Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How I Grew Up

An Inside Look at My First Novel

On May 6, 2013, I was having lunch with my good friend Judy Lawler and whining about the fact I had no summer show to direct for the second year in a row … after directing a summer musical theater production every summer beginning in 1989. In the summer of 2012 I was distracted by having my house burglarized in the middle of the night with me in it, but that’s another story.

Judy said, “Why don’t you write a book?” I think I just looked at her. I’d always wanted to try to do that, but it seemed akin to climbing Mt. Everest, and at the age of seventy-five that was hardly an option. I think I replied that it just seemed too daunting, too huge, too … everything. She replied, “Don’t think so big. Think of one incident.”

Since I had just directed Carousel for the second time with a remarkable group of young performers at East Stroudsburg High School South, my late friend Anita Barker was very much on my mind. In 1954, when she was a senior at Oak Ridge High School (TN) and I was a junior, Anita’s dream of playing Julie Jordan in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s compelling musical drama seemed to have been killed along with both her parents the night her estranged brother-in-law came into her home. He shot and killed not only both her parents, but mortally wounded her other brother-in-law who lingered and died some three months later. Judy had heard the story, as had my young cast, and she suggested I use that. “And,” she said, “write it in the first person.”

Intrigued, I decided to see if I could do this, and sat at the computer that same afternoon to begin. Memories of such an event are vivid, even after nearly sixty years, and as I wrote I uncovered more and more of them. Contacting another friend from my high school years, who had probably been Anita’s best friend, provided a wealth of information. Audrey’s memories were equally vivid and she filled in some blanks.

I have a photo of Anita, undoubtedly a head shot taken during her time at the Pasadena Playhouse a few years later, which sat on my computer as I wrote. I remembered the cadence and timbre of her voice, the way she expressed herself, and I let her tell her story as best I could, trying to stay in her head and out of her way.

The book was finished some four months later and in print in late October. I made some revisions late last summer primarily to tie the book more closely to two which followed: Eli’s Heart in 2014 and You Are My Song in 2015. All three were rooted in that long-ago production of Carousel, so I had produced a (standalone) trilogy without planning it. I just wanted to write How I Grew Up to let Anita’s story of tragedy to triumph be told. After I wrote it, I wanted to hold it in my hands and published through a P.O.D. company. There are many such companies and I found Virtual Bookworm to be reasonably priced and good to work with. But after their two-year ownership of the rights to the e-book ran out, I re-released through CreateSpace, where I had self-published the next two novels.

Over the three years since I began this journey, I have learned a great deal about writing, self-publishing, and marketing. I re-read How I Grew Up recently and think I might have written it somewhat differently if I’d known then what I know now. But in a way, I’m glad I was a novice and wasn’t constrained by rules. The book is written with the voice of an anguished, somewhat na├»ve, dreamy teenage girl who is knocked down by a terrible tragedy at what should have been an exciting and happy time in her life. I read the book recently with an idea of making more revisions; but the story, in all its raw horror, confusion and eventual healing, allows my character “Melanie” to share with the reader her thoughts and her emotions.  

Anita won the role of Julie Jordan and performed it brilliantly only weeks after she buried her parents. Carousel was sold out every night (I was amazed to read when researching that the ORHS auditorium was built in 1951 to seat fourteen hundred). Audrey recalled, “The whole town tried to be there. There was so much emotion in that room at every performance.” A shooting in a small town was a rare event in the 1950s and the entire town was rocked. To see the youngest Barker girl’s shining courage was very moving. I’ve never forgotten it.

Scene from Carousel, ESHS South, 2013

How I Grew Up is available on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/h2hce7o

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