How the Books we Both Read Helped Me Write My Sister’s Life into Fiction
A Craft Essay by Jane Rosenberg LaForge
When my sister, Susan, was still in elementary school, a family friend gave her a book for her birthday, The Wizard of Wallaby Wallow, by Jack Kent. Dyslexic as a child, Susan wasn’t much of a reader, so the gift was unusual. In time though, she overcame her disability, it seemed, because she wanted to read the instructions for building things.
Even after she managed to build her crystal radio set, or her darkroom, or teach herself how to play guitar, words and language were never Susan’s forte. Her conversations with friends and family often ended in arguments, and she could be cruel—prompting friends not to speak to her for years at a time—without meaning to be. During one of her lowest periods, when she was anorexic, my mother could not talk to her without the help of puppets. Mickey Mouse became her favorite interlocutor.
For years, I knew I wanted to write a novel about Susan’s life and death. She grew up gay in a straight world, but as a musician found somewhere she could be comfortable: at the center of the punk rock movement in Los Angeles. Singled out early in life as a genius—despite her difficulties with reading, she aced mathematics and figured out word problems by studying their patterns—she felt forced to succeed academically and professionally, though her desires lay elsewhere. Susan eventually forged a career as a software engineer in the dot-com boom, before her death from breast cancer. But how to render her into words, which had often defied her? How could I express her unique perspective on the world in her own language, when our relationship, like so many others, was marked by the failure of language, of communication?
When I began work on Sisterhood of the Infamous (forthcoming from New Meridian Arts Press, February 2021), I told myself I’d avoid this problem through the usual routes: research and interviews. I researched the causes that most inspired her adolescence (punk rock and gay liberation in the 1970’s), and interviewed several people. But Susan’s friends were as mystified by her sudden bursts of anger, crying fits and long-held grudges, as I was. They too did not understand what had made her so inconsolable, volatile, and why her favored target for that volatility was often herself. (“She was a raw nerve,” one woman explained. Another said repeatedly, “because that’s the way she was.”)
When I tried to mold the facts of her life and times into fiction, all I got was exposition: a mini-history of the L.A.’s punk scene, for instance; or a listing of the real-life slights and insults she suffered as a child and teenager. I realized I had yet to find her language, the rhythm and tone of how she spoke and thought; the linguistic framework that enabled her to always depict herself as an outsider, rather than the protagonist of her own story. Stumped, I thought back over the words we did share during her lifetime. And that’s when I realized: that language, Susan’s language—the characters it might animate, the conflicts it would alternately create and resolve, the subject matter it would be most concerned with—had always been available to me, in the form of books that she read.
Going back over the books we had in common—from picture books to children’s novels to the works of Kathryn Harrison and Dorothy Allison—I began to see a set of “instructions” for depicting a character with her life history, her passions, and her disappointments. Although the characters in these books did not have exactly the same problems Susan faced, nor necessarily speak or think in a way she might have, each of those authors had figured out a way to make those characters seen through language.
When I talk about the language of these books, I mean more than vocabulary, syntax, or style. I’m talking about the possibilities these books verbalized, the propositions they expressed about the world: Would you really want to change everything about your life, when that everything is all you know? How should a girl, or a woman behave, when burdened by a past that is unfathomable to others? Somehow, Susan had come to trust the characters and their circumstances in these books as authentic and deserving of her curiosity and sympathy. They also taught me about what could be credibly illustrated or interpreted of my sister’s life: how if she were to read a book about herself, what would it cover, and how might it sound.
The first book Susan and I shared was The Wizard of Wallaby Wallow that she received at age seven, about the perils of imagining a different life for yourself, and realizing something valuable about your current situation. This picture book apparently remains popular (according to Amazon’s sales figures), so no more spoilers here. But The Wizard of Wallaby Wallow has a winning message and a happy ending. My sister did not read the book for years, although I wish she had earlier. What impresses me now is what an adept choice it was for her, even at that young age. She had always wanted to belong somewhere, or to someone, a longing that’s addressed in another book she was given on a different birthday: Mandy, by Julie Andrews Edwards (yes, that Julie Andrews, now a frequent children’s author).
As a chapter book with pictures, Mandy is a bridge between reading levels. Susan was particularly possessive of this book (because I stole so much of her stuff, she had to be!), and I was allowed to read it only if I didn’t take it into my own room. So, read it I did, on the floor of the hall, next to the bookcase. I would return to it many times, for its fairy tale lyricism and the audacity of its protagonist. Mandy is an orphan story; orphans are common in children’s literature because they reflect a paradox about childhood. Children love and depend on their parents, but also feel encumbered by them; an orphan is a vehicle that enables readers to explore this conflict.
My sister wasn’t an orphan, of course, but she always felt unable to crack the code of friendships. More important to my sister’s story is the conundrum Mandy makes for herself as she pursues her heart’s desire. That Mandy may not know exactly what she truly wants is not some pedantic lesson, but a consequence of Mandy’s journey, her maturation. She is a good girl, much as Susan was. Nevertheless, Mandy surprises herself by lying and stealing to fulfill her quest.
This reflects the predicament I believe my sister often found herself in: she felt that her ethics were being tested by her friendships, or the actions of those she called friends. She struggled over how to honor those friends without losing her sense of self. Eventually she decided to do the right thing, or so she said, and it cost her dearly, and she became a loner afterward, pining for real connection.
Yet Susan was not friendless. At the time of her death, she had several friends in her own age group, and also counted some of their parents and even their children as friends. But she was often reclusive, preferring to stay home and sticking close to our mother. Our father was a complicated, charming but ultimately incompetent husband and parent (our parents divorced as Susan began college). She refused to speak to him for close to thirty years, and gravitated toward books that documented the sundering of the parent-child bond. Through these books I came to understand the physical and emotional fallout she endured because of that break.
I hadn’t read Kathryn Harrison’s novel Exposure when I noticed it on the floor of her bedroom as I watched Susan sort through her laundry one day. But I knew its premise and immediately recognized why Susan would be interested. Its depiction of a twisted father-daughter relationship, and the self-destructive path the daughter takes as a result, is still shocking two decades after it was published. Our father, for all his faults, was not the self-absorbed artist who alternately neglects and exploits his daughter, as is the father of the book, and my sister did not have juvenile diabetes, like the daughter, Ann, had. But as I read the book, I realized that like Ann, Susan found herself trapped by certain physical circumstances that deeply scarred her mentally. She became a prisoner of her body, its demands and aspirations. In Exposure, Ann’s body seems to drive her deadly fight or flight response. Susan’s size, her physical and emotional weaknesses, framed her conceptions about what is normal, beautiful; to a degree, even what is wrong and right.
Similarly, Dorothy Allison’s novel Bastard Out of Carolina is another tale of bad parenting; this time, the mother is the culprit. Set in crushing poverty that begets stunning violence, Bastard could not be more different than the world in which my sister and I were raised. But Allison’s brutal vision of growing up unwanted was a reminder that the elements of our upbringing that were merely rueful and regrettable to me were devastating to Susan. The long, slow breakup of our family amounted to a full-bore assault on her confidence and self-image. She also might have imagined redemption—in some form—in a similarly transgressive way as Allison’s alter ego in the book, Bone, accomplishes.
I gave Allison’s Cavedweller novel to Susan for one of her birthdays, because its lead character is a rock ’n roll singer. I thought she would appreciate the story of a rock ‘n’ roll singer, though I worried she’d misinterpret the gift. Cavedweller celebrates a quiet, nearly anonymous life over the supposed perks of stardom. I was not necessarily recommending the same for her, but hoped she’d be taken by the novel’s epic exploration of mothers, daughters, reconciliation and second chances. It turned out that Susan had already bought and read the book.
This was when we were both in our early thirties, both frustrated with careers and relationships. In the decade that followed, both of our lives changed in ways we couldn’t have anticipated, much like the sprawling destinies of the characters in Cavedweller. After that birthday, I stuck to safe gifts, like CDs or fancy dinners, or a T-shirt featuring her favorite concert venues or musicians. For her last birthday, which she failed to make by three days, I mailed her an early present of a hoodie that said, “Central Park Zoo,” guessing she could still appreciate the private joke (she was the keeper of a legion of stuffed animals) .
In fictionalizing my sister’s life, my job was not to imitate the scenarios or style of these books, but to remember them as a foundation. Once I’d re-read them all, I no longer wondered how my sister would like to be depicted as much as what would be plausible and how she would react in certain situations. In the novel I eventually wrote, there’s still much I did not include because I could not figure out how to make some situations believable, or relevant to the plot powering the narrative.
Though I had moved closer, I think, to rendering my fictional character, Barbara, into language and situations that honored Susan’s life and her own words, in the end, the book embodies, as of course it must, my own language. No matter how well informed I became, no matter how much I tried, in many ways I still failed to capture on the page Susan’s playfulness, what some might consider her best quality. But I believe in the character I created out of her life, fashioned from the hurt she could not forget and how it skewed her vision and prospects. The dilemma that my novel’s characters face is the one my sister tried to solve. Then she ran out of time. I hope, through yet another shared book, I was able to give her a little more.
Jane Rosenberg LaForge is a poet, novelist, and occasional essayist in New York. Her first novel, The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War (Amberjack Publishing), was a finalist in two categories in the 2019 Eric Hoffer awards. Her memoir is An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir (Jaded Ibis Press 2014), and her next collection of poetry will be Medusa’s Daughter (Animal Heart Press, 2021).