families, detailing each article of clothing she had sold—a plaid skirt, sweater set to match, a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar. She loved clothes and could knit, crotchet, weave, make rugs; she followed the history of costumes, and my tendency to pay attention in my novels to what people wear and to make my hero, Rochel, the Needle Woman in The Book of Splendor comes from her.
Before my mother's family became Mormon sheep ranchers in Utah, they were weavers in Scotland. My mother's great-grandfather was a polygamist who had several wives; the old photograph I have shows the sister wives, prim and proper in their Victorian dresses, looking like hens stuffed in taffeta, and he, the Patriarch, the old buzzard, resembling a jowly cock of the walk. My father's family, on the other hand, was Jewish from Prague and the Ukraine. The real family name was Cherkowsky, I have been informed by my cousin Burt Sherwood and was changed to Sherwood when my grandfather wanted an Anglo name to open his medical practice in Milwaukee. Apparently Sherwood was chosen from the phone book, the most Anglo name my grandparents could find there. I was told that my father's family draped the mirrors, sat on the floor, and went into mourning when he married my mother; but I have come to seriously doubt that, and since my books have come out, I have been contacted by distant cousins who are happy to meet me.
My grandfather Sherwood, a self-made doctor of considerable wealth, was called upon to support his grown-up sisters and their families, and until my father completely wiped out his inheritance, I suppose, we, too, were supported by him. Yet the Sherwood beginnings in the United States were humble indeed. My great-grandfather on my grandmother's side was a silversmith, and the one on my grandfather's side was in the tuxedo rental business. Until my grandfather went to medical school and became a pillar of his family and community in Milwaukee, he was a clarinetist in John Philip Sousa's band. My father's sister, June Sherwood, was a witty, bitter woman who was not sent to college, but married off to an anesthesiologist of her father's picking. The Mormon side had their share of doctors, too. My grandmother Bennion was one of the first female graduates of Brigham Young University and had poems published in the Desseret News. Her sisters were teachers, accomplished women.
Although I don't think I learned much in school, I loved it. It was orderly. Each year there was the notion of progress. Of course, I met my friends there, and because of my mother's sewing ability and retail selling job, I had a great wardrobe. At home, however, despite the music lessons, ballet lessons, and the high intellectual tone of my family, there was a lot of tension. In contrast to the fifties environment of conformity, the politics were radical, and emotions were tempestuous. Our family didn't go to church or synagogue, and were known as "weird," the Village Atheists; yet at Cub Scouts, my brother, who was not as adept as I at fitting in, had his prized uniform torn off for being Jewish. I stayed clear of much of it, became a voracious reader. Behind my closed door, under the covers of my bed, I devoured Marcel Proust, Howard Fast's Citizen Tom Paine. I was a big fan of Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Richard Wright's Native Son. As a junior in high school, I started to write a novel myself about the slave trade. I actually did research about the construction of slave ships, how the "human cargo" was transported, and in my story, the ship's captain was converted to the abolitionist cause by the misery of what he witnessed. My high school English teacher, Mr. Baskerville, was quite impressed. I was the editor of the creative writing magazine, got to do special experiments in biology, and my father and I were going to take a worldwide trip when I graduated from high school just as he had done with his mother.
My father committed suicide on June 17, 1957, right before he was to go before the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was the summer before my senior year. I had been chosen to go to Girls State, but when it was revealed in the local newspaper that my father had belonged to a Marxist study group at the University of Chicago and perhaps volunteered on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, that invitation was withdrawn. My grades plummeted the next year. I couldn't concentrate. I lost first chair of the flute section in my school orchestra. The only college I applied to, the University of Chicago, rejected me. It never occurred to me to apply at U.C. Berkeley or Stanford or any of the wonderful colleges in California. Those schools were too close to home, not exotic, not part of the glorious destiny I was supposed to live out. Furthermore, my mother, who had never gone to college, had many more pressing problems than helping me apply to schools. She had become a serious and very difficult alcoholic. She lost the garment factory, Monterey Classics—which she and my father had established in order for her to give full reign to her creativity—for back taxes; and the house they had built, an architectural wonder for Pacific Grove in those days, had to be sold for taxes also. My youngest brother then was only one year old, my next youngest, ten, and the one closest to me in age, fourteen. We were estranged from our relatives, had few friends.
Thus, although I was the Salutatorian of the class of 1958 of Monterey High School, I did not have any idea of what I would do next. I had intended to become a professional novelist before I was twenty, just like the precocious French girl, Francoise Sagan. I was convinced I played the flute well enough to attend Julliard. I could be an anthropologist like Margaret Mead. I studied ballet, and although I never progressed to toe shoes, I could do modern dancing like Katherine Graham. I thought I had the wit of a Dorothy Parker, the brains of a Mary MacCarthy. Emma Goldman had been just a girl when she became famous. While we had not been raised Jewish, my father had been raised Jewish, was bar mitzvah, and his whole family was Jewish; since he was a suicide, the local Jewish cemetery did not allow him to buried on Jewish ground. His ashes were finally buried between his mother and father in a Milwaukee Jewish Cemetery. All too soon my life became something I tiptoed around, didn't want to come back to, avoided thinking about.
I know now, of course, that I should have gotten a job, helped my mother, gone to the local community college. Instead, at the end of my senior year, I married a man who was the antithesis of everything I knew—a man who was twenty-five years old, an unemployed high school dropout, a beatnik poet. He was a person who did not mind that I had been kicked out of Girls State and rejected by the University of Chicago, or that I was not a National Merit finalist, a man who did not care that my father was a suicide, that my mother was problematic; a man who liked that I was sort of Jewish, but not religious; a man who disdained the habits of the fifties, yet was not political; somebody who thought poetry was a living thing, not dead on the page. At the time I considered myself lucky. He was extremely good-looking and I had thought all through high school that I was not attractive enough to get married at all, even to a near-sighted professor. Many of my female classmates were already engaged when I graduated, few planned to go on to college.
I left my mother and three brothers to live "on the land" on the coast south of Big Sur. My husband was given one hundred and sixty acres by the son of a woman who had been hairdresser to Randolph Hearst's mistress, Marion Davis. We lived in a tent, then a trailer, while my husband built a stone house. The house is still there, now very spiffy; it was sold by my former husband after our divorce for one hundred and fifty dollars, and then again for a pack of cigarettes, and then a school bus. During the time on "the land," I only read books by Herman Hesse or those on Zen Buddhism. But after my husband left me and our child, I went back to Monterey where there was a new "college" opened in a large house by two idealistic young men. My daughter and I lived in that big house. I cleaned other houses for a living, wrote a paper on Plato's Republic. After a year or so, my husband came back and we returned to the land only for one day. Thereafter, my husband was jailed on the charge of manslaughter for the death of our daughter, was found to be an incipient schizophrenic, and when released killed two people, one stabbed on a Greyhound bus, and the other kicked to death in a hospital. By then we were divorced, and I had become a college student at Howard University, the historically Black College in Washington, D.C.
My parents were old-time liberals. I knew Paul Robeson's "Songs of Freedom" by heart. Racism was a mark of stupidity in our household. And I had lived in Brazil, a more racially diverse society than a small town in Northern California. I was used to feeling "different," so to look different, to be white at a historically black university, was not that much of a stretch for me even in 1961. There were a few white people in the graduate schools, certainly on the faculty, but we white people, did not seek each other out, although I did not really make that many friends among the student body—primarily, I believe, because I did not live in a dormitory. For my room and board I took care of the child of a family and I received a tuition scholarship from the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Fund, established by the owners of the Washington Post. Interestingly, I was later to be given a job in the library of the Washington Post. Unknown to anybody, I have always regarded that family, the Meyers and Grahams, as benefactors.
At Howard I read Henry James' Wings of a Dove, Thomas Hardy, Balzac, and over a vacation, Kafka. Years later, in Prague, when I was researching my book, The Book of Splendor, I remembered reading Kafka, gobs of snow falling outside my attic window. At Howard, Mr. Davis taught me how to write a research paper, a skill that has served me well. Miss Brau introduced me to the study of history. I read Ellison, Langston Hughes, saw the play Raisin in the Sun, met Stokely Carmichael, Claude Brown, attended a debate between Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X, did not take a class with Toni Morrison. I wrote a story for the creative writing magazine, Dasein. I began to think of myself as a writer, and I fell in love with a fellow student from Trinidad. By the time other students were going South to join the civil rights movement, I was pregnant and married.
My twins were born at George Washington Hospital, through a clinic for poor women that had not diagnosed that I had twins. When my first son was born, the doctor said: "Wait, there is something else in there," and then my second son was born. In the hospital, I stayed in the White Ward and my sons in the Colored Nursery. Each feeding, my babies had to cross the divide. I continued going to Howard part time, worked at night at the Washington Post library, and when my husband got a job in New York City, we moved to what was being heralded as the first integrated project in New York, Ebbetts Field. The truth was that in the early 1960s, it was extremely hard to find integrated housing in either New York City or Washington D.C., which I later wrote about in my story, "History," published in the Greensboro Review and later included in the O. Henry Awards, 1989, and Crossing the Color Line: Writing about Race.
I finished my bachelor's degree in English at Brooklyn College—graduated pregnant, passed their last requirement, a swimming test, looking like an eggplant. My daughter was born at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, which had no segregation, when I was in graduate school at NYU. Initially, I had wanted to be a doctor, and at Howard was encouraged to study biology by my teacher even though I considered my math skills shaky; but because of my limited study time, and the fact that I was a constant and fast reader of literature, I became an English major.
Howard University, from which I transferred eighty-seven credits to Brooklyn College, was a positive experience academically and in other ways as well. To be with students who had come from either segregated high school situations or where they had been overlooked, and yet went on with their lives, was a lesson that I, as a white person, needed to learn. In my high school in Monterey, California during the fifties, a college education was considered the domain of an elite, literally the cream of the crop. Howard gave me strength and determination to see beyond this and showed me, in a very practical way, that the world was larger than the particular prejudices of a conservative little town on the coast of California. The University of Chicago, Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, or the Ivy League were no longer the solitary bastions of knowledge and wisdom in the universe, the ivory towers to which we must be admitted or be ignored. The variety and complexity of the peoples of the world, the possibility of making a unique contribution within a large context, gave me strength and courage.
When we moved to Berkeley, where my husband was accepted in graduate school, we lived in married student housing, old Quonset hut living quarters of World War II industrial workers, yet paradise to young student families. We had grass, sandboxes, playgrounds, trees—an enormous relief after living on the twenty-fourth floor of an apartment house with only asphalt for the kids to play on. Nobody had to be bundled up, taken down in the elevator. The children could just go out and play. I was going to get a job, we were on "easy street." Then one of my children became seriously ill with rheumatoid arthritis, which limited my mobility. Yet my husband had a small fellowship, and in addition to subsidized married student housing, we were eligible for food stamps, were able to exchange clothes at the swapshop. Somebody gave us an old car which we pushed to the bus stop and sat in to wait for the bus. Just as I'd missed the civil rights movement down South, I missed the protests against Vietnam, except for the one time I had to scoop my kids out of the sandbox when helicopters accidentally dropped tear gas on married student housing. But I did not miss the rumblings of Second Wave feminism. At my Consciousness Raising group (which my husband let me go to), we sat cross legged on the floor, ate oatmeal cookies, showed each other our stretch marks, told each other we were not crazy, dumb, drudges, over the hill, or mere handmaidens.
The writers who appealed to me at that time were Grace Paley and Tillie Olson because they were working class women who wrote about contemporary, working-class women. I also became an avid reader of the New Yorker, checking it out at our weekly trips to the library, getting excited over the work of Donald Bartheleme and Ann Beattie for their liberating style. Of course I had read Joyce and Faulkner, but there, writers were here and now, every week, and it was somehow new to me that people could write every which way. I did not have to be a precise Henry James, a morally superior Russian writing for all time. I had my typewriter, an Olivetti set up on the kitchen table, and my nightingale, Vivaldi, both gifts of my mother with whom I had reconciled. I wrote every day, never finishing anything. Later, I did write a story about a woman who lived in married student housing, "Best Minds."
But, despite our relative ease at this time, I got depressed enough to have to go to the hospital. On a November Saturday, my daughter had hurt herself when she ran across the floor for a hug. I had missed grabbing her up in time, and the cut required stitches. That particular Saturday my brother had brought over his two kids to be babysat, so I had five kids inside during a rainy, dreary day. I knew I was a terrible mother, a bothersome wife, a failed person, not a real writer.
Kids were not allowed on our ward, which had little glow-worm sockets in the wall to light your cigarettes, but my husband brought them all to the parking lot in their best clothes, my sons in little suits with bow ties, and my daughter's hair brushed, which was quite a feat, and they stood there, waving to me up at my window, which had mesh wires in it so you couldn't jump out. I was so moved, so sorry, so ashamed. Like those in the Bible, I girded my loins, got better, and for the remaining time of our stay in Berkeley, I got a job typing requisitions for the Pacific Fleet at the Oakland Naval Yard. I had learned to type long ago by typing Shakespeare sonnets on our old upright typewriter on a table with a line of jars filled with pond water, which we looked at under my grandfather's old microscope. All of that stuff was long gone—the microscope, my father's accordion, the sculptures he made, the darkroom equipment, the dissecting kit, the book collection, the old seventy-eight records. My mother had sold or given away everything, and when I first read Elizabeth Bishop's "The Art of Losing," I thought: here is somebody who understands loss. Many years later, I took what were considered the family jewels, the last bit, my heritage, to sell in New York City—the stones supposedly from Brazil, the settings by Cartier—but I was told by the expert that they were worth nothing. That is the story.
My job at the Naval Yard while we lived in Berkeley, which I wrote about in my short story, "Tiger Talk/Crazy Cats," was a political betrayal because the supplies I requested in type were for the Navy, the Pacific Fleet of the Vietnam War. But the only other job I could get in Berkeley with a masters in English literature was working at McDonald's or being a maid in a hotel. We were all women in the requisition department, mostly black women, typing all day long on old manual uprights on the upper floor of a warehouse. Barely audible Muzak murmured all around us from eight in the morning until five at night, starting with "Anchors Away," ending with taps. It was a terrible job, I guess—two couches in the rest room to throw ourselves across for bad cramps during our two fifteen-minute breaks, and a sour, smelly lunch room—but we knew everything about each other, went out for drinks on payday, ate lunch together, phoned each other after work, brought cakes we had made, and hated the boss together, which we later regretted when he had family troubles. My best friend was an older woman who had one wooden leg. When she was to be married, she brought her white, size twenty-four wedding dress to work, hung it on the fan so we could all admire it the week before the wedding.
My husband finished his course work for his Ph.D. in economics in 1970 and took two additional years in Berkeley to work on his thesis, and then we moved back to Washington, D.C. where he had friends he knew in Trinidad and had come to Howard University with; it was a very tightly knit Trinidadian immigrant community. In 1972 he got a good job in a Washington, D.C. "think tank," and we were able to rent a nice house. My job was calling people who were overdue on their bills in the credit department of Sears and Roebuck, until I couldn't stand it anymore; then I was a typist in offices, a research assistant, a proposal writer for a group at Howard University, and finally a substitute teacher in the D.C. public schools. The schools were pretty tough, the "playgrounds" littered with broken glass and needles, but as bad as they were, and as frustrating, I really liked the kids, and I loved being in a classroom again however perilous. Once, however, a kid roaming in the hallway opened our door and threw a fire cracker in. I wasn't sure what it was, but I noticed all the kids draw back, then heard the pop. I thought I was shot. That was the day I quit. Some of the kids followed me in the hall and said: "Ah, don't go, don't leave us."
The problem was my fault. I didn't have a teaching certificate, had never geared myself for a "real job." I knew it wasn't fair to have my husband support me, and since the beginning of my working life, all my jobs had been low paying, a fact which proved a major rub in our family. Somehow I always thought of my work-work as temporary, for I had not let go of the idea that I wanted to stay home, raise kids without working outside the home, and yes, write books. While I had vaguely counted on the masters degree I had earned at New York University, it turned out that because my son was sick and I couldn't afford to make payments on my National Defense Loan, my transcript and degree were held back, and by the time I paid the loan off, the requirement for the masters had changed.
I think when you have children, you learn to never give up. Furthermore, I was a person of considerable energy. After I had written quite a few stories and part of a novel while holding more jobs in the Washington, D.C. area, I heard of somebody we knew who had been accepted at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MA program. Thus, I was inspired to believe that I, too, might have a chance in such a milieu. Baltimore was only an hour away from where we lived, and the graduate program in writing was granting teaching fellowships. The secretary at Johns Hopkins discouraged me from applying, told me how many gifted and important people had gone through the program, but I had gone to Howard University and knew about gate-keepers, so I applied, got a teaching fellowship. The first day I taught class at Hopkins, the students asked why I was shouting, and I realized that I no longer had to shout to get a student's attention.
Thirty-five years old, with three children in grammar school, I commuted from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore. The other students in the Johns Hopkins program were twenty-one, twenty-two, straight out of Ivy League colleges and on the verge, it seemed, of distinguishing themselves in the literary world. Our teacher was John Barth. It was heady company, the stakes high, and it was the first time I had been around writers, around people who might actually take me seriously. Unsure of myself, not even knowing quite how to socialize, a klutz in all ways possible, I did not have time to worry. I wrote stories, went back to the novel I started. I worked like a fiend. Going to Johns Hopkins was a major turning point in my life.
And yet, when I finished the program and returned to substitute teaching, I had not placed a single story, nor for that matter had any of my former classmates. It was a discouraging year, but I wasn't starving. My kids and husband were doing okay, so on the strength of the fact that somebody in the program had applied for a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, been a finalist, I applied the following year at Stanford and was awarded a Stegner. My husband instantly quit his job in Washington, D.C. to finish his dissertation. I went to Stanford anyway. By living with my mother, who let my daughter and me stay with her gratis; teaching at a community college, which I, with my MA, was qualified to do; and working in one of the Stanford libraries (my story "Human Behavior" is set at Stanford), while getting a small living stipend from the Stegner, I could send money home to the household. My sons had stayed behind with my husband in the Washington area.
In Palo Alto, I felt like I had joined the country club. To my urban eyes, Stanford in 1976 was full of white kids with beautiful teeth, California tans, tennis rackets in their hands. I, too, was one of the privileged, having only to attend one class. True enough, I still hadn't published anything, was clumsy in company, yet at Stanford, I wrote "Arrowheads," "The Red Fridge," "Lessons in Love," "Communique," "Me at the Gas Station," and worked on the novel which was never published, Fellow Travelers, but from which I took my story, "Basil the Dog." Stanford was the kind of college experience I had never had. I was on the Creative Writing baseball team, which played "The History of Thought"; was in the Trivia Bowl; went to a few functions. My mother, who drove me to school every day on her way to work at the Redwood City Knitting Mills, kept saying: "I can't believe you got into Stanford." My brother, the one seven years younger than I, had earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from U.C. Berkeley and subsequently worked in a lab at Stanford; my father had been a graduate student at Stanford; so although my mother and I had our bad moments, I was amazed that she didn't think I was smart enough to be at Stanford. But she was wonderful to me that year, and one teacher at Stanford encouraged me—Richard Scowcroft, an academic of the old school, a venerable man, a dear soul. The emphasis at Hopkins had been experimental writing, the vanguard, writing on the cusp of change. Stanford was straightforward nineteenth-century narrative. I was happy to be exposed to both approaches, and eventually found my way between the two.
After that glorious year, I returned to the Washington area and began to teach full-time in Catholic all-girl high schools. The nuns in both of the schools I taught at in the Maryland area were progressive, socially-minded, amazingly kind to me. Not a Catholic, a little rough around the edges, prickly with ambition, I was given a chance by Sister Sharon. I learned at La Reine and Regina how to teach, how to convey information, how to listen to students. I taught American Literature, English Literature, Freshman Composition, Journalism. A feminist in theory, at those schools I saw feminism in action. It was the first time I was in a crowd cheering all-female athletic teams or observed clubs run by young women; the newspaper, which I taught, was edited by a girl, and all the students were aggressively counseled. Many of the girls, non-Catholic African American students from Washington, D.C., were placed in universities across the country. Later, I was to teach for a year at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and was again impressed by the level of the faculty's involvement in the education of their students.
In terms of my own writing, I owe a great deal to the support from my colleagues, both lay and religious, at the high schools where I taught, and to Jay Neuborgen at the Massachusetts Review, who suggested by letter that I submit my stories to various magazines at the same time. Previously I had sent my stories out one at a time, letting them sit there for three or four months. A story would only go to three or four places a year. My story, "The Red Fridge," was almost accepted by Frances Kiernan at the New Yorker, and C. Michael Curtis commented favorably on a couple of stories. I got a five-page letter from an editor at Redbook, Jacqueline Johnson, on my story, "Arrowheads." But it was my story, "History," after being sent to twenty small magazines, that was accepted by Jim Clark at the Greensboro Review, later to be included in the O. Henry Awards. My other story, "Demiurges," included in the O. Henry Awards in 1992, originally published in the Senora Review, also went to about twenty magazines before it was accepted.
A writer in my state of Indiana, who was asked for a comment about me, offered the adjective "driven," and while I do not think it was meant as a compliment, I think it is true. Growing up in California, I was told I had an "east coast" personality. I have never been "cool," have always been intense, and have worked hard at whatever I did. I feel now, as an older writer who has struggled financially and emotionally most of my life, that I am playing "catch up." Sometimes when I am working on a novel, I get scared that something will happen to prevent me from finishing or that I will die or get Alzheimer's. Thus, I never have writer's block and jealously guard my writing time. Like most writers, I have had to struggle to get representation and acceptance. When I got the job as an assistant professor at Indiana University South Bend, in 1986, it was the first time I could make the concentrated effort a novel required. My sons had graduated from college by that time, my daughter was in her second year of college, and my husband and I were divorced.
During the twenty-five years we were together, I had tried to write on themes my husband would be interested in, and my time at Johns Hopkins and Stanford had been particularly difficult on the family. At the same time, I had hesitated in giving in fully to my writing, believing such dedication was the privilege of genius or the self-indulgent, and that I, as an ordinary person, did not have the right to hurt other people in the pursuit of a passion that did not promise income. But when I moved to Indiana to work at Indiana University South Bend in 1986 at age forty-six, I felt I had earned the right to work at what I loved. I published my collection of short stories in 1989; my first novel, Vindication, in 1993; my second novel, Green, in 1995; had my third novel, Fellow Travelers, rejected; and published The Book of Splendor in 2002. In between 1986 and 2002, I have won two O. Henry Awards and was in one Best American Short Stories anthology.
My novel, Vindication, was inspired by an entry in a textbook I used when I was teaching high school. On one side of the page was an excerpt from Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, and on the other side was a selection by Virginia Woolf on the wretchedness of Mary Wollstonecraft's childhood. Mary Wollstonecraft, an eighteenth-century English-woman, was not conspicuously talented, nor was she formally educated. Unlucky in love, dying of childbed fever when she gave birth at thirty-eight to Mary Godwin Shelley, she, despite her continuous battle with poverty, depression, and gender discrimination, led a courageous life and left us with one of the early documents of feminism. From the beginning of my research, I knew that Mary, although separated from me by nearly two hundred years, was The One. Such a moment was comparable to knowing I could read, understanding the importance of Howard University, riding the subway to Brooklyn College Night School, hearing John Barth speak, having Sister Sharon tell me I could teach, giving birth, feeling that I had joined the universe.
I began to read more about Mary Wollstonecraft, and went to England in the summer of 1987. I quickly became caught up in the details of daily life in the eighteenth century, and found myself researching clothing, food, plumbing, Bedlam, child rearing practices, the idea of "pin money," why we talk about "skeletons in the closet," what the terms "stuck up," "bluestocking," "dime novels" originally meant.
In London, I stayed in a bedsit. Crouching before a little electric heater, I would have an avocado for dinner every night, my little piece of sun. Every day as I tromped around to museums, along streets Mary had walked, I thought of my avocado. Though speaking the same language as the natives, I felt alien, lonely. St. Pancras Church where Mary Wollstonecraft married William Godwin and was originally buried was surrounded by industry, dilapidation. The churchyard was mired in mud. I, an American and the Anglican priest, an African, looked up the marriage records together in a church nearly empty of worshippers. On another pilgrimage, this one to Karl Marx's grave, a living resident of the graveyard, a man of many cats, told me that Karl Marx actually had a secret grave, and when he led me to it, deep within unkempt High-gate grass, he opened his London Fog raincoat, revealed his pale English genitalia. Afternoons I drank milky tea in cafeterias, wrote postcards to everybody I knew. There were other, gladder moments. For instance, in Langhorne, where Dylan Thomas wrote in a boathouse, I saw a white horse munching in the city cemetery, and a man out in the mudflats with a metal detector found a ring, gave it to me. Members of a Scotch soccer team on a bus to Edinburgh talked to me, as did the Irish on the streets and in the tube.
In the last year of writing Vindication, I took a one-year leave of absence from Indiana University to teach at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, for a number of reasons, but primarily because my duties at Indiana were such that it is impossible to write a novel during the school year. While in Milwaukee, I had to take myself to the hospital again, and it was there in 1990 that I was diagnosed as a manic depressive and began a regime of medication that I have been on ever since. In a place unlike the popular conception of mental wards, I thrived under the care and attention I received at Columbia Hospital in Milwaukee. It was the first time I had a name for what I was feeling and was treated for a sickness which had probably been in my family for generations. Both my father and aunt had committed suicide. My mother was suicidal. And although it may be argued that the people in the hospital were paid to attend to me, not real friends, they made all the difference in the world.
When I was discharged, I had trouble with spatial perceptions, couldn't drive, would get lost, fall off curves. A student escorted me to class, picked me up afterwards. It sounds unlikely, but I had also made friends in the hospital, and they introduced me to other friends, a family who had alphabet potlucks, which meant that at an A dinner we had artichokes and aspic, at a B dinner could only bring Brussels spouts and broccoli. Meanwhile the former Soviet Union was crumbling; I was oblivious. One dark snowy afternoon, when I could walk by myself again, I saw a tree with small red berries on it. It was so piercingly beautiful that I took heart, knew that I would get better. And I did. I moved from the mausoleum of the house I had been "house sitting"/renting in Milwaukee to an apartment which had been a bar on National Avenue, with the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign still up; two bathrooms a men's and a women's; a restaurant kitchen; and a big sign in front of the window of the Marlboro Man. My concentration was fierce, and on the last day I was in Milwaukee, I finished Vindication.
I was very happy with what I had done, had confidence in my work. I wanted it to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, my dream publisher. I sent it to four agents; four agents turned me down, one of whom regularly placed her clients' work at FSG. I had read an interview in a magazine featuring Jonathan Franzen who noted that Jonathan Galassi was a very supportive editor, so I decided to send him my novel on my own. After two weeks I was contacted by Galassi who wrote that he was enjoying my book. After three weeks, he said he wanted to buy my book and asked me if anybody else had read it. I thought he meant agents, and I lied, said no. It was only later that I realized he meant other publishers. Before that I had confessed with great embarrassment that four agents had turned me down. He asked me who they were and I said I couldn't remember because I was afraid if he heard the name of the favorite FSG agent, he would have second thoughts about my book, take back his offer. I did get a contract for it and my next book from FSG, and the editor for Green, set in California during the fifties, was Tamara Straus, Roger Straus' granddaughter. Green did not do well either commercially or critically, although Vindication was nominated for a Book Circle Critics Award, and I was subsequently given tenure at my university. My third book was turned down by FSG. Crestfallen, I withdrew it from consideration anywhere.
Except for my novel Green set in California during the fifties, to talk about my novels is really to talk about my travels. My travels are not merely research; they are also opportunities for me to slip into the context, get in the mood. The two summers before I had my third novel rejected by FSG, newly remarried, I had a summer job teaching creative writing to American students in Prague. My father's mother's people were from Prague and all but one who had not emigrated to the U.S. were shipped to Treblinka and then Auschwitz, where they perished. Prague is a mysterious, magical city full of puppets and street theater, foggy alleys haunted by ghosts of bygone murders, an astronomical clock with figures that come out of the small clock door every hour. History is alive on the stone bridge, now the Charles Bridge that spans the Vlatava River; in the alleyways and the various steep walkways that wend their way up the castle. The castle itself is the castle of the sixteenth century, Kafka's Castle, and contained, when I was there, the offices of the playwright-President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel. My novel, The Book of Splendor, was beginning to insinuate itself, find a place in my mind.
I was particularly interested in Rudolph II, the Hapsburg emperor who moved the capital city of his empire to Prague in the late sixteenth century. He was, like several members of that family, highly eccentric. At the same time his collection of art, curiosities, and his zoo, rivaled any in Europe at that time. He had a pet lion, hired the famous alchemists John Dee (who supposedly served as model for Shakespeare's Prospero) and Kelley (a mountebank), and the astronomers, Tyco Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Rudolph II employed a sixty-seven piece orchestra and a full choir to be at attendance at all times. He made the former stables of the castle into an alchemist row, so that gold and an elixir of eternal life could be more easily produced. It was during this time that Prague became also a capital of Jewish learning, and legendary Rabbi Loew supposedly created the Golem of Prague. How could one not write a novel about such a place?
Before we went to Prague, we spent some time in Poland, where I took the bus to Auschwitz. The bus to the concentration camp, full of Polish students, was absolutely silent. (I wrote about this in my story, "Jaws of Life.") The bus before us had a flat tire on a road and we stopped to pick up those passengers, so our bus became even more crowded. Ordinarily the Polish buses were full of chattering people taking out thick, dark bread sandwiches of pink ham, purple onions. But this was silent. And in fact the most notable thing about the former concentration camp to me was not the display cases full of suitcases, eyeglasses, hair, and shoes, but the great silence of generations lost. I suppose my novel, The Book of Splendor, was a small attempt to break the silence, resurrect a community. My decision to try to become an observant Reform Jew, study Hebrew and Jewish history, and join a congregation was perhaps born of that utter emptiness.
My earlier trip to Israel in 1994, however, was not the grand homecoming I had imagined. I took El Al, of course, and as the plane touched down, my heart soared. I had a book about Israel vaguely in mind, had not started anything new, was open to whatever I would see. My initial surprise was how very tropical the country was with its swaying palm trees and warm, dry wind. It was not a little piece of Europe transposed onto the desert as I imagined, but definitely Middle Eastern, Sephardic in terms of food, atmosphere on the street, the appearance of people. Initially supposed to stay at a hostel in East Jerusalem, I had not figured on the cab driver from the airport not driving me there. Instead, he drove me to a place near the King David plaza, deposited me on the sidewalk in the middle of the night. The streets were dark, deserted; finally somebody opened the shutters of a window, came downstairs to unlock the door. I ended up staying in West Jerusalem first, then in East Jerusalem in an Arab hostel, and lastly in a convent in Ein Karem with French nuns; and I traveled all over the country from the Golan Heights and Haifa to Eilat on the rickety, but heroic, Egged bus system, even went on a nature tour of the Negev dessert. This was in 1994, and although we were warned of bombs on the buses and there were incidents while I was there, I never felt afraid. The Israelis were so talkative, so valiant, that perhaps it was contagious, and I did not experience any hostility from Arabs. The nuns I lived with in Ein Karem took me to Bethlehem on Christmas, and a storekeeper, a Muslim, believing I, too, was a nun, asked me to "pray for peace, Sister." Ironically, I did experience hostility from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish men even though I wore long skirts, covered my head and arms, did not look anybody in the eye, and was careful not to bump up against anybody on a crowded sidewalk. I wrote about Israel in my short story, "My Winter Vacation," but that story was never published.
Israel was the last place I traveled alone, and it was with my new husband that I went to Prague, first in 1995, to Poland, and to Budapest. In Budapest, we stayed at the former workers' hostel where everything was stolen out from under us—the light bulbs out of their sockets in the bathroom, toilet paper, the toilet seats, the shower heads, shower knobs, door knobs, curtains. Old habits die hard. On the other hand, the fancy hotels in the Buda part of Budapest would not let us into their lobbies to see their views. Poland was wonderful, and although I had been warned about how anti-Semitic it was, I did not find that to be the case. Eastern Europe as a whole seemed to be waking up from a long, winter's sleep. People carried big bouquets of flowers, art shows popped up everywhere, every street corner had street theater; musicians played gay tunes, couples kissed on trolleys, girls in short skirts and high heels sashayed with great confidence. This combined with vestiges of former Soviet privation—threadbare suits, dark sweaters, babuskaed women, dreary subway stops—made for a very interesting picture of a society in transition. Like that in Mexico, the daily modus operandi full of small courtesies and meaningful moments proved instructive for a person from a country of uniform franchises, strip malls, the drabness of highways, the feeling of failure if you are not rich and famous.
As far as my writing habits go, I never get writer's block, as stated earlier, although I realize that there are times when I am less inspired than others. If permitted by the schedule of my job, I like to write in the morning and write directly on the computer. I take notes when I travel, by hand in lab notebooks, and sometimes take notes at night.
I teach between fifty and sixty students in three courses a semester of creative writing. They write a story every two weeks. My own reading, except when I am focused on the history of a particular person, time or place for a book, is eclectic. I like to read fiction "hot off the press," and keep up although I am somewhat at a distance from the literary world. I suppose my books fit into the category of what is called New History, so I follow books in that area with particular interest. I liked Russell Banks' work on John Brown, Andrea Barrett's stuff, A.S. Byatt, Jeanette Winterston, Geraldine Brooks' book on the plague, Caleb Carr and Iain Pear's mysteries, The Fig Eater. I have just finished Monica Ali's Brick Lane, which I liked immensely and have started Jonathan Letham's Fortress of Solitude. I loved Motherless Brooklyn. I am caught by general histories, such as the history of tulips and chocolate, the story of the Wright Brothers, early Hollywood. I know the evolution of undergarments, department stores, one room school houses, cars, musical instruments, cookbooks, mystery books, corn, dogs, silver and gold. I love a good story.
Writing is a perilous business, and in many respects I find you are never home free. Even if you are lucky enough to be published and to gain a readership, there is always the sense that next time you will write a better book, truly say what you want to say, have, in a sense, the last word. Sometimes when I see a student set out on this path, I fear for her—the disappointments she may face, the struggle she will have to endure. Yet, I can think of no more fulfilling way to spend one's time. To write is to make a world, inhabit it, flourish and flower. Furthermore life itself has no guarantees, and in my case, I don't think it will be finished even if I live to be seventy or eighty. Possibility always beckons. We are given a chance each day, every hour. In the words of Walter Mosley's big bear of a hero, Socrates Fortlow, "it ain't over till it's over."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 81, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Sherwood, Frances, Green, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
Sherwood, Frances, Vindication, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1993.
Antioch Review, winter, 1996, Gerda Oldham, review of Green, p. 115.
Booklist, May 15, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of The Book of Splendor, p. 1587.
Harper's Bazaar, May, 1993, Catherine Texier, review of Vindication, pp. 70, 72.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1995, review of Green, p. 736; May 15, 2002, review of The Book of Splendor, p. 696.
Library Journal, July, 1995, review of Green, p. 123. 40.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 9, 1993, Richard Eder, review of Vindication, pp. 3, 9; September 3, 1999, review of Green, p. 2.
New Statesman and Society, June 4, 1993, review of Vindication, p. 40.
Newsweek, June 7, 1993, Laura Shapiro, review of Vindication, p. 64.
New York Times, July 5, 2002, Richard Eder, "Mad Emperor Meets His Match in a Rabbi with a Lifesaving Spell."
New York Times Book Review, July 11, 1993, Margaret Forster, review of Vindication, p. 21; August 20, 1995, review of Green, p. 7.
People, October 16, 1995, Jennifer Kornreich, review of Green, p. 40.
Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1992, p. 20; March 1, 1993, review of Vindication, p. 36; May 29, 1995, review of Green, p. 65; May 20, 2002, review of The Book of Splendor, p. 45.
Times Literary Supplement, May 21, 1993, review of Vindication, p. 23; April 19, 1996, review of Green, p. 24.
Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1993, review of Vindication, pp. 14-15.
Washington Post Book World, June 27, 1993, review of Vindication, p. 9; September 24, 1995, review of Green, p. 14.
Women's Review of Books, September, 1995, review of Green, p. 22.