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Author Archive: "Molly O'Neill"

Do You Know My Name?

When I held the first copy of Mostly True, my hands trembled, my eyes filled with tears, and I felt the wonder and protectiveness that only a newborn can inspire. "And then," said my friend Susan Cheever, "you pass your baby through the bars of the gorilla cage." That is how her brother, Ben, describes what happens after you finish writing, after the book is printed and shipped. It's not your little private world any more, you have to give it away. You don't know what will happen. The gorillas may adopt your baby, may nurture it and raise it. The gorillas may ignore your baby. The gorillas may play soccer with your baby. The gorillas may stomp your baby to death. You don't know and you can't affect it. Writers tend to be nuttier than usual in the period of time between the publication of their books and their first reviews. It may be oxygen deprivation. You sit around holding your breath.

And then, as the critics are ruminating, the writer sails off in search of an audience. Book tours seem to be getting smaller and shorter — for my first book, The New York Cookbook, I did something like 25 cities in 31 days, and this current book I'll do about ten over a leisurely six weeks or so — but the drill is the same. You fly to a city. You and your book go to a hotel. An escort — my friend, the writer, Calvin Trillin, calls these people "Author Haulers" — comes in the morning and begins hauling you around to radio interviews and meetings with reporters and then, in the early evening, you stand in a bookstore and read from your book. Sometimes people come and listen. Sometimes they don't. For most writers, the fear of reading to empty chairs looms large. I sometimes bring snacks, fragrant ones, to share. Other times, I call everyone I know in that area-code and wheedle. If that fails, I whine. A few weeks ago in Berkeley, one friend sent the dishwashers from her restaurant and so I was able to gauge the effect of my words on a non-English speaking audience. Another sent her mother, yet another conned her husband and another couple dinner at Chez Panisse and, "Oh, let's stop and hear my friend read at this bookstore along the way." Sales were brisk.

When I got to Boston last week, it had been raining for days and I had to literally FORD A STREAM to get into a bookstore for a noon reading. Imagine my excitement to find, already assembled by the time I sloshed to the lectern, an audience of a few dozen older gentlemen. OH, I thought, I've found my male audience! Finally! And I frantically thumbed through the book to find a passage that might interest them, something about baseball or my brothers, definitely not cooking or passages from This Girl's Life. And then I began reading to these lovely men — who are they? How wonderful of them to come out on such a day! One sentence and I hear it. That unmistakable purring snort. Looking up, I see that my audience is sleeping. And somehow, in that instant, I understand that they are not, as I suspected, baseball fans or hard-core foodies, but retired veterans from the home a few blocks away who'd taken advantage of a brief break in the rain to toddle out for a walk.

AHHHHHH-ch, they snorted. AHHHH- AHHH- AHHCHT.

Bravely I continued, paragraph after paragraph — snore, snort — they slumped and slipped. One, the loudest among, them, seemed to have a bit of apnea and his snorts would erupt and then??? sentences later??? erupt again. It lent a certain dramatic tension.

"And now, folks!" said the bookstore's event coordinator, when I read my last passage. "If you'd like a signed book, just line up right here!"

AHHHHH-AHHH-AHHCHT cheered my audience.

"I want one!" shouted the author hauler in the back of the room. Jumping up, she waved her copy of my book above the rows of nodding bald and white heads.


Mostly Memory

It is so good to get back. I'd say "get back home," but I am not sure where home is right now. I am partly in the city, partly in the house in upstate New York where I lived while writing my memoir. When I left on the dreaded BOOK TOUR, five weeks ago, it was not quite winter, not quite spring, and wholly the only ugly time in this crease of the world between the Catskills and the Adirondacks. The trees were anorexic skeletons; the mountains were still melting mud that the dogs carried into the house. Even in the dark I knew that the world had changed. The air smelled like lilacs. This morning I awoke to a lush, green world. And, thanks to woman who takes care of them when I am gone, I also awoke to three bathed and fluffy Bearded Collies (Betty Lou, who is 17; her daughter Phoebe, who is 11; and her daughter, Tootsie, who is 3). Anything is better than a hotel room, but a well-coiffed Beardie is better than sex.

This place had been a weekend house. But then, after ...


What Was, What Could Have Been, and What I Wish Had Been

I've been writing in airports. Yesterday I was sitting in Charlotte for six hours. It's a many-legged place, a giant squashed tick with concourses sticking out here and there, a preponderance of Starbucks and a massage place that requires appointments. Like you know when USAir is going to decide to give you a six hour breather in your flight from Knoxville to Albany. There are not enough chairs. I was sitting on the floor, typing on my knee near gate 15 on the E concourse when I heard several large extended families reciting their stories for the benefit of their children???

"And after President Lincoln, your great great great granddaddy got freed with all the slaves and that's when he walked from Atlanta to Akron."

On the other side of me, a mother was telling her daughter:

"And it was in the Depression where your great grandpa lost all the money that his grandfather had made on the railroad."

All families have stories, many of them having to do with past glories and lost fortunes. The O'Neills of Columbus are no different. We ...


Fact, Fiction, and Memoir

I tend to read non-fiction in the morning and fiction at night. Pat Conroy once called newspapers "the daily gift of words." For nearly twenty years, I tore through four of them before seven a.m. every morning. I couldn't face the world until I'd read what was happening in it. In the evenings I read fiction. I need accounts of what-could-have-been to face the darkness. The art of endowing random reality with purpose eases the anxiety I have about at the prospect of exhaling, assuming a horizontal position, and doing nothing. In addition to segregating them in time, I've always needed to categorize words. There is "fact" (my personal caffeine) and there is "fancy," (my form of Ambien). Memoir, as I said, seemed like a netherworld between the two, a hybrid, a vinaigrette, a mutt. But at some level, an appetite for truth pushed me to write a memoir.

My initial departure from food writing, which is how I make a living and how I made my name, had been a coming-of-age novel, a saga about five women's lives who had, in ...


Mostly True

Until I wrote Mostly True, I thought that memoirs were what you wrote if you lacked the imagination to write fiction or the diligence to write nonfiction. It's not that I don't appreciate personal stories. On the contrary. I live for them. I've lurked around the edges of life listening for as long as I can remember. As a very young child, I crept from my bed, and held my breath as I negotiated the creaky stairs and then crouched outside the kitchen door listening to my parents recount their days, their worries, their complaints about each other. When busted, my mother would say, "We are not talking about you, now go back to bed." But night after night, I returned. In second grade, I used paper cups to create a listening device that, when pressed to a floor, according to my science book, could allow one to hear a pin drop on the floor below. There was something illicit about overhearing, something powerful about silencing one's own life — I had to all but stop my breathing to escape parental detection — and riding the account of the world as somebody else found it.

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