I have applied for an NEA, let's just say, numerous times. It had become something I just did, to quote Isak Dinesen, "without hope and without despair." When Dana Gioia actually called, at first I thought it must have something to do with the reading series I organize. I put on my polite, bureaucratic voice. It wasn't until about five minutes into the conversation that I realized what this was about - and then I was pretty much speechless.
Writing a novel takes a certain amount of obsession, and that takes a quiet mind, or at least an ability to quiet and focus the mind; I have had a very cluttered mind for too long now. I am going to use my fellowship to take time off from teaching, to clear some space for writing. This imaginative space, this room of my own, is the gift of the endowment, and I am deeply grateful.
From the novel Sweet Honesty
I'll start in February, when my mother, Evie, took off for the frontier.
February is a brittle, elegant month in the northeastern United States. February's sky is a bruised sunset at four in the afternoon. Its sign is a leafless birch tree. Think Icabod Crane. It's a dog barking, a field of papery corn stalks. Think of a month full of hungry ghosts.
In February, 2002, I was an eight week old fetus, too feathery for my mother to feel me, although she knew I was there. In February, I was an inch long, all head, webbed hands and feet, a see-through thing, my skin as thin as paper. Nothing was private from me though, and no one had ever been in that deep.
How much did Scheherazade love the sultan? Or Joseph love Pharaoh? How can we pry apart love and need? Three minutes without her and my heart would stop. Has anyone ever loved you like that?
I love my mother more than she loves herself, and I know her better than she knows herself, because I have just the tiniest distance. I was never quite her.
Maybe my mother didn't feel the same way, not yet. Maybe I was just a comma, my bones still soft, but I intended to hang on. And I can tell her story, from the inside. My mother was not simply a conniving whore, a Jezebel, a puta, a monster, as you will come to understand. (I could tell you who was a monster, but I'm not revengeful.)
And maybe she was a monster, in the way that Mary Rowlandson was a monster, since the definition of monster is unnaturally marvelous, or one who is compounded of elements from several forms - since monster comes from the old French, to remind. Since all women are a little monstrous in that sense, aren't they?
In fact we could call my mother Mary. Mary, of course, has flattering associations for myself. But let's call her by her middle name, Eve, nicknamed Evie, because a middle name is you, but not you. Think of me as my mother's middle name.
If I were to try and tell this story the way it felt for my mother in the living of it, I would have to give it all to you, right now, a scalding mix of emotion, like a cup of hot chocolate, so rich and dark, it's hard to tell the difference between sweet and bitter.
But let's face it, we're not working in chocolate or even in feelings. We've got the alphabet, black marks on white paper. We've got one word, another, one page, another. I plan to tell this story one month at a time, trying not to get ahead of myself, trying not to hide anything. I just want to get out of the way of my mother's story, so you'll understand. You'll barely remember I'm here.
And of course, even without me, my mother is not corporeally alone in February, because she still has my father, the very recently dead one, curled inside of her like a twin that has been absorbed by her body, a fossil that crowds her organs as much as I do.
We're all buried in the middle of western New York, surrounded by a wilderness of closed down factories, fallow fields and little towns with boarded up main streets. We've rented a farmhouse on a dead end dirt road.
This whole place is shot to hell.