Off the Shelf: Maud Newton’s life - a novel, not a memoir


When I was 12, I emerged from an intense depression by imagining the book I’d write about the things that had caused me to take to my bed.

I remember crossing the field from the library to our small apartment and starting to compose the story in my head. Everything -- from the thunderclouds I could see in the sky to the grass whipping against my legs in the wind -- seemed potentially meaningful. Not to mention the people who went to my mother’s church. (She was a preacher.) They would all have to be included.

There was Harry, a wild-haired, wild-eyed, perpetually furious man who’d lived in a tree until he’d shacked up with another churchgoer and her children in the apartment downstairs; Rocky, a gentle soul who’d fled Mississippi after a botched armed robbery and intended to wait out the cops for seven years in South Florida before going home again; Margaret, the prostitute who, unbeknownst to my father, slept in my room at our old (pre-divorce) house after my mother, on the sly, invited her to move in.

According to Mom, Margaret’s demons infiltrated my bed during that period and afterward lay dormant for a year or two, just waiting to possess the first man who sat down on the mattress. So it was the Devil’s fault, not the man’s, that things happened the way they did.

It was after discussing Margaret with my mother that I stopped trying to talk about my experiences. Instead, I became obsessed with the notion that I would, eventually, write them down.

Pre-teen novels were my frame of reference. I envisaged a story in the downbeat, questioning vein of “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” or “My Darling, My Hamburger.” But unlike those books, mine would be true, and, because I could not see beyond the sphere of my own unhappiness, it would be called, “And You Think Your Family is Crazy.” I shudder to think of it now.

I guess it’s not surprising, in the Oprah era, that so many other people had the same idea. Nowadays bookstores are overrun with narratives that could be sold under exactly the title that so appealed to my adolescent self. It’s hard to dispute writer Ben Yagoda’s assertion that the memoir has become the “central form” of this cultural moment. Whether it has, as he also contends, supplanted fiction remains to be seen.

But I hope he’s wrong.

Of course some escape-from-my-wretched-childhood stories are smart and candid and complex. Shalom Auslander’s “Foreskin’s Lament” flies in the face of the therapeutic model: It closes on a troubling note, as Auslander worries that the God he’s turned his back on will punish him by killing his child.

For the most part, though, the general formula is simple, and quintessentially American -- miserablism to triumphalism, with the closing benediction, through sales, of capitalism.

The critic Dubravka Ugresic has likened this parade of stories depicting a downtrodden but ultimately redeemed real-life protagonist to Soviet social realism, in that they take actual events as a starting point but twist them into sanguine rags-to-riches propaganda that serves to reinforce readers’ belief that anyone can overcome difficult times. Such stories, in this analysis, are an insidious, uniquely modern incarnation of Horatio Alger’s dime novels.

The year after I first started planning to write my (as I thought of it then) real-life novel, a member of my mother’s congregation, a man I didn’t know very well, showed up at our place -- now a house we were renting -- and rang the bell. It took a moment after I opened the door to realize he was naked.

“Is Pastor Betty here?” he asked, agitatedly wiping away a visible sweat mustache. “I need to repent.”

His pupils were tiny, his nipples dark, the parts lower down a creepy shade of purple. An empty cop car sat in the driveway behind him, its front passenger tire flat, its lights flashing. My mother and stepfather were around the corner, in their storefront church, preaching.

When I slammed the door in the man’s face, he ran around back, slashed the patio screen, and climbed inside. All the sliding glass doors leading out to the pool stood open; there was no time to close them. I called to my sister and stepsister, and we fled the house.

This was not one of the worst things that had happened to me growing up, but it was one of the first strange and frightening experiences of which I was conscious as material. Even as my hands shook and my heart raced and I tried to figure out how best to protect my siblings, there was a part of me standing apart, watching with a detached appreciation for the absurdity of it all, thinking: This is crazy; nobody’s going to believe this part!

It took years for me to realize that this is precisely the wrong spirit with which to go into writing.

At 19, at the University of Florida, I took a fiction class from the formidable Harry Crews. When Crews handed back an inchoate story I’d lamely based on my father, I could feel his scorn radiating off the paper. “The creation of a monster is not the creation of fiction,” he’d written, in all caps.

Crews taught me that an event doesn’t make for a resonant story merely because it’s weird and bad and actually happened; he helped me to see that the books I love most -- such as Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” -- are powerful and moving because the author breathed life into them with words and hard work and imagination.

Since then I’ve written -- in a more nuanced way, I hope -- autobiographical essays about my family. But the “novel” I imagined writing as a child has transformed, through thousands of hours and countless drafts, into actual fiction.

In the world of my novel, real people and events have morphed, in incremental but ultimately fundamental ways, so that it is less about me than the fears and impulses and dangers to which my experiences have sensitized me. These psychological and emotional questions are what I’m most interested in exploring now.

Newton was awarded the 2009 Narrative Prize for an excerpt from her novel-in-progress.