Nana fishing

The fisherman comes up
Puts his two poles in the sand
Stares out at the sea
Just exactly like me
But I’ve got a book in my hand
We will have caught on to something
By the end of the day
But mostly we think about
The one that got away

Indigo Girls ~ Fleet of Hope

This is my maternal grandmother, Dottie Kalb, but at first glance, friends think it’s me. Something about the weather turning cold, makes me miss her. Is it simply that the holidays are approaching and I have no time to spend at the island? Winter is a time for reflection, right? I have  no idea which Florida coast she’s on, but I’ve treasured this picture since I discovered it. I have her hair, curling wildly in humidity, her nose, her mouth, and cheeks. We even wait on our fish, pondering the water similarly.

When I spent the most time with her, she and my grandfather lived in a mobile home park for retirees in central Florida, about an hour away from me. I spent weeks with them in the summer and they took me to good old Florida hot spots like Weeki Wachee Springs to see the mermaids, Crystal River to swim with the manatees (more like manatee poop!), Silver Springs for the glass-bottom boats, Cypress Gardens for the water ski show (now Lego Land). But our afternoons were spent at the pool with her friends, listening to gossip or sitting on someone’s porch doing puzzles and playing cards until Jeopardy! came on.

I remember going through her costume jewelry and seeing pictures of her dressed up, but she always wore shorts and t-shirts and drug me to flea markets for ‘finds’. She loved the beach and the garden and never minded getting dirty or wet.

I think this ache of missing her began when Hubs and I showed the DVD of our wedding to the kids last weekend. At first they groaned, but when they started recognizing people (“Uncle Tim had HAIR?!”) it got exciting. My grandmother was in a wheelchair at my wedding, was very shaky and needed help moving into the pew. My kids never knew her because she died six weeks after my wedding.

My dad’s mom always says the same thing about my Nana, “Dottie was a great lady. She behaved the same around everybody. Comfortable with the highest of the high and the lowest of the low.”

Every memory I have of her has to do with water or treasure. My brain knows she lived in Virginia and Georgia and elsewhere, but to me, she will always be Florida and mermaids and holidays and whispering secrets and “Honey, this is what we’re going to do…”

Rachel Simon is the award-winning author and nationally known public speaker. She is best known for her critically acclaimed, bestselling memoir RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER, which was adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie of the same name. The book has garnered numerous awards, and is a frequent and much beloved selection of many book clubs, school reading programs, and city-wide reads throughout the country.

Rachel and I share a common bond as siblings of adults with disabilities. When I asked her for an interview, she responded immediately. In the short time I have known her, she has been nothing but encouraging. Her latest book, THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL, is a NY Times Bestseller. 

Hi, Rachel!  Please tell us, when did you first get the writing bug?

I’m one of those people who figured out that writing was my life’s path almost as soon as I learned to write. I actually remember the moment when I had the realization. One afternoon, when I was seven, and my mother needed one of her daily afternoon naps, she asked me to lie down beside her and nap as well. She did this often, even though I rarely felt as tired as she did at that time of day. So as usual, I just stayed awake, daydreaming. And that day, my thoughts went to that dumb question adults kept asking me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It was always an irritating question, because in that era – the early 1960’s – girls were allowed only a few acceptable answers: teacher, nurse, mommy, or ballerina. None of these excited me, so I thought it was high time for me to come up with an answer just to shut them up. As I asked myself the question, I remember looking up at the ceiling, which had cracked paint, and which, hard as I tried, could never be made to form itself into anything recognizable. Suddenly I just knew that I’d be a writer. I’ve wondered since what it was about the cracked paint that led me to this conclusion, and I think it was the desire to form something meaningful out of something that otherwise seemed random. I’ve come to see this as one of the primary goals of any art: to create order out of chaos.

I was quite satisfied with this answer, but didn’t get serious about writing immediately. As it turned out, my family moved soon thereafter, and a few months later my parents split up, so I was pretty miserable for a long time. However, I started writing letters to all my friends from my earlier home, and soon I was corresponding several times a week with half a dozen girls. I realized that each wrote in what I would now call her own voice, and that each also had difference topics that interested her. I decided to learn how to write in a way that synced up with the interests and voices of each, and so by the time I was nine, I’d become pretty good at taking on multiple voices. That year we moved again, and the family typewriter (a big old manual) was given a prominent spot on my mother’s desk. I decided I needed to get more disciplined, so I started writing short stories, then taught myself to type so I could put them in typed form. By seventh grade I’d started working on a novel, in ninth grade my father gave me an electric typewriter (what joy!), and by the end of high school I’d written four book-length works of fiction.

Little by little I gained some skill with craft, and I also gained some confidence. I sold my first book when I was twenty-nine – and, by the way, unagented. I didn’t get the agent until I already had an offer.

I switched from fiction to nonfiction for my third, fourth, and fifth books, but now with book #6, The Story of Beautiful Girl, I’m back to fiction.

You are most known for your memoir, RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER, which was made into a movie. But your latest book, THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL, is a work of fiction set in the late 1960’s about a couple with disabilities. Can you tell us about your research and how you went about gathering what you needed?

My sister Beth has an intellectual disability. When she was born in 1960, it wasn’t uncommon for doctors to recommend to parents that they place children like my sister in institutions, but my parents never considered that option. I had little idea about the way people who lived there were treated.  Many years later, I wrote about Beth and our relationship in Riding The Bus With My Sister, and soon after it was released, I started getting asked to do public speaking around the country at disability-related conferences.  There I met people who, because they already knew me through my memoir, opened up and shared their own personal or professional experiences, and some of these stories involved institutions

Over and over, I returned home, reeling.  The reality of institutions had obviously been widespread and affected millions of people—yet no one outside these conferences spoke about such things.  In fact, the only institutions most Americans even seemed to be aware of were psychiatric institutions, which is an entirely different system from the institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  My curiosity finally stoked, I began collecting books and documentaries on the subject. At the same time, I developed friendships with many people in the disability community, from scholars to staff people, self-advocates to family members.  From my conversations with these new friends, I began learning about disabilities other than the one my sister has, as well as many issues of social justice that were outside my own experience. I then started wondering if I could write something, fiction or nonfiction, that dealt with some of this material, but I couldn’t figure out how.

Then one day, as I was wrapping up a talk, I came across a book at a vendor’s table, God Knows His Name: The True Story of John Doe No. 24, by Dave Bakke.  In 1945, I learned, a deaf, African American teenager was found wandering the streets inIllinois.  No one understood his sign language so no one knew who he was.  A judge declared him “feebleminded” and he was put away in one of these institutions.  There he remained, despite the suspicion of many staff that he had no intellectual disability at all, until he died fifty years later.  The tragedy of John Doe No. 24 haunted me, and led me to read a lot of material about Deaf culture, and the African American Deaf (and deaf) experience.

Then in 2007, the creative writing department where I’d taught for over a decade decided to restructure the department and I was let go.  Grieving the loss of a job and students I had loved, I set about trying to figure out what to do with my life.  I was sure of only one thing: I wanted to keep writing.  Though what I wanted to write about, I didn’t know.

In this vulnerable state, I sat down with a blank pad of paper, waiting to see what would emerge.  Instantly, there it was.  The novel I’d been vaguely thinking about all this time.

It is 1968.  Night.  A rain storm.  An elderly widow is reading a book.  Who is she, I asked myself, and without hesitation, I knew: she was a retired schoolteacher, in a state of grief.  Unlike me, her grief was for a child and a bad marriage; like me, she had stayed in touch with her former students.  A knock comes to her door.  Who is it, I asked myself.  Again, I knew.  Standing before her is a woman who has my sister’s disability—and a man similar to John Doe No. 24.  The woman is the love of his life. Although I don’t know it for another fifty pages, he calls her Beautiful Girl.  They have just escaped from an institution—and Beautiful Girl has just borne a baby girl.  I continued writing, and the whole first chapter spilled out.  When I reached its ending, I was as shocked as my readers have been.  I had no idea she would say to the widow: “Hide her.”

So a lot of the research happened by accident, or through my personal life, before I even began the writing. However, once the book was underway, I did get more directed. I arranged interviews with my new friends, or people they knew.  From these interviews, I learned many details about life inside and outside of the institutions. Some of these details were sad, as you’d imagine, but others were a lot of fun. For instance, one friend spent several hours talking about a cross-country trip that he went on when he was a teenager, where his companion was his best friend, who had spinal cord injury.  Another friend talked with me about alternate forms of communication when people are nonverbal.  I also spoke with staff people who had a great deal to share about individuals they’d served, and loved, in their past.

But I think it’s important to note that I didn’t wait to start writing until I had all my research done. I started writing the book because I was sad and didn’t know what to do with myself, and then I completed the research as I went along.

How is your next project going?

I try not to talk about ongoing work until it’s finished. So for now I’ll just say that the burner is on.

What is your greatest challenge?

Only one? Gee. Well, if I must limit myself, I suppose I’d say it’s my extroverted personality. I just find everyone so fascinating, especially if I’m lucky enough to have the chance to speak with people one-on-one. In fact, when I was younger, I decided that my goal in life was to meet everyone in the world. Though I’m far from that goal, I will admit to being one of those people who has hundreds of friends (and I don’t just mean the Facebook kind), and I try to keep up with them all. As you might imagine, a person who’s this social might have a challenge going on a people diet so she can sit alone in a room and write.  I’m lucky in that I also really enjoy being by myself, and I don’t mind doing so for very long stretches of time. But I just love meeting and speaking with people, so sometimes I have to get very strict with myself in order to get back to work.

When do you feel the most victorious?

I think most people assume that as a writer, I would have my happiest moments when I win an award or get a very positive, high-placed review. And it’s true that those are indeed happy moments.  But I feel even happier when I find a creative way to work through some difficulty in my writing. That’s quite thrilling. I’m also deeply satisfied when I hear from or meet people with disabilities, their family members, or staff people, and when they tell me that I gave voice to their own thoughts, feelings, and stories.  In addition, I love when they then share their personal experiences with me. I feel very fortunate to have gained their trust, and to learn about their lives so deeply.

Thanks so much for your time, Rachel! To learn more about Rachel Simon, please visit her at http://www.rachelsimon.com.

 

 

 

I have a friend who has a terrific time coming up with names, but the names? Quite frankly, my dear… dry as a corn husk. I have another friend who dreads it, but her names roll off the end of the tongue like extra cherries at the bottom of your milkshake. They’re juicy, fit the character perfectly.

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about my obsession with cemeteries. A friend of mine works for Dachshund Dream Rescue in Atlanta & needed fresh names. Because of my crazy obsession and name banking compulsion, I sent her 200  names like Acel, Cobb, Mettie, Euphemia T. Proudfoot, Zodie, Moody, and Gillam. That was just the name bank that was on my phone.

That time of year is creeping up again, when it’s not too hot, not too cold.  I highly suggest pulling off the side of the road at an old church.  Jot down your favorite names. Add them to your name bank. You never know when you need a Mettie with a wandering eye or a Cobb who lost his foot in a war. Moody did not sell Bibles, though. I promise you. But Zodie read tea leaves in her kitchen for $5 a pop.

Another route ( if you’re spooked by cemeteries) is Ancestry.com. This summer, I discovered that I have an ancestor named Pleasant Melvin Alexander. I am so not kidding. If Ancestry.com is pricey for you, go in with a cousin and you can each explore different ends of the family under the same password.

Another way to do names is to identify the thing that most describes/embodies your character. Here are some easy examples. For a cheat or a weasel,  “Wesley”. If you have someone who seems dreamy and lives for escapism, feel free to use “Misty”. For a liar, I’ve used “Lila” and for someone who offers forgiveness, “Joshua.”

For secondary characters, sometimes nicknames-as-names work best to remind the reader of that character’s role in the story. Say the Dad is enthusiastic and older and fast-talking, instead of calling him “Dad”, call him “Pop”. A sweet aunt can be “Aunt Sugar”, especially in the Southern US. For an aunt who cleaned until her fingers cracked, I have used “Aunt Blanche”.

There are a gazillion ways to go about this, I’d be interested in hearing yours!

“You gotta write about the Florida stuff. You know. When you were out on the island alone with the kids and the manatee scared you and you fell off the boat.”

“Well-”

“And you scraped your foot on the barnacles and couldn’t come back to Atlanta ‘cuz you couldn’t drive because you wouldn’t get stitches?”

When something happens and I say I might use it, someday, my mom only remembers the version that comes out of the shaky end of the HP printer. Often friends and family members have over-invested, over-blown ideas about what I’m writing.

(There’s times when they totally ignore it- this is not one of those times)

I crunch my Trader Joe’s corn chip. Mom has just come from Atlanta for Labor Day. I don’t want to disappoint a woman who just brought me six jars of Chipotle salsa.

“I saw your foot,” she says. “I know a nasty barnacle scrape when I see one. You needed stitches.”

There’s a reason for that. Our little gulf island has no bridge. You must have a boat to get here and there are no cars. The only consistent business on the island is the golf cart repairman. That’s how we get around. Golf carts on sandy paths of crushed shell. You bring your groceries over on your boat, put them on your golf cart. Your house, whether you’re renting or have the *luxury* of owning, was probably built circa 1970/80 and stands about ten to fifteen feet off the ground.

“It was almost dark,” I remind her. “Who wants to leave after sundown for the ER with a boatload of kids?”

We have water. We have electricity. We steal ice. It sounds poetic, but translate: summer camp at the beach.

“You are quite cavalier when it comes to stitches,” she says.

“I had steri-strips. I had Percocet.”

“You had sand ground into a wound four inches long. You limped around for over week.”

Understand why I’m reluctant to tell the tale of FALLING off my boat.

Last month, my neighbor, Adventure Woman, makes a late-night Publix run with three kids under the age of eight. This is nothing new to her. She lives here full-time. She tosses everybody in her cute little cabin cruiser, which she’s dubbed “the mini-van” and takes off.

On her way back, she sees the ferry, with my in-laws and about forty other people stuck in shallow water at ten o’clock at night. My mother-in-law will tell you she “doesn’t like to wade, much less swim, Honey”. (How she has a house on an island is for a whole other blog post.)

“You need help,” Adventure Woman tells the ferry boat captain.

(Not, “Let’s call for help.” Not, “DO you need help?” No tip-toeing around his ego. That just wastes time.)

She jumps off her boat into chest-deep water like it’s nothing, walks up to the knee-deep where he’s got the ferry stuck and ties the ferry to her boat while the captain protests. A little.

All the people on the ferry start whispering, IT’S A WOMAN. My mother-in-law whispers back that she knows Adventure Woman, gave her sweet tea when she was pregnant with the youngest baby.

Adventure Woman’s three little boys stand proud, watching Mom be a She-Ro. She hops back onto her boat, fires that baby up and pulls the ferry, loaded with whispering people off the flat.

The ferry boat captain will never live it down. I won’t mention his name because as I type this, one of my boys is paying Lego’s on the front porch with one of the other ferry boat captain’s grandsons and they are still completely mortified ON BEHALF OF THE GUY. Sheesh.  I’m sure the ribbing will go on forever. The story will be told at his funeral. I have no doubt.

“So, if it wasn’t a manatee,” my mom asks. “Why’d you fall out?”

“I couldn’t reach the weight when I was tying up. I stretched too far and… Splash. I could tweak it, but-”

“That was you first summer on the island. You’ve gotten better. I don’t even worry about you anymore.”

“I’m not Adventure Woman.”

She frowns at her salsa. “I liked the manatee aspect. Now, I’m suspicious of your stories.”

“You should be suspicious of everyone’s stories. You have to look through what they’re not telling you. It’s fiction.”

Her eyebrows come together. “Like, what was Adventure Woman doing out at ten o’clock on a Tuesday?”

“Mom,” I say. “That’s not what I meant. She was out of diapers.”

She raises an eyebrow. “And your barnacle injury?”

“Out of chips and salsa.”

“Ah,” Mom says, crunching away. “Island necessities. Still, you should put that in your book.”

I giggle until salsa starts coming out my nose, thinking of the line from DANCES WITH WOLVES.

Kevin Costner is sitting at the campfire, scribbling away and the other guy has just had enough. He lets one loose and delivers the line: “Put THAT in your book.”

Sometimes we don’t have to step farther than a family reunion before Aunt So&So is elbowing us about Uncle Jimmy’s Sad Tale. “SO tragic. You have to write it. Like Nicholas Sparks.”

Ever had your arm twisted when someone was desperate? Has a friend ever gotten screwed over by her company and called close to tears, wanting you to write her Blockbuster screenplay, but you don’t write screenplays?!  “I swear this is like THE FIRM.”

Or vindictive. Has your ex ever emailed an article: “This was so freaking weird, I thought of you. Sounds like your obsession with cemeteries.”?

I’m curious. Class reunion? Funeral? Someone has bent your ear.

What’s your “Put THAT in Your Book” story?