Today I received a heavy box in the mail, and I wondered what my kids had ordered without asking. To my surprise, the box contained Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs) of An Elegant Woman—such a beautiful cover and so many copies. I hadn’t felt that thrilling sensation of seeing a work of mine so composed, so ready to be read, in years. Ten years to be exact. In January of 2010 I received a similar box containing Dear Money, my last novel. My daughter was ten and my son was six; I was younger, too. My mother didn’t yet have dementia. Dear Money was my third book in a decade. I didn’t yet have teenagers. I hold An Elegant Woman in my hand, and the past ten years come rushing in—the challenge to write the novel, the fight for time while taking care of teens and a sick mother, the slow pace of the words making their way from my brain to the page, the false start, the long revision, the clobbering self-doubt. I had a professor who described that kind of self-doubt as “your shit bird.” “Swat it away,” he’d say. Swat and swat and swat, but the little shit bird kept landing again on my shoulder, a little bop-bag doll. Finally, somewhere along the way, with the encouragement of a patient, trusting, and believing editor, the characters took over. The book has a lot to do with stories my grandmother used to tell me about her life, her childhood, our ancestors, the way she made it from poverty in Montana to a bourgeois life in New Jersey. Across the years, I’d scribbled notes, first while she was alive and then after she was dead. I followed those notes like bread crumbs, followed them from Ohio to Montana to New York, Maine, to New Jersey—her life against the backdrop of the American landscape and the 20th century. Word by word, I followed her lead, and now I have a book. That’s how it is done, bushwhacking, swatting away at the bird. But the view from here now is very beautiful.
I’ve been given many reasons to ponder the nature of friendship these past months — a most cherished value, to be a good friend. I certainly haven’t come up with anything new or profound, but this song, Sonya Alone, heard at Dave Malloy’s exhilarating electropop opera, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, says everything I feel about what a great friendship should be, especially a friendship between girls. It makes me ache each time I hear Brittain Ashford sing Sonya’s heartbreaking aria for Natasha. Listen.
IN GOOD COMPANY
(from More Magazine — November 2007)
On a corner in Fort Worth’s Southside, my friend Donatella Trotti (known as Dodi) has opened a tiny trattoria. It is called Nonna Tata, after her grandmother, and is in a 500-square-foot cinderblock building on a seemingly lonely street. The cozy interior is completely designed by Dodi, the walls sponged a pale yellow, tables and stools laminated with flowers and photographs and old Italian adages: LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR BAD WINE. AT THE TABLE YOU FORGIVE EVERYONE, EVEN YOUR RELATIVES. Now widely popular, Nonna Tata took nine months to open. “Like a baby,” she says to me in her strong, exacting Italian accent. Of course, I had to visit. Dodi is one of my oldest and closest friends. I am who I am because of her. She is who she is because of me. We met, as I like to say, when I was 16 and she was 17. “Yes, I am a year older,” she admits with a roll of her eyes when I tell our story. A Rotary Club exchange put us together.
I met Christina Ball first day of freshman year at Bowdoin College. She was my roommate and she arrived in our room with an entourage: a sister, a brother, a mother and father, a grandmother. They crowded in, inspected, turned over pillows, looked out windows, absorbed us — my father and me. We’d arrived first, in time for me to haul in a suitcase and a lamp and to realize the two small rooms would be even smaller with three people living in them. After Christina had surveyed the room, she went to my lamp and, not knowing that it was mine (a brass floor lamp that was now dark with age — it had been my grandfather’s at prep school), said, “This is ugly. We’ll have to get rid of it.” I wasn’t sure what to make of her. She was tall and had lots of dark hair and big dark eyes. She was gorgeous and self-possessed and had an eager curiosity that made her seem ready to alight. I was more introspective and quiet, happy alone, in love with an Italian across the ocean and to whom I corresponded endlessly. At first glance we were opposites, and what is it they say? We attract? It didn’t take long. We bonded over our desire to get rid of the third roommate, mainly because she was unhappy with us and because we wanted her space. After that mission was accomplished we became unstoppable. We labeled ourselves the Cosmo Bohemians and wore clothes that caused us to stand out on the rather preppy campus. We wore plastic high heels in electric colors (snow or shine), started wine tastings and a catering business to make some extra cash. She loved that I spoke Italian and that I’d been to Italy many times, that I’d lived there the previous year. She wanted to know all about it and dreamed that she’d be able to go with me the following summer. That was our first realized dream, paid for with our catering money. I took her to Italy, to Greece and to France. She had never been to Europe before. And, as my life was changed by a chance summer exchange with an Italian girl three summers earlier, her life was changed too, Italy creeping into it to take it over quite miraculously. She would marry an Italian, have an Italian daughter, run a thriving language school, Speak Language Center. She wouldn’t live in Italy, but that is just a detail; she was surrounded by Italy all the same. Now some thirty years later she has invited me to dream with her again, this time in Todi with writers longing to have time with their craft. She’s arranged a workshop at a boutique spa hotel with sumptuous food, Roccafiore. It is my honor. And I can’t wait.
Unforgotten Italy (an article I wrote for More Magazine on Christina)
Creative Writing Workshop with Martha McPhee
JUNE 9-16, 2012
Italianist, Christina Ball, is hosting a writing workshop at the luxury spa and wellness center, Roccafiori, in Todi, Italy in June 2012. She’s invited me to lead the workshops and I would love you all to come.
Cullen and I set the alarm but slept right through it. A knock on the door woke us up, the taxi driver. He’d come to take us to the boat, ferrying us back to Naples. We were asleep. Woke fast. Threw everything in our suitcases. (There is only one boat a day.) He zipped us to the port, we ran to the dock. The bridge to the boat was being lifted. The captain smiled and put the bridge back down. We ran on board and the boat took off at high speed, across the sea. Out in the middle of nowhere, he invited us up to the cockpit. Schools of dolphins jumped in front of the window — dozens upon dozens. “It’s your lucky day,” the captain said. The skipper drove the boat. Another skipper came up with a plate of “dolci,” Sicilian cannolli and other things, as an offering. “Let’s have a picture, the girls and me,” said the Captain. The girls. Yes, I felt sixteen again — in Italy for the first time, in love with enthusiasm and joy.
The other night my younger sister, Joan Sullivan, was honored by the Bronx Academy of Letters for being its founding principal. She is now Deputy Mayor of Education for the City of Los Angeles. This is the speech she delivered:
I want to get one thing straight. This school was not founded by me.
The school, itself a political act, was founded by a long series of political movements that erupted in the 1960s. It was founded by The Young Lords, who took over hospitals and churches to demand that they operate programs for the poor and who led campaigns to force the City of New York to increase garbage pick-up in neighborhoods like ours, ones that suffered from chronic institutional neglect.
This school was founded by Piri Thomas, a Puerto Rica-Cuban born poet and freedom fighter, who was raised in the barrios of New York and whose name is emblazoned on our school’s walls.
I’m on stage, honored of course by this award, but this school does not belong to me.
The Bronx Academy of Letters is based on the word and sits in the community that gave birth to Hip Hop. The school belongs to KRS-1, a man who continues to use music to fight for social change. This school belongs to the Bronx.
I can’t take credit for this school. This school belongs to its stakeholders.
– It belongs to Richard Kahan, the Urban Assembly, and our Board, who understand that school reform is about building partnerships and who understand that the era of public schools being the exclusive domain of government is over.
– It belongs to immigrants from the Dominican Republic, China and Ghana who saw school as the avenue to success and brought us their brilliant children.
– It belongs to students who, out of boredom and frustration, spent decades protesting poorly run and resourced classrooms.
– It belongs to Qian, Stacey, Jeffrey, and Lucelys who graduated first from the Bronx Academy of Letters and who are now preparing to graduate from Skidmore, Wesleyan, Ithaca, and Columbia.
– It belongs to our teachers, who are scientists, writers, dancers, athletes, and scholars and who have put every drop of their art and genius into their teaching.
This school belongs to all of you, our supporters, who saw that the young people living across the Madison Avenue Bridge in the South Bronx were not only part of your community, but also a part of your future.
If this school belongs to me at all, it belongs to my mother who with her indomitable will, bribed me to read books as a child until I found Roald Dahl and became a willing reader and a capable writer. And to my father, who believed in fairytales and who, when I was five and asked to go on a picnic in a blizzard, took me down to the banks of the Delaware River and set up a picnic in the snow. And to my 9 sisters and brothers, who played so beautifully with ideas and whose books and politics imbued me with a determination to fight and the courage to hope. And to my wife, Ama, who has revealed with her intellect and spirit such a joyful world to me.
All of this is to say that the idea of a founder is a farce. We have all founded this school that continues to be found every day by students, teachers, parents and you. This school belongs to you—which is a gift, a promise, a responsibility.
Because anything that is found can be lost, lost to financial and budget crises, lost to layoffs that disproportionately affect our poorest neighborhoods, lost to those who forget that the Bronx Academy of Letters and its children areour legacy.
And there are more things yet to be found. We need more than a good school. We need lots of good schools. We need them here and in Los Angeles. We need affordable college access and to begin talking not about K through 12 but about Pre K through college. Just as we, together, found each other and this school. We can find strong school systems and turn these into strong communities, knowing that we will never have strong communities without strong schools.
This sounds impractical, untenable. So was the Bronx Academy of Letters. So was the idea of opening a school in America’s poorest congressional district with an open admissions policy and with the goal of sending its graduates to our nation’s best colleges. So is my request of you tonight. I ask that you take joy in and responsibility for founding this school. I ask that you continue finding this school and that you remember that its students will find the things we lost and the things we never even believed to be possible.
There is one other thing. You should know that this school also belongs to our new leader. A woman I interviewed right here in the Italian Academy before hiring her as our school’s first teacher. A woman who started building and leading with humility, integrity, and passion before our doors even opened. A woman who proposed and then assembled our middle school. An inspired English teacher, a devoted advisor, an award-winning poet, a friend and mentor. Please join me in welcoming the person who has now worked for this school longer than any other, Principal Anna Hall.
Saturday night the amazing and inspired Debbie Stier of Harper Studio organized a wonderful group of people that care deeply about the future of books and who are all carrying them forward, in one way or another, into the 21st Century, with the help of the internet. I hosted the soiree at my apartment with Debbie and my husband. A collection of writers and readers and thinkers and dreamers and makers and doers. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a room filled with strangers all of whom I wanted to speak with. Jonathan Fields and Dani Shapiro talked about social networking, how one must enter it in the spirit of being helpful or useful in some capacity. Readers easily sniff out mercenary motives. Sometimes writers misuse Twitter, for example, when they have a book come out. They start tweeting about their book tour, etc, and they clearly haven’t invested any time in establishing a community—of offering anything to the community. “It would be like walking into a party like this and, after two minutes, trying to sell you something,” said Fields. In short, the community, and one’s investment in it, comes first. The trick is to find something you want to spend time writing about, as a community member, and be of service to that community. Dani Shapiro has been writing about issues that writers face. Jonathan has been helping people re-think their ideas of entrepreneurship. Both are areas of interest each has anyway. When one of their books comes out, it’s just something else added to the mix.
I love collecting people and then feeding them. I wanted to keep it simple so I ordered wine from Whole Foods Wine Store, on Columbus and 100th Street using Veronica there to help me choose. She has a vibrant vocabulary for wines, making them all sound exquisite: “It’s like a Sauvignon Blanc that’s gone on a tropical vacation,” she said of one white. I made focaccia and ordered plates of various salumi from Salumeria Rosi, my new favorite restaurant on Amsterdam and 73rd in NYC. The focaccia recipe is my friend Dodi’s and it is easy and very forgiving.
Click Soiree with Focaccia to watch a slide show of focaccia preparation, before the guests arrived. Ron Hogan is pictured. He was the first to arrive. We promised to take pictures, but were too busy having fun to think about the camera…
Recipe for Focaccia—easy and forgiving
1 1/2 cups regular flour
1 1/2 cups bread flour
2 cups of water
1 package of yeast
1 Tablespoon salt
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup of olive and vegetable oils, mixed — 1/4 cup each
Let yeast activate on top of warm water for about 10 minutes. Add all ingredients. Stir to combine. Let rise for 1 1/2 hours covered with a cloth. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Pour dough onto parchment, patting down with wet had. Sprinkle with sea salt and fresh rosemary. You can chop it. I don’t because I end up being too lazy or in too much of a hurry. Cook at 425 for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 400 and cook for another 20 minutes. Drizzle with olive oil after removing from oven. Serve immediately. If you have leftovers, it’s so good for breakfast dipped in warm milk.
Some of the people who came:
At some point, Mark picked up his guitar. Constantine ran to get his harmonica and they moved on into “Fulsom Prison,” with Kamy swooping in on harmony. They stayed until midnight sharing some of their favorite music: Low, The Dimes, a terrific band from Portland, Oregon, and Jose Gonzalez, among others. And after talking to Constantine, we’re now dreaming of a trip to Cypress from where Constantine’s family comes.
After Saturday night, surrounded by these astonishing people, I feel exhilarated, hopeful about the future of the book.