For me, storytelling is an act of unraveling. I start with a single thread, a clue, an idea or question, with no real sense of where it might take me.
I began my very first draft of The One I Left Behind over eight years ago, when I was pregnant with my daughter. I’d just read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and was inspired to try something using this basic framework. The book I wrote was the story of a 15-year-old boy named Clark who sets out to save his glamorous ex-model mother Vera from the hands of a serial killer. In the process, he learns that just about everything he thought he knew about his mother was a lie. Clark was skinny, geeky, awkward – no hero at all. He eventually disguises himself as a girl, transforming himself completely to enter his mother’s secret world of bars and low-rent motels. At the heart of the book was Clark’s desire to unravel the secrets of his mother; this belief that understanding them might help save her. It was a strange and somewhat far-fetched story and in the end, the book just didn’t work and I abandoned it.
Two and a half years ago, when I was working on Don’t Breathe a Word, my mother was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. She was already frail, and there simply were no treatment options she could tolerate. She was hospitalized for a bit, then in a nursing home for a few weeks, but she hated it, and her disease or the medicine or something was making her more confused and agitated all the time. My partner and I made the decision to bring her home to die.
It was an intense and surreal period of time. I’d sit by the side of my mother’s bed, bring her coffee, pudding and morphine while she told me the most amazing things. She’d tell me about the stained glass window she saw on her ceiling that an angel fell through, cut and bleeding. She got irate when the she tried to use the TV remote control to phone Johnny Cash and she couldn’t get through.
She shared her coffee each morning with an invisible man named George who always made her laugh but couldn’t seem to keep his thumb out of her cup and sometimes left her scribbled messages on the yellow legal pad next to her bed.
“Who is George?” I would ask. She’d never mentioned a George before; I’d certainly never met any friends, relatives or acquaintances named George.
“Oh you know George,” she said, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “We all know George.”
Giggling, she’d sing, “Georgie Porgie.”
But George did not always make my mother laugh. One morning, frantic, she asked me for paper towels.
“What for?” I asked.
“I need to build a nest,” she said.
“For the severed head George left under the bed.”
Georgie, Porgie, pudding pie, kissed the girls and made them cry…
Trying to make sense of my dying mother was as useless as trying to make sense of her in life had been. She was a conundrum; a walking riddle I was never meant to solve.
See, the thing is, all my life, I tried to save my mother. Not from anything as drastic as a serial killer, but from herself. From her mental illness, her alcoholism, her tendency to hook up with sinister men (men who ate glass, beat her, gave her cocaine), and her multiple attempts at suicide.
My mother, like Vera, had been a model once, long before I was born. I have a head shot of her from that time – dark hair, tormented eyes, her face perfect and radiant. She was painfully beautiful. In the stories she told when I was growing up, I learned that she’d lived in New York, gone to cocktail parties with artists and writers, had studied dance with Martha Graham. Her life before me was a bright bauble of a thing, and only later, as I grew, did I realize that the stories she told were full of half-truths, exaggerations, and out and out lies. All my life, I tried to unravel the mystery that was my mother. To understand what drove her to leave us for weeks, sometimes months at a time, then turn up in jail, in rehab, in the Emergency Room or on our doorstep with a strange silent man whom she announced was her new husband.
When I was teenager and she disappeared, I learned to look for her in the dark world she inhabited: horrible dive bars with sticky floors, efficiency motels, the park in Hartford she sometimes slept in. Sometimes I’d find her, try to bring her home. Mostly, I’d give her money, buy her a meal.
But my mother wasn’t all darkness. When we were together, everything was an adventure and she taught me many strange and wonderful lessons: that ghosts walk in the fog; some people have the souls of animals; and if you fill a bowl with water and black dye you can use it to see your future. My mother was a magician. A shaman who walked between worlds.
Never was this more true than when she lay dying, swaddled in bedclothes, telling me secrets about George.
One of the hospice nurses told me to write it all down, that I should put some of these details into one of my stories. I smiled indulgently, and thought, No way. Too close to home. I write fiction. But then, not long after my mother died, I remembered that book about Clark and his mother. I took it out, realized how much of my own mother I’d put into Vera’s character. I realized that in some vague way, Clark’s story held pieces of my own: this idea that if I could unravel my mother’s secrets, I could somehow save her. I decided to rework the story, and tell it from the point of view of an adult woman, looking back on crimes that happened in her youth. I decided to make my protagonist an architect — successful, secure, seemingly sure of herself and her place in the world. Someone who is a master at design, at finding patterns, reading the shape and feeling of each room and building she entered
Is Reggie able to completely unravel the truth of Vera’s past? No. But she makes peace with it.
And some times (as both Reggie and I discovered) that turns out to be enough.