I’m sitting on the back porch of my temporary lodgings in Atlanta, while two spiders go at it, the smaller invading the larger’s web. (Why? Who knows. Maybe he or she is lonely.) Larger lunges at smaller, until smaller retreats, and both settle down again to await the arrival of an unsuspecting fly. Watching them, I am reminded of Charlotte’s Web, which I read when I was boy, and how caught up I became in the struggles of Charlotte and Wilbur and how I never wanted the story to end. Unfortunately, it did, yet fortunately for me I found many other stories to get tangled up in—Encyclopedia Brown, The Westing Game,The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Bridge to Terabithia.
Back then, I read only for pleasure and escape and erroneously imagined these books I so loved to be handed down through a series of magic tricks to end up in my favorite bookstore. I had no idea they were written by real people, who sat at real desks and typed them out on real typewriters, arduous page after arduous page. These books, these authors, changed the way I saw the world, but more than this they changed the way I interacted with it. I learned about sleuthing, betrayal, love, and death by falling headfirst into these created universes, which matched the reality of my own only insofar as they resembled the familiar—houses, trees, the sun and moon, stars, streets, etc. Other than this, they were as fantastical as they were absorbing; I couldn’t wait to flip the page to find out what happened next.
While working on my own novel, I had a similar experience, yet now I was in complete control (or so I thought) of what happened next. The process of writing and publishing Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence took ten years and through it, I learned many valuable lessons, the most important of which is this: we writers have little say in the fate of our characters, who ultimately dictate to us how they want the story to be told and what will happen to them. So it was that one writer after another began to appear in the pages of Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence and I had nothing to say about it. No, really. They turned up and took over and suddenly the novel became more than a novel about a fraught triangulation of widow, critic, and ingénue. It became a novel that asked where stories come from and who owns them, how we write novels and why we do. Like a fly, I was trapped in my novel’s web and the less I struggled, the more I discovered about the characters and myself and the more I discovered, the more the impossible began to occur—the characters told me what was going to happen and held me to this, refusing to let me go until they were satisfied I’d told their stories as honestly and as well as I could.
When someone asks me where I’m from, I never hesitate to say that I’m from New York City. Then, a little ashamed, I often confess that I’m not really from New York, that I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. While I did not spend my formative years in the city, I have always considered myself a New Yorker, which probably has to do with all those summers I spent on Long Island with my mother’s parents. The day trips to Jones Beach and into the city to see a play or wander around Macy’s! Some of my favorite memories still involve being stopped between stations on the subway or the Long Island Railroad. And then our slow approach into Penn Station and the skyscrapers obliterating the sky and my mother leading my brother and me up into the beautiful, congested fray that is Manhattan.
Every step I took along those overpopulated sidewalks, every museum and bookstore I wandered through, every salty pretzel I pulled apart and devoured—all of it was leading me closer to my future self. At the time, I had little idea that years later I’d live in and among those crowds, museums, bookstores, and pretzel carts, though I should’ve suspected as much, given my early fondness for the city. When I was a boy, I fell head over heels in love with the city, yet it wasn’t until I finally moved there as a young adult that I came to really believe what Le Corbusier meant when he said, “A hundred times have I thought New York is a catastrophe and 50 times: It is a beautiful catastrophe.”
A beautiful catastrophe, unlike any other in the world, especially for a young man who wanted desperately to become a writer. Even now, when I think about it, I am still filled with a sense of the romantic and haunted by that earlier version of myself, who traversed the sketchier and verboten neighborhoods of Morningside Heights and Spanish Harlem on his bike, who lived on 107th and Central Park West, in what was and would continue to be for ages the biggest, most amazing apartment he ever lived in—a doorman building with view of the park, our rent only $1,400 a month. I shared the apartment with a friend, another Columbia undergrad, and eventually set a short story there. It was hard to leave an apartment like that, but leave it we had to do. After graduation, I moved downtown, then ultimately to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where I stayed for over a decade, until it was time for me to go. I had become too hard, too covetous of what other people had, and New York was killing me.
From there, I went to DC, then to Gettysburg, PA, then back to New York for a brief stint that lasted a summer and fall. Then, it was to Berlin, then back to Gettysburg, then Durham, NC, then Gettysburg yet again. Now, I am in College Station, Texas, soon to be moving to Atlanta—but, but, but…I left my heart in New York, just like so many of my characters in Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence. No matter where I have gone, no matter where I have lived, New York always beckons me back. She is an impossible place to leave for long, even more of an impossible place to untangle from. Just ask Antonia Lively herself, or Henry Swallow, or Catherine Strayed. Just ask any of these characters where they’d rather be and they will tell you, “Well, New York City, naturally.”
Unfortunately, we do not always get to choose the places in which we live; some places choose us. Antonia, Henry, and Catherine live in Winslow, a small college town in upstate New York, and it chose them. It also chose me and it is where I have lived, in my imagination at least, for over ten years. I know the town just as well as I know New York City, perhaps even better than that, because I created it whereas, in some ways, New York City created me.
I knew I was going to dedicate my first novel, Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence, to my maternal grandparents long before I ever set out to write it. Or let me rephrase that: until I was tasked with dedicating the novel, I had no idea just how clear it had been that I would dedicate it to them. During the years it took me to write the novel, I never thought about the dedication, nor did I think much about my dearly departed grandparents, though in retrospect they were always with me, whispering their story into my ear.
No, the novel isn’t about them, not literally anyway, but it does touch upon certain themes—displacement, trauma, assimilation, ambition—about which I would never have plumbed had I not known the intimate details of their struggles. Marianne and Stephan—Mimi and Steve to their friends—were both born in Vienna, where they met and married. Both full-blooded Jews, their Jewishness never played a significant role in their upbringing. They were Jewish, just not religious, and rarely attended shul.
Long before their conversion to Catholicism in 1930, long before they fled Austria in 1936, it seemed they had already begun the slow, arduous process of shedding themselves of their Jewish identities to live a Jewish-less life in America. They arrived on Ellis Island in 1938, after having spent time in Istanbul, then Geneva. They bought a house in Manhasset, NY, and there raised my mother and my aunt as good Catholic girls, never once alluding to the war, or to what they left behind in Europe.
Like my grandparents, who loved Vienna and missed it every day, many of the characters in Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence yearn both physically and emotionally for a place to which they cannot return. How then, my novel asks, do we make a home elsewhere? How then do we find happiness in a strange place when we have been stripped, or have stripped ourselves, of our identities, that which made us who we were?
I wrote the novel to answer this question, among many others, for myself. When you read it, I hope you will find an answer or two for yourself.