Three weeks ago, on Oct 8th, I opened the box that held the first shipment of my book, Scattered. After nine years, while working full time and raising two kids, I finally had the book in my hands. I was driven to write the story of my childhood -- a life with my beautiful, smart and crazy mother and two older brothers in 23 New York City hotels and apartments. I was determined to make art from that chaos and create a story that would last.
Here are most of the places we lived in or stayed at by the time I was 11 years old:
The Chesterfield on 49th street, the Taft, the Wellington, the Empire, the Wolcott, the Excelsior, Hotel Pennsylvania, 34th street YMCA, 50th street YMCA, Martha Washington, Allerton, Martinique, Beekman Arms, Broadmoor, Wyndham on 58th street, the shabby hotel on east 86th street, the boarding house in the Bronx, the house of an acquaintance in Pelham, the apartment on West 56th street, apartment on 72nd street and York, one night in the ladies room of a synagogue on Ocean Parkway, the apartment of a former teacher of my mother's, the house in Brooklyn of a former boyfriend of my mother's, a couple of times riding the subways and nursing hot chocolates in an all-night diner, a couple of run-down hotels in Jersey City.
After the courts took me from my mother, I lived in children's group residences until I was 17. Ever since then I knew I would write about these childhood experiences and create a story out of that perpetual crisis.
I first wrote my story as a screenplay that won two awards and was optioned five times. Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog, Cider House Rules, and Chocolat) was attached to direct and Lena Olin was going to play my mother. But after years of waiting, I decided to adapt the screenplay as a memoir.
I grappled with how to go about it, about whether to write it as pure non-fiction or as an autobiographical novel. I finally wrote it the way it wanted to come out, as a mostly true memoir. This means that some of the incidents I describe are more illustrative than factual, but the essential facts of my childhood -- six years of chronic homelessness, and six years of living in placement as a ward of the court -- are absolutely true.
I also learned how to find help along the way. In 2003 I started taking writing workshops that provided the impetus, the structure, and both support and competition with my classmates. In 2005, I applied for and won a $7,000 New York Foundation for the Arts grant and, in 2006 I was awarded a month-long residency at the Millay Center for the Arts. All along, I sent my manuscript out to agents and editors, but time and again it was turned down.
Despite this roller coaster of awards and rejections, there was one consistent thing: the people who read my manuscript all said they couldn't put it down/they read it in one sitting/they read it straight through. One teenager finished the book furtively in the bathroom to avoid her mother, who wanted her to put the book down to do her homework.
In 2008, the online site Mr. Beller's Neighborhood published an essay I wrote about growing up in midtown Manhattan. In 2010, I heard that The Rumpus, a hip, prestigious online literary magazine was looking for writing from women for the first volume of Rumpus Women. The Rumpus accepted my excerpt, and after the anthology was published I participated in two readings at book stores with the other writers. Surely this was the break I needed to get a book contract. I sent the book out to more agents. Nuthin'.
I often thought seriously of putting the book behind me because there are other things I want to do and other people I want to write about. Yet I always came back to it or, perhaps, it always came back to me, stubbornly needing to see the light of day.
As the self-publishing trend made that option more respectable, I decided to take matters into my own hands. With one of my kids still in college, however, I didn't have a lot of discretionary money so I used the capital I had -- social and intellectual. I hired two editor friends to give me notes on the manuscript for less than they would normally charge. Then other friends gave me notes, and each time I incorporated the notes, my book improved. That was the crucial element. I often thought of the Gloria Steinem quote, "We became the men we wanted to marry." Instead of waiting for an agent or editor to rescue me, I was rescuing myself.
I've had other help along the way, too: I obtained classified records from the Jewish Child Care Association when a professor at Columbia Law School told me how to cut through the city bureaucracy to get them; another lawyer friend gave me some pointers on copyright law; my archivist friend worked with me to keep my numerous manuscript drafts and notes in order; a copywriter friend accepted a reduced payment to write the back cover text; a young book designer designed the cover for a nominal fee; an excellent amateur photographer did my back cover photo.
To produce the paper copies of Scattered I used Createspace, an Amazon company, because of the distribution they have in place. They got the job done, but there were glitches every step of the way, so I can't recommend them.
Marketing? Mailchimp. Website? My son.
Now my book is published, available at an independent Upper West Side bookstore (Book Culture) and on Amazon.com as a paperback and an e-book. I reached my goal. I took the chaos and crisis of my childhood and turned it, first, into art and then, at my first reading at Book Culture, brought it to life for 70 people whose response made it one of the best nights of my life. Now to get the word out and make some money. And yes, I still hope the story will become a film. Shout out to Lorraine Bracco or Deborah Winger to take on one of the more interesting roles of their career -- my mother.