As I write this blog post, it’s twenty-one days until the release of my novel, A Notion of Pelicans. In my next post, I’ll explain the origin of the book—how I came to write it, where the pelicans came from as a motif. I’ve wondered as the publication date has neared if I should tell the story of my pelicans. It’s a strange story—even my husband, who is far from averse to the odd or unusual—didn’t believe me at first. But it’s the reason I wrote the book I wrote, and I’ve decided I’ll share it. It’s part of the novel’s backstory, and I, as a reader, am intrigued by backstory.
Most of A Notion of Pelicans is narrated by its major female characters. I often write about, or in the voices of, women, and I want to reflect on why I do.
Let me start out by saying that, in approaching the world through women’s stories, I am not putting down men. I love men. I love all the male characters in my novel. Are they perfect? No. Are the women perfect? Just as decidedly not. The perfect makings of a story.
I love all my imperfect characters. I’m fascinated by the ways in which people interact in intimate partnership—the many and diverse ways in which we organize our lives and worlds. How it goes well, for all of us, how it can go so badly—all that joy, and pain, and plain hard work. What better seeds to sow into narrative?
I should say, what better seeds for me to sow into narrative. A person need only read various writers’ work to see we have different inspirations, different purposes. Trying to define what drew me to writing is complicated. I can say this much with confidence: at the core of my work are two callings, both of which are evident in A Notion of Pelicans. First, I honor the lives of women, so complex and beautifully diverse. Second, I hold to the light the “big questions” that move me: What is life about? What can we know? No answers provided—just this: Ask. Look. Go broad, go deep. It’s the pursuit that matters.
Female voices are strong in my head. The picture at the top of this post is of my mom and me, taken by my husband one recent morning during breakfast at our neighborhood diner. Mom was my strongest early role model, along with my grandmothers—theirs were the first voices. They taught me about caretaking, and about tradition. Some of their lessons were direct. They told me, straight up, what life as a woman would require of me. I’ve lived a life much different from theirs, having worked in a career and not having children, but the wisdom they shared about human nature, about the nature of healthy relationship, has served me at every step of my life.
The strongest voice, I think, works in silence, in what’s unspoken. The most important lessons from those much-loved women came in the day-to-day living of our lives together. I’m ending this post with a poem. When I was growing up, a late bloomer just on the cusp of womanhood, my mom and I used to go shopping together, just the two of us. I especially loved those outings during the Christmas season, when everything was so festive. In our little town, the stores closed at 5:00, except Fridays, when they were open into the evening, and from Thanksgiving to Christmas, when businesses expanded their evening hours. After dinner, on an evening in the middle of the week, my mother and I would drive to town and shop until closing, and then . . . well, I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want that special time to end.
I think my mother didn’t, either.
The Secret of Life
I was seventeen, safe, waiting for life
and Christmas. On our evening shopping trips, when
the stores hung their Closed signs and turned out
the lights, my mother and I would walk
to the bakery. We’d stomp our boots clean of snow,
then take the booth in the window.
Two coffees, please—two creampuffs.
It was Advent. We talked, about Christmas,
the shops we’d browsed, all that we had yet to do.
The fabric store had been texture and color.
Midnight blue corduroy, firecracker plaids, white laces
and organdy. The prickly saleslady
wore a tape of frayed numbers around her neck,
an elf corsage, gold links on her eyeglasses.
Zippers rubbed shoulders in racks—buttons
and rickrack— pattern books splayed in a row,
and down below, the patterns themselves:
Butterick, Vogue, McCall’s, Simplicity—
the secret to a happy life stored in a deep drawer
that squealed in its tracks.
At the clothing store, red bows and bells decorated
the banisters, the air smelled of balsam
and boxes of shoes. We’d been there at closing,
the last in the store. Our footsteps on the uncarpeted
floor put us backstage of a mannequins’ play,
dreamlike, the actors frozen in the window
display, thunderstruck by the action.
As we lingered at the bakery, sipping our
bottomless cups, licking cream from our fingertips,
a string of green and red lights twinkled softly
around the window above the booth—they framed
a picture for the passer on the street:
window art evergreens, Frosty men, a Star,
a woman and a girl, alone, visceral,
talking, or not.