Inspiration

My first novel, The Courtyard of Dreams, is the story of an American girl growing up in Ohio in the late 1960s; her Italian father, who had been a medical student in Naples during WWII; and their attempts to connect over the gulf between their different cultures. As they straddle two worlds, my characters are focused on language, as all people are when living bicultural lives. After that book came out, I was—though it’s odd for a writer to say this—tired of language, and I felt an enormous curiosity about people who live in their bodies, who process emotion and creativity not with language but with movement and physical energy, as dancers and athletes do. In my next life I would very much like to be a dancer; in this life, however, I created Mary Mudd, a world-class modern dancer and the main character of my second novel, Falling In Love with Natassia, as a way of exploring what it is to be a dancer. Mary gave me license to spend hours—hours!—in New York City’s Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, viewing videos of dance performances, interviews with dancers and choreographers, dance documentaries. I looked through stacks of dance magazines from the 1970s through the 1990s, the years Mary would have been training and performing. I continued to take dance classes, as I have all my life, always at the beginner level. I went to any performance I could get tickets to, I made a pilgrimage to the Jacob’s Pillow Festival one summer, and I talked to dancers wherever I found them. This research was a feast.

As for Nora, Mary’s best friend, I remember exactly the moment she came to me. I was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at the Matisse retrospective, walking from gallery to gallery, surrounded by that extraordinary assemblage of paintings and drawings—Matisse’s rooms, his women. There was a complex sagesse radiating from those bright canvases. I kept wondering about the models in the paintings. What had they done immediately before arriving and after leaving the painter’s studio? I saw in those models an air of lives not lived so much as survived. I imagined them as people with histories, possibly dark histories, which they didn’t refer to or wear on their sleeves. And then Nora—her name was there immediately—appeared: beautiful, frosty, distant, perfect, pained and hidden. I knew that her story would require her to become known to herself and to others. From the start, she was a woman carrying the contradiction of appearing to be calm, accomplished, well loved and secure in her marriage, while knowing within herself that she was anything but. Walking through the Matisse show, I knew that Nora and her man—I wasn’t sure yet if he was husband or boyfriend—spent an extended and somewhat mysterious time in the south of France, and that he was a painter and she was a painters’ model.

How, when and where did Natassia appear? I have no memory of that. She was always shrouded in danger. In many ways she was there to serve as foil for the adults, her crisis a way for me to explore how much they were capable of changing. Could Natassia’s parents, grandparents and godparents, for Natassia’s sake, overcome their wounds and weaknesses, become better people than they’d been so far? How much can people truly change? To develop my characters’ inner lives, as well as some of the plot, I immersed myself in an informal study of psychology and psychoanalytic work—reading, attending lectures and participating in a series of seminars sponsored by Creighton University Department of Psychiatry’s Center for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis.

It’s an odd business, taking years to write a novel. The work demands that you spend hours alone; and yet, when you love your characters—and I truly love Mary and Natassia and Ross and Nora and Christopher and all the others, faulty as they are—they educate you about what it is to be alive out in the world.