I fell in love with the written word as a tiny girl and always wrote, but I put writers on a pedestal as high as a pyramid, unreachable for a peon like me. I never imagined myself as a published author, scheduling interviews and reading reviews.
I used to take my little Olivetti typewriter, as tough as a gun, along with me when I was in my later teens and in love with the idea of becoming a writer. My heroes were Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor (the writer!), Edith Wharton, Malcolm Lowry and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I rocketed out of high school and the nest, fueled by booze and drugs, with a craving to see the world (or what I could afford to see of it, with very little money);my own backyard, I was typically convinced, was of no interest. I spent my energy on conniving ways to get away: lived in Ecuador as a kind of exchange student, worked on a dig marking potsherds in Chiapas, Mexico, and collecting smallpox vaccination information in Sonora for the Quakers, traveled with the Olivetti and a little suitcase around the Andes and the Amazon. In between I went to college, and then moved back to Mexico, to the Yucatan. There I taught English (what else), smoked weed, banged on the O., and lived for the new Penguin imports at the one newsstand that carried English language books.
New York pulled me in in 1975 and I wrote my first novel, a book that would sit for thirty years in a drawer. In the meanwhile, I cleaned up my act and wrote several books, mostly nonfiction, about women in jazz, and published a collection of short fiction gleaned from my Latin American travels, did offbeat travel writing in Mexico and Brazil for then-generous American magazines. One day, in the middle of a long crisis of caring for a husband dying of cancer, I found that first old novel and read it, grimacing and groaning - and decided to rewrite it. That book was published in 2010, at which time I started Cleans Up Nicely. I knew the main character intimately from the previous, stand-alone book, but now New York City became a main character as well. A bankrupt, dirty, dangerous and exhilarating city in the mid-1970's, hosting a struggling young painter.
Michael Ondaatje, interviewed about writing The English Patient, said in effect that he writes to find out where the narrative will land. That's what I wanted to do with Cleans Up: follow this maddening, self-destructive, wry, and blooming character through various demi-mondes, club scenes, galleries and - but I don't want to give away the ending. Crystalizing the dream and letting it flow. Many drafts.
Observing is crucial for a writer, but so is listening. As Dizzy Gillespie advised a young virtuoso trumpet player: "It's the notes you don't play." The imagination needs to breathe with what's not said. And working with my editor at She Writes Press was a revelation about the process of writing. She was a pair of intelligent ears who encouraged me when to fine-tune, when to speed up the narrative, how to let dialogue breathe, all the way to the finish line. Because of our off-stage dialogue, the book flourished.
Now that the book has a cover to it and is getting a response, how do I feel? There's the curious, specific depression I always get when a book is done. I have to let it go, I have to accept its flaws, lapses, infelicities. I am also proud of it, I went the distance. And now it's the new book I'm working on that matters.