MARTHA McPHEE is the author of the novels An Elegant Woman, Dear Money, L’America, Gorgeous Lies, and Bright Angel Time. Her work has been honored with fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In 2002 she was nominated for a National Book Award. Her novels have been Best Books of The Year on The New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune lists. Her essays and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Newark Star Ledger, Vogue, More, Harper’s Bazaar, Self, Traveler, Travel & Leisure, among many others. McPhee is a tenured member of the English Department at Hofstra University, where she teaches fiction. She lives in New York City with her children and husband, the poet and writer Mark Svenvold.
More About Martha
I grew up on a farm in Ringoes, NJ. It wasn’t really a farm, a working farm, but we did have animals—sheep (which we ate for Easter and Christmas), goats, chicken (I loved collecting the eggs, small surprises somehow—even though I knew they’d be there—each morning, early, in the dark little coop) and ducks, peacocks, cats, dogs, a donkey. The Farm (with a capital F) is a sprawling house that was a hunter’s cottage at the turn of the last century. Over the years it was added onto, wings and lofts.
I moved there from Princeton with my three older sisters when my mother married my stepfather. Dan had 5 children, 3 boys and 2 girls and with my mother they had another, Joan—my amazing baby sister. Our family was a curiosity in our community. My mother worked fulltime as a photographer in Princeton, with her own studio, developing her own film, printing her own pictures. My stepfather stayed home and took care of the kids—sort of. He was a dreamer really, a philosopher writing a treatise on love and sexual equality—his life’s work, which he never finished. In town (Princeton) he had a reputation as a feminist. (In 1970, it wasn’t a given that a feminist was a good thing.) He organized sit-ins in pubs that excluded women, was vocal in his opinions. He was many things across the years: a Jesuit in training (a novitiate at Grand Coteau Seminary in Louisiana), a Gestalt therapist, a philosopher, a house-husband, a Haitian art dealer (we spent a summer there as children, collecting art), a Texan.
Dan came into my life when I was 5, driving a Turquoise Cadillac with electric windows that hummed like flies as you put them up and down. He was a poker player and played late into the nights with local policemen and businessmen with bank accounts in the “islands,” and stacks of kruggerrands in their vaults. (A cop pulled my mother over once for driving through a stop sign and when he realized she was Dan’s girlfriend, the cop let her go.) When Dan won big, he’d pin money to our bedroom doors – tens, twenties, once or twice a fifty, a hundred. The family attracted attention. Some Germans made a documentary about us. A whole crew of people with names like Morning, make-up artists and caterers. We were filmed together, doing the things we did: football games (tackle not touch) on the large front lawn, working, filling potholes on the long driveway;
and individually, sitting in the living room by the fire answering for Morning what this life was like? What was it like to be part of this big blended family, to have left behind the conventional lives we’d all, to some degree, lead before? (My first two novels tried to sort that question out.)
In 1974 People Magazine sent a journalist to write a piece on us.
I can remember the cover: Marlon Brando. We had all thought it was Dan, at first, because the two men looked a lot alike. This “media” attention had made me feel famous as a little girl. My family was “interesting,” “unique,” “bizarre” even. Always, however, I did wonder what it would have been like had I led the other life, the conventional life, that existed, out there, in my imagination. The one in which I was the fourth daughter of a happily married couple who lived in a big white house in the woods in Princeton.The one in which my mother dressed us all alike in Liberty print dresses she sewed herself, coats from Best & Co.
This other, parallel life rises before me sometimes like an expensive helicopter. But what comes to mind is a New Yorker cartoon by Alex Gregory in which a young woman sarcastically thanks her parents for the happy childhood they gave her.
I can’t claim that my childhood was unhappy, but it was complicated, rich. And because of it I can say unequivocally that I became a novelist. How could I not when a character like Dan, a poker playing texan in a turquoise Cadillac, drove into my life?