It was 1977 and I was 21 years old. I thanked God when I arrived in New York. I had flown just one hour from Pittsburgh, but I was as grateful as an immigrant, as relieved as a refugee who has finally escaped. I don’t mean to equate the enormity of exile with the comparative ease of my departure from suburbia, but I can’t lie about this: landing in New York felt as lucky to me and as monumental as it must have felt for anyone who ever sailed into Ellis Island. In leaving my family’s home, I was an anarchist. Our women had never lived in this place I was going to. For my Italian grandmothers, my mother, my aunts, a life between the home of the father and the home of the husband had never existed.
But now it did exist. At last, I was in the right place.
The city was completely new to me but felt completely known. I can put it no other way but to say that I was happy in my skin.
— “Ours or the Other Place,” Fourth Genre, Spring 2000
The excerpt above is from an essay I wrote in 1993. After living in New York City for 17 years, I had taken my first full-time university teaching job and moved to Spokane, WA, where the landscape looked to me huge and empty. As I drove my first car ever (a Honda named Heidi) through the endless rolling wheat fields of the Palouse, I longed for the hug of skyscrapers around me. What have I done? I had taught before but never full-time, always part-time, at all kinds of Manhattan venues—ESL at a resettlement agency for Soviet refugees, and writing workshops at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side Y, at Hunter College and New York University, and in my living room. In Spokane on Monday nights, after a three-hour workshop with my graduate students, I’d rush home in Heidi and turn on NYPD Blue just to watch the street scenes behind the credits.Home. It’s not as if I’d lived some full-out street life, but for ten years I had been a copy editor at Time magazine, working with some of the best people on the planet, which was a good thing because my shifts were Friday and Saturday nights, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Taxi rides through pre-dawn streets—over the bridge when I lived in Brooklyn, up the West Side highway when I lived on the Upper West Side, through Central Park when I lived on East 79th Street—were a familiar comfort. I wrote that essay to help me figure out why I had dismantled a life that was really not bad and jumped into something so utterly other.
I did it, I think, for the same reasons I write novels, the same reasons I eavesdrop in restaurants and on airplanes. When I left New York I still loved the city very much (and I still do), but I’d lived many years of city life, and now my curiosity was telling me it was time to learn something new. In Spokane I learned how to drive on ice. Dawn became my wake-up call rather than my bedtime, and then I could grab the best part of the day to write. I got training in the teaching tasks that are done outside the classroom: how to negotiate with a dean, how to advocate for the creative writing department. And in time I found not only courage but also comfort while driving through the Palouse. “What happens,” one of my colleagues in the Northwest told me, “is that you get addicted to the clarity.” He was right. Away from New York City’s noise and long lines and distractions, I found I was able to really dig into my second novel, Falling In Love with Natassia, which was in many ways a vehicle for me to explore yet another universe: mothering. Specifically, I needed to learn whether or not it was possible to have a productive career in the arts while also raising a child. With my main character, Mary Mudd, a professional modern dancer, and her daughter, Natassia, I dissected that question in a thousand different ways.
In February 2001, a day after sending the first full draft of Natassia to my agent, I flew to Vietnam to bring my four-month-old adopted son home. As a single mother, I continue to enjoy a full-immersion education in parenting. In those early months I had very little time to write, but I was learning about a way of life that had previously been a mystery to me, and eventually those lessons informed the many rewrites ofNatassia. Leo will soon go to kindergarten; he and my second novel have grown up together.
We live in Omaha, where I teach at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Writer’s Workshop, an innovative B.F.A. program in the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media. My office is across the hall from a drawing studio. The Theatre Department’s costume shop is right downstairs. It’s not NYC, but I am blessed to be spending my days alongside other writers and visual artists and actors. And blessed again to be living in a sweet neighborhood of old houses and trees and sidewalks and friendly neighbors. Leo loves trains and swimming. I love my dance classes and yoga. We both love noodles and beaches and our next frequent-flier destination. Last summer we went to Calabria to spend time with our Italian family. Usually, though, we go back to New York.