In Lisa Glatt's new novel, "The Nakeds" (Regan Arts: 288 pp., $24.95), first-grader Hannah Teller is hit by a car one morning in 1970 in a Southern California beach town. The teenage drunk driver, Martin, flees the scene.
As a result of her injuries, Hannah spends the rest of her childhood in a leg cast. Martin keeps running, but he's emotionally immobilized by guilt. They may be the only two people in the 1970s who can't throw off their constraints: Everybody around them is frantically breaking traditions. Hannah's Jewish dentist father converts to Christianity and starts surfing; Hannah's mother and stepfather become nudists (or "nakeds," as her Middle Eastern stepfather persists in calling them).
Glatt, the author of a previous novel, "A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That," and a book of stories, "The Apple's Bruise," along with two collections of poetry and a series of children's books written with Suzanne Greenberg, acknowledges that "The Nakeds" is inspired by her own childhood, which was shaped, like Hannah's, by a car accident. But she has taken a great deal of liberty with the facts, altering and imagining details to tell a larger story about a lost era and the many ways people can be, or refuse to be, naked.
Glatt, who teaches at Cal State Long Beach, lives in Long Beach with her husband, poet David Hernandez, and two cats, Diego and Sadie. She spoke about her new novel in her sunny living room as Hernandez brought tea and Diego, banished by a reporter's allergies, scratched at the door.
"The Nakeds" is autobiographical. But it's not a memoir. It's a novel. What do you think compels you to transform your experiences into fiction?
What happened with both "A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That," which was inspired by my mother's breast cancer, and "The Nakeds" is that I started writing about a situation I wanted to explore. I first wrote about the car accident in my first book of short stories, "The Apple's Bruise." In that story, which was also about Hannah, a girl bully appeared. Then, when I was starting to write the novel, the boy who hit Hannah hit and ran. And that became really important to the book, and it's the factually inaccurate thing I wrote about. I realized that without fiction's permission to lie and tell stories, I'm not really interested in the exact truth that happened.
So the person who hit you didn't run?
He hit and stopped and dealt with the situation. He wasn't drunk. But in terms of making fiction, as I'm writing away he ran, and then I realized, wow: the guilt and the regret of leaving the accident. That's why I'm a fiction writer. There's a really different thing going on. I'm interested in that line of mining one's life but being completely open to going off track. I start with this thing that's very true, knowing that I'm going to be making things up, putting story first.
Hannah never meets Martin. Did you ever meet the guy who hit you?
I didn't. I just know he was young. I remember my mother always used to say, "That poor boy."
Was it cathartic to write about the accident and the years you spent in a cast?
I always caution my students against expecting catharsis. I hadn't spoken about these events to anybody but my closest friends, and going back there wasn't easy. It's not like I was sobbing, it wasn't traumatic, but it was surprisingly uncathartic.
The novel is so evocative of Southern California in the 1970s, a world that is now more or less gone. Was it important to you to record the unique aspects of the time and place?
I wanted it to be true to the time period, but I didn't want to talk a lot about tube socks. It was actually easier than writing something set today. Technology has become so much a part of our lives. You can't really write a story without mentioning texting. So it was freeing not to have to worry about that.
Are Hannah's experiences at the nudist camp anything like your own as a child?
I stayed away; I only went once. My mother was a high school teacher; she taught English and government, and she was amazing. Her nudism on the weekends was a break for her.
Were there any parts of the book that particularly challenged you or held you up, or was it easy?
It's never easy! I'm always asking myself, Will anybody want to read this? Can I write a sentence? Do I even deserve to live? I'm so self-punishing. That's really the hard part, not so much telling the story. Because I wanted to write a book that someone would want to read. It's a lot to ask of people.
How do you turn off that critical voice?
I never really do. "A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That" took me seven years because I kept stopping and wondering if it was worth it. This time I told myself I would just write through the hatred, and it took me only four years. I consider that a success.
You began as a poet and published several collections.
I published two. And I haven't written a poem in probably 15 years. I just wanted to pursue the longer form. Even when I wrote poetry I was always interested in the story in the poem. One of my professors, Tom Lux, used to call me a "proser." But I don't like to think that I've rejected poetry or turned away from it. I like to think that I've incorporated poetry in my fiction.