About a decade ago, I began writing a book I originally titled The Church of America, dealing with my family’s decision in the mid-50s to immigrate to the United States from Paris, France. It started as a few vignettes about the building where we lived, the people who also dwelled there, the neighborhood, and what it was like to grow up in post-war France.
I wrote and got a few stories published, one of which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The Pushcart isn’t exactly the Pulitzer, but it’s not bad. I was pleased.
As the book progressed, I found myself having to deal with some of the less pleasant aspects of my family. My mother was addicted to pharmaceutical drugs and my father, today, would be classified as a classic enabler and codependent. Me? I started experimenting with alcohol when I was six years old, happily emptying left-over glasses after a dinner party and pleased by the effect the liqueurs had on me.
It took about five years to finish the book. I sent it to my agent, who wondered what, exactly, I had written. A memoir? A novel? An autobiography? The book did not sell though it got some nice comments from publishers.
Cut to three months ago. My agent suggests that perhaps instead of adopting an omniscient point of view, I rewrite the book as seen through the eyes of its main character, Jeanot, a French kid fascinated by cowboys and Indians, desperate to please his parents, and even at a very young age worried about his mother’s drug use.
Arielle, whom I’d met in January in a writers’ group she chaired, read parts of the original work and liked it enough to sign on as its editor. I rewrote chapters. She excised stuff that no longer fit and smoothed transitions. She wrote entire paragraphs I could not distinguish from my own. She corrected my grammar and instilled in me a respect for the semi-colon.
We have spent several hours each day over the past two weeks essentially finalizing the book. I read it aloud while she hovers over the computer pointing out typos, sentence fragments, and words incorrectly used because I have been known to ascribe a French meaning to an English term. We correct, suggest, occasionally tussle, and make sure that characters named Yves or Michael in Chapter I have not morphed into Jacques and Pierre by Chapter 12.
This is the first time I have read the book in its entirety in its new form. A couple of days ago, something odd happened.
I started crying.
Tears are not foreign to me. In fact, I’ve found the older I get, the more likely they are to surface, but this was something different. Writing the scenes I remembered from childhood was not difficult. Reading them one after the other proved both painful and sad. Seen in retrospect, what I had pictured in my mind as a fairly idyllic childhood simply… wasn’t.
The truth is that strange things happened when I was a kid; they do in any child’s life. The reality was that coming to America was fraught with difficulties centering on language and culture. I have never felt at home here, and no amount of trying as a kid or an adult has managed to alter this. My mother struggled as best she could to make this new land as hospitable for herself and her family as the old one had been, never quite realizing the old land hadn’t been that friendly either. What she thought she’d left in Europe followed her here and became even more inexplicable in a Washington environment than it had been in a Parisian one.
I originally set out to write this book because I believed that every immigrant minority’s tale had been told—Italian, Polish, Latino, Chinese—save for that of the French. What I wanted was to illustrate the American experience of my uprooted family. What I have ended up with is a very different story, one I am not entirely comfortable with. It struck me for the first time yesterday that getting this published—if it gets published—and read and reviewed by strangers may be uncomfortable.
Arielle has called this my magnum opus. There are more books in the offing that she will edit, but none, I think, will have the depth-charge impact this one has had on me.
I’m reminded of the Churchill quote. “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”
It’s soon going to be time to fling this one.