Thursday, May 1, 2014

Out of the Closet

The call comes in the middle of the night, like such calls always do. That’s the story, isn’t it?

A single ring, silence, and then another. I palm at Molly’s shoulder—the phone is on her side of the bed, and it was by her insistence that we continue to pay thirty dollars a month for an outdated landline that only telemarketers and school administrators use. It’s the reminder of this irritation that really wakes me, rather than the ringing itself.

    Molly is dead weight under my prodding, and the damn thing just keeps ringing. I wiggle myself over her, pressing my stomach against her hip bone, and just barely reach the receiver.

“Hello,” I say. I sound annoyed as fuck.

The connection, filtered through the twenty-year-old cordless phone, is staticky and cuts in and out.


“Hello, say it again. Who’s this?” It could be a misdial, aimed for the West Coast where it’s still a party hour, even on a Wednesday. It could be a bunch of kids, friends of Janelle or Elsie, stoned and prank-calling through the school directory. It could be—

More electronic hiccuping, a sound like a theramin, then a quick bark: “We have Elsie.”

*    *    *

For the past four years I’ve been working on my first novel, Redress, a literary thriller about the Testa family whose fifteen-year-old daughter goes missing. There are ghosts, secret lives, betrayals, and a special red dress, poly-cotton blend and handmade by Elsie’s mother, Molly, for her own high school graduation 25 years earlier. It’s a dress that got Molly into heaps of trouble, the undoable kind, and that seems to have led Elsie Testa into something even more sinister.

Until quite recently, I was a secret writer, a closet writer. It’s an embarrassing passion to admit, especially in my family. Keeping it a secret also meant that it was an isolating passion: I’ve been grappling with some big ethical and emotional questions for my characters over the past several years, and have had little support in processing them. I think I’ve done myself, and maybe my characters, an injustice in keeping everything so quiet.

I recently read a piece in the New York Times by Alice Mattison, a Bennington Writing Seminars teacher, about how she feels compelled to keep her novels a secret — she fears her characters might stop talking to her if she exposes them too soon. I’ve been feeling the opposite, though: that my characters feel claustrophobic, that they need breath from outside my head. They need to wander the world a little, encounter new stimuli, do some damage that I’m not tightly controlling.

But that can only happen if I open the doors to my writing closet and let them out. Let myself out.

So that’s what I’m doing. Hello, world. I’m yet another unpublished novelist with big ideas. Welcome.

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