Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rachel Simon talks about The Story of Beautiful Girl

Rachel Simon s an 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. She's also a terrific writer and I'm thrilled to have her here!

What sparked the writing of The Story of Beautiful Girl? What usually sparks the writing of your novels? (I know, the truly horrific question every writer is always asked--horrific because sometimes we truly don't know!)

No single source sparks my ideas. My first book, Little Nightmares, Little Dreams, was a collection of stories that came from sources as varied as single lines that came to mind as I was waking up in the morning, memories both sweet and harsh that returned after many years, and anecdotes told to me by relatives, strangers, and newspapers. My first novel, The Magic Touch, came from temping in an engineering firm and noticing that the women the male engineers tended to flirt with weren’t necessarily the prettiest, but the most full of life. Somehow this led to me coming up with the idea of writing about a woman with magical sexual powers that could restore joie de vivre to those who’d come to feel lackluster about their existence. My memoir Riding The Bus With My Sister was derived from the simple fact that my sister, who has an intellectual disability, rides city buses all day, every day; she asked me to join her and I reluctantly agreed.

I think the simple answer is that ideas can, and do, come from everywhere, but never fully baked. They are only the ingredients, and they cannot blend together without the actual process of writing.  A perfect example of this is my most recent novel, The Story of Beautiful Girl.

As I mentioned, 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 Riding The Bus With My Sister, and started getting asked to do public speaking around the country at disability-related conferences.  There I met people whose personal or professional experience involved institutions, and who were eager, sometimes tearfully so, to share their stories with me. Over and over, I returned home, reeling.  The reality of institutions had obviously been widespread and affected millions of people—yet no one outside of these conferences spoke about such things.  In fact, the only institutions most Americans even seemed to be aware of were institutions for people with mental health issues, which is an entirely different system from the institutions where my sister might have been placed.  I began wondering if I could write something, fiction or nonfiction, that dealt with the material, but the subject seemed so massive, I put the idea to the side.

The material, however, didn’t stop coming my way.  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 in Illinois.  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.

Yet I still couldn’t figure out how I might present such an emotionally fraught topic.

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 someone who has my sister’s disability—and someone who is like John Doe No. 24.  She 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.” That’s where The Story of Beautiful Girl came from. It was only bits and pieces of ideas, but they got alchemized by the process of writing.

The story of institutional life is horrific. How did you approach the research and what was that like? What surprised you?

When I started meeting people who’d lived in or worked at institutions, I became interested in collecting books and documentaries about the history and reality of those places.  I wasn’t actually planning to use them for research so I could write a book; I was simply curious about the material, though I was also sad about how little material I could find, and just how abysmal the conditions turned out to be.  Indeed, one of the details that kept sticking in my mind was the connection between low funding from the state and the quality of life, leading to, in one book I read, a situation where the forty residents in each cottage had to share the same toothbrush every morning. It was details like this that made me keep thinking I should do something with this material – but something that would also be about justice and hope and freedom and love.

When I began writing The Story of Beautiful Girl, I created a fictional institution that was a composite of several real places that I learned about from these conversations, books, and documentaries. I also set up a visit at a closed institution a few hours from my house, where a compassionate former staff person drove me around and related memories about the people she’d cared for there and what daily life was like.

Many things surprised me about institutions, and not all of them were horrific. One was that there were devoted, loving staff people, like my guide at that closed institution.  Another was that friendships developed among the residents that went on for decades and helped sustain both individuals. Of course, there were chilling details, like the stories of families who were told to stop visiting their sons and daughters, or the abuse suffered by residents (which, in my book, I decided to keep off-stage).  But there were also real relationships that formed and made a huge difference in everyone’s life.  This is part of why I created the character of Kate, the dedicated staff person.  It’s also why the whole book is a love story between two residents, and their lifelong quest to live ordinary lives where they can be together, living not behind stone walls, but free, unhidden, out in the world.

Did you know when you started the novel, how it would end? Are you an outliner, or a writing-by-the-seat-of-your-pen artist?

 I don’t outline, even with nonfiction. It’s always seemed too constraining. I’m a big believer in the writing process, and the way it leads to depth of thought and intricacies of character that would otherwise have remained unknown.  This requires a great deal of faith and discipline, and it doesn’t always pay off (I’ve written many books that just didn’t end up working out), but when it does, it’s a thrill for me as the writer and, from what others tell me, for them as readers.

In the case of The Story of Beautiful Girl, the ending came to me within the first hour of handwriting my first chapter. This is quite amazing to me even now, four years after beginning that draft. It is something that never happened to me before and might not happen again. But as soon as I realized it, I was able to start thinking about how to get to that ending. I didn’t know the answer except in the vaguest of ways, but I trusted that the climax of the book would be so powerful and emotionally satisfying that I was happy to work on that draft another next year and a half, not to mention another couple of years on revisions.

What's obsessing you now?

I’m afraid I can’t answer this question. I always keep my work totally private, even from my husband.  It gives me room to explore, and room to fail. 

What question didn't I ask that I should have asked?

The two main characters, Lynnie and Homan, are not only people with disabilities who are in love, they’re also characters who are seldom found in fiction.  Even rarer is a story in which the reader gets to view the world through the eyes of a character with a disability.  Was it difficult for you to put yourself in their place?

As I’ve mentioned, my sister has an intellectual disability, like Lynnie, so even though their personalities have little in common, it felt fairly natural to me to imagine the way Lynnie would think, feel, and express herself.  Writing her point of view came easily in the first draft.  I did have to use my imagination to incorporate aspects of Lynnie’s life that are unlike my sister’s, especially her many years in the institution, her lack of education, and her selective mutism.  But I supplemented my imagination with research, conversations, and interviews with other people who’ve had those experiences, or have been close to someone who has, and then revised endlessly.

The same applies for Homan, including my ease in the first draft.  I was, though, even more careful, since I am not, nor am I related to, anyone who is deaf.  (I am also not related to anyone who is Deaf, which is the way those in the deaf community who have a strong identity as a deaf person and are involved in deaf culture, write about themselves.) In terms of his ethnicity, I did have a personal connection; my sister’s boyfriend, Jesse, is African American, and some of the stories he’s shared with me from his childhood informed my understanding of Homan’s past.

So do you agree with the writing dictum, Write what you know?

 Not really, as that would eliminate the possibility of Flaubert writing about the adulterer Madame Bovary, or Nabokov writing about the pedophile Humbert Humbert, or Flannery O’Connor writing about a girl with a wooden leg. 

I think it’s just as important, if not more so, to write about what matters to you.  For The Story of Beautiful Girl, it just so happened that I did know about some of the things that mattered to me. But I didn’t know about a whole lot more.  It was my interest in the topic that made me learn what I needed, and then trust, over several years, that the writing process would bring it to life.


Kristi said...

First, thank you for this interview, Caroline! I now absolutely HAVE to read this book -- it sounds so compelling!

And second, thank you, Rachel, for saying that keeping your work private gives you room to explore and to fail. I have been feeling this way myself but couldn't quite articulate WHY I didn't want to go public (in a critique group) quite yet. Your words helped me frame my thinking and feel better about keeping my work private while I'm drafting.

Melissa Crytzer Fry said...

I can't believe I missed this interview last week! Thank you so much, Caroline, for inviting Rachel to your blog. I LOVE the way this story came to you, Rachel, and your approach to writing it. While I 100% believe in the organic writing process, I have to have at least a sketchy outline of where I'm going before I can write (which I think, maybe your subconscious was shepherding for you). I love leaving room for the characters to guide me.

And I have to say, Rachel, this story blew me away! I loved the premise; it is just an amazing read (I have an uncle who was put in one of these institutions, where he still resides as a 57-year old). The cast, as you say, is so unique from other fictional characters. The way you handled their viewpoints was nothing short of brilliant. I've recommended this book far and wide. One of my ultimate favorites! I'm so glad you let those seeds of ideas grow into this lovely novel.

cj said...

Am I the only one who thinks the ending don't make sense? The reuniting of Lynnie and Homan is unrealistic enough. But how did Martha's box of letters come to be placed with Lynnie and Homan's mosaic? And wasn't Pete supposed to tell Julia about her mother?