When Louise Nayer was four in 1954, she and her parents and her six-year-old sister Anne took their first family vacation, traveling from their Manhattan apartment to a Cape Cod rental cottage. Tragedy soon struck when Nayer's physician-father and nurse-educator mother tried to light a gas water heater that exploded. Hank and Dorothy Nayer were severely burned, and though Louise and Anne were unharmed, they were sent away to live with relatives, launching a period of fear and deep anxiety for children who wondered if their parents would survive, much less resume their normal lives.
In April of 2010, Nayer published Burned (Atlas & Co.), a poignant memoir describing her family's ordeal and her parents' miraculous recovery. The book received unanimously fine reviews, and last month Nayer won the prestigious Wisconsin Library Association (WLA) Literary Award. Also a poet, the author just retired from her longtime position at City College of San Francisco where she taught creative writing and composition. She and her husband, Jim Patten, continue to live in San Francisco, a city Nayer has blogged about for The Huffington Post. I've known this talented writer for many years, and we recently spoke by telephone about her thriving career.
You earned your B.A. in Comparative Lit from the University of Wisconsin, a connection that brought you to the Wisconsin Library Association's notice. What did receiving the WLA Literary Award mean to you?
Winning this award was one of the pinnacles of my writing career, an acknowledgment of all the many years and hard work that I put into writing Burned: A Memoir. The WLA, in choosing my book, also helped me get out my story. Plus, I was flown out to Wisconsin where I gave a presentation and an award speech. I truly felt "crowned" as a writer and feted by the literary committee. I came back feeling more confident about working on my novel-in-progress.
Your parents' story incorporates intense physical suffering as they each struggled to recover from life-threatening burns. Did researching burn treatment as an adult help you come to terms with the pain your parents endured?
I'm not sure I could ever come to terms with their pain. Once I got a second-degree motorcycle burn on a small part of my leg and was in pain for days. I cannot begin to imagine what they endured. But it was good to try and detach from the emotional pain -- to research in order to learn about what burn patients go through day to day: the painful removal of skin (debridement), the skin grafting, and the many operations. I also read parts of a textbook by Barsky and Simon (two of the plastic surgeons who treated my parents). Though it was very hard to look at the graphic photos, I wanted to do justice to what a burn patient must undergo. Reading that book was made more difficult because my mother -- from initial burns to her "final face" -- was the frontispiece of the book, so I was staring at my mother when I opened the first page.
Burned dramatizes the fear and displacement you and your sister Anne experienced as you went to live with relatives while your parents underwent medical treatment. Do you think your memoir can help others who faced similar traumas as children? Is your goal to remember or to educate -- or both?
I didn't have a goal when I wrote the book. I just needed to get out the story -- but yes, I believe I want to remember and to educate. People often bury and/or deny trauma, so the process of remembering is not easy for many people. I developed and taught a class "Trauma and the Arts" and worked with many people who have had trauma. I have heard from burn survivors -- PTSD survivors and others who have written to me -- that my book has helped them. The trauma of being separated so suddenly from both my parents -- and for nine months -- was extremely difficult. However, my aunt, uncle, and cousins were wonderful. Finding good care for children in those times is crucial, and not all children are so fortunate.
Your mother was severely disfigured, yet determined to live a normal life in Manhattan. Your father became depressed. What challenges did you and your sister face when you went home to live with your parents after their hospitalizations?
The house, at times, felt like a tomb. My mother was in and out of the hospital for many weeks at a time for operations . My father sat in his rocking chair for months asking, "Why me?" He had lost his mother, father, and brother before he married. He had begun a new life and "wham" -- everything exploded. Getting my father's attention was hard. My sister, especially, suffered from that loss as they were very close. He was often preoccupied with his depression or with my mother. My mother tried to keep everything going, but my sister and I often felt our feelings were pushed aside. She needed us to "soldier on" as part of her own healing. I suffered from heightened anxiety, gazing out the window and waiting for my mother if she was not home. My sister became depressed and spent hours and hours in her room reading sad books. We were trying to cope.
You worked on early drafts of Burned with several literary agents who later chose not to represent you. Yet you persisted and found both an agent and a prestigious house, Atlas, for your book. Did the courage you developed in childhood give you the strength to persevere as an adult?
It's hard to say whether or not my persistence had to do with the accident or is genetically encoded! My family remembers when I learned to ride a bike. We rented a house in Long Island with a hill going down to the street. I kept trying to ride down the hill, but kept falling off. My mother said I had huge bruises down my legs, but wouldn't give up. Perhaps I wanted to catch up with my older sister! I've always liked new challenges. Maybe seeing that my mother could do so much and cope so well despite horrific burns gave me the courage to believe I could do anything if I just worked hard enough.
You have written about your battle with panic attacks, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Has writing about your past helped you reduce or cure the panic attack syndrome? Do you have suggestions for others dealing with PTSD?
I suffered from panic attacks in my early twenties as I was about to leave college, but they went away with therapy and when my life stabilized. Writing the book actually made the panic worse. I was delving into very difficult material -- burns, disfigurement, separation from my parents. But I knew I had to write the book, so I had a few years that were very difficult. Panic attacks often came "out of the blue" even when I was camping, or taking my children to the playground. I felt possessed. I had trouble crossing bridges or going into elevators. I did self-hypnosis, upped my exercise, lowered my caffeine intake, and went to therapy. I had the support of family and friends. I was fortunate to get so much help, but I had to ask for it. My suggestion to those suffering from PTSD is to find safe places where they can talk about it and get all the help they can, as I did. Many people have panic attacks. There is a lot of support out there.
After Burned was published, you and your husband Jim returned to Wellfleet, Massachusetts, the scene of the accident. Why did you want to see the house in Cape Cod where your life was forever changed? Did returning help you find closure?
I had set up a reading in Wellfleet through friends of my sister's with the desire to "face the past." I was met by a reporter and photographer, and along with my husband we all searched for the house. At first it was fun -- like hide and seek -- but then we actually passed the house (I thought -- but no -- it's not brick, and then my husband pointed out that the brick was painted over). The pole where my father's burned bathrobe was visible the morning after the accident was still on the front lawn. Suddenly, I didn't want to go into the house. I didn't want to tell the owners why I was there. I'm glad I found the house, but I can't say I found closure. In a way it was sad. I took a photo of the house, but it's hidden away.
Before Burned, you and Virginia Lang wrote a book on daily rituals called How To Bury A Goldfish. You are also a published poet. What are you working on now?
I've been working on a book about the months leading up to my retirement from City College of San Francisco. I left a bit early so I could pursue my life as a writer. I kept a journal to help myself with this huge transition, and I hope my book will help others in the same situation. I also started a novel a few years ago and now I have the time to be a full-time writer. It's wonderful.
How does your training and experience as a poet influence the writing of your prose?
I love language like painters love paint or musicians love notes. I like the feel of words and spend a lot of time searching for the right word. I'm also a visual writer. I see images and of course my early training as a poet has led to all this: my love of language, images, and the ability to create a sensory world. My training also led me to always look for language that's different.
You recently retired from teaching. How does having more time to focus on writing affect your productivity?
Having more time to write has led me to join the SF Grotto Writers Collective where I get up, go downtown, and write two days a week. I know I have that time set up -- which has helped me get my non-fiction book proposal together in a fairly short time. I am definitely writing more, and as I get more immersed in my novel, I hope to write five days a week. I'm still teaching, both workshops at my house and an upcoming workshop at the SF Grotto in March. I'm also teaching a spring course at The Writing Salons.
I've heard that teachers learn a lot from their students. What did you learn from young writers during your two decades as a professor?
My creative writing students, specifically, have opened me up to new worlds, since each of them has a story to tell. Their commitment to going to a night class after working all day -- because they want to write -- is amazing. They want to keep the creative spirit alive in their lives. They experiment with language and stories in ways I never did. They have tremendous courage. Some of them, later on, have become my friends. My students have been a very important part of my life.
To learn more about Louise Nayer, visit www.louisenayer.com.