For years, my writing life draped itself around my children. I used to love Toni Morrison’s story about finishing a piece for her writer’s group. Her son was crawling on her and spit up some of his orange juice on her paper. Without time to stop, she simply wrote around the stain.
As a mother-writer, I wrote when they were asleep or at pre-school or school, or visiting a friend. I wrote when I was pregnant, then hurried to get the manuscript with all of its slavery-rage out of the house before the baby arrived. I wrote so hard that when I ran out of the house to collect the girls from school, sometimes the outside weather would be a shock. Blam! Bright sunshine or rain or cold. Who knew? The interior world has its own seasons.
Now, our older daughter is grown and living on her own. Our younger one is in high school, and when I write in the mornings I still stop at 7:45 to make her tea and toast. Just enough so that she’ll light at the end of the counter before shooting out the back door with the backpack as big as an air-conditioner. Mostly, though, I write around other work—Art Sanctuary, teaching, lectures, Sunday School—a trip to take our younger daughter to look at a college. If Sons, Then Heirs required three takes: that’s three completely different novels revolving around the same family and the same land.
Publication calls up in me this certified, pre-owned disappointment: Once again! the work falls short of the vision. Once again, I’ve managed to leave a map of my writing flaws. Memory fails. Wisdom, too. Like that. So, when a book is coming out, I have trained myself toward gratitude; trick the devil. I remind myself, quite carefully, of the journey.
In this case, I start from the emotional center of the book, the great-grandparents, King and Selma, back in the 1930s and 40s, born and raised in South Carolina, like so many people here in Philadelphia. But I was able to pay them the attention they were due in Italy, on a fellowship at the artist’s “workplace,” a 15th Century castle called Civitella Ranieri, one of two times in my adult life where I was responsible for nothing—except writing.