“Yesterday, in 4 hours, I typed up the 12,000 word Diamond Sutra on a long 12-foot scroll, beautiful, with my final transliteration, one of the most precious religious documents in the world, even you’ll like it when you read it,” Jack Kerouac writes to Joyce Johnson in November 1957. A little more than two months have passed since the publication of On the Road and Gilbert Millstein’s glowing review in the New York Times. Kerouac and Johnson, a budding literary talent in her early twenties, have been romantically involved since January, their sporadic visits in New York interspersed by a lively correspondence. Kerouac had gone to Mexico City in the summer of ’57, but left after falling ill. He landed in Orlando, Florida, where his mother was renting a 1920s bungalow. From August to April 1958, he would make several trips to New York and celebrate his newfound literary acclaim. No one at the time, including Jack himself, could have realized how this small, sleepy house would figure in his life: becoming not only his refuge as On the Road climbed the bestseller lists, but the site of his last, prolific outpouring, resulting in a novel that many consider to be his greatest work, The Dharma Bums. Read More
It is nearly impossible to imagine the best-selling authors of today living in Downton Abbey grandiosity. Stephen King as the Earl of Grantham? J. K. Rowling as the Lady of the manor? Yet for Frances Hodgson Burnett, the wild popularity of her prolific literary output made such a home her reality for nearly a decade—where an overgrown, neglected garden inspired the Victorian author’s most enduring work, The Secret Garden. That she is now solely regarded as a children’s book author would have stupefied her, for she produced fifty-two novels and thirteen plays, the majority written for adults. When Burnett moved into Great Maytham Hall in Kent, she was a far more popular success than her cohort Henry James, who lived down the road; with her plays bringing in more than a thousand dollars a week, she was her era’s equivalent of Rowling.
The slim novel came my way quite by accident. I had stumbled across a review of the film The Lover and ordered a VHS copy through my movie-of-the-month club. The first Saturday I could secure a house free of hovering parents, my fellow honors English friends and I, as sex obsessed as we were lit geeks, watched, enraptured, Marguerite Duras’s autobiographical depiction of an adolescent girl in French Indochina who embarks on an affair with a wealthy Chinese man. The girl’s family is crass and impoverished, but she is a good student and wants to be a writer. Soon after, I got my hands on a paperback with a cinema-still cover and was not disappointed.
“I’m fifteen and a half,” the unnamed narrator repeats early in the book. “There are no seasons in that part of the world, we have just the one season, hot, monotonous, we’re in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal.” Nothing suggested sex as much as sensual lyricism, warm, distant places, and anything French.
I was also fifteen and a half, a virgin consumed with the mysteries of sex, of forbidden encounters. I was also going to be a writer. I read the book and watched the film again and again. Just what was The Lover’s appeal? By then I had discovered Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Lolita, but Duras’s novel resonated more acutely, an exotic Lolita tale but told from the woman’s (if she could be called that) point of view.
My favorite section was where the narrator describes herself on the ferry, wearing gold lamé high heels and a man’s fedora: “Going to school in evening shoes decorated with little diamanté flowers. I insist on wearing them. I don’t like myself in any others, and to this day I still like myself in them.” It is the day she is about to meet the “Chinaman” for the first time. She is fixated on this particular, outlandish ensemble, as stubborn as a child playing dress up. But the faint hint of pedophilia, of prostitution, fell so far into the background that it became practically invisible to me then, obscured by the striking imagery and strange, lush atmosphere of colonial Saigon. Read More
I became a writer because I was raised at a diner in rural Pennsylvania.
My parents opened the Chestnuthill Diner the first week of August 1984. The diner arrived the summer I turned five, and I watched, gaping, as its twin sections were maneuvered from flatbed trailers onto the concrete foundation that had been poured weeks earlier.
I celebrated my fifth birthday in a corner booth, pleased by the shiny chrome and flame-red seats, the flurry of waitresses rushing past in their brown-and-white striped uniforms, the tables bursting with customers. That was the first day the larger world opened up to me, the realm outside school and playmates, where real life really happened—the swear-laden frays between the cooks masked by radios blasting heavy metal, the combined whiff of grease and lettuce as the produce deliverymen wheeled their hand trucks in the back door, the coolness of the dough resting in the kitchen.
After school, on weekends, and for the next six summers, I would enter the back door of the diner on the heels of my mother, who trundled her coin bags, bookkeeping ledgers, and payroll checks. Past the bright bakery where dinner rolls and pies cooled on the racks, around the corner of whirring compressors and my grandfather’s work bench—he kept himself busy part-time as our fix-it man—stood the basement offices. Read More
Four years ago, I embarked on a relationship with a man twenty years my senior, whose Florida home, a few streets over from my condo, boasted wall-to-wall carpeting with a space-galaxy motif, a vintage circus-sideshow banner in the master bedroom, and a six-foot-tall statue of a gecko dressed as a jester, which overlooked the backyard. My family was reluctantly supportive, in that “you’re our daughter and we love you, even if your choices worry us” manner. I had survived, just barely, one brutal heartbreak after another in my midtwenties. It was refreshing to find someone who embraced the eclectic, rallied friends to swing by for dinner, and appeared with surprise snacks when I was scribbling fiction poolside. But mostly, I felt relieved at finding someone who was nice, a champion of my own long-stifled quirkiness.
He had spent eighteen months in federal prison twenty years before, on a fraud felony. Ah, but wasn’t the past just the past? It wasn’t fair to hold a human being to a mistake made so long ago. Didn’t I have my own shameful moments, perhaps not felonies or arrests, but black marks when I had been less than my best self? Don’t we all?
In the spirit of loving kindness, as I watched my fiction burst to life under my new love’s backyard Buddhist prayer flags, I dismissed any signs of cautionary red. A mentor of mine calls fiction writers “literary cannibals.” I was having fun, and my writing responded to the offbeat environment of vinyl Jesus figurines embedded with Magic 8 Balls, wind chimes, and the Grateful Dead. Halfway through a grueling semester in a low-residency M.F.A., I had been questioning my ability to master fiction. Now my adviser proclaimed I had achieved a breakthrough—“a talent for inventing loopy comic situations.”
Things only seemed to get better. My man and I came up with affectionate names for each other—I was Babette and he was Babu. Real monikers fallen away, the relationship carved its own offbeat identity.