1. Farsighted, Maybe?
I was not a very adorable child. I had big feet (to be grown into later) and the furrowed brow of a baby Neanderthal, and I was so clumsy my grandmother insisted I be taken to the eye doctor “just to check.” He found out I could read big print, tiny print, itty-bitty-teeny print and upside-down print and passed the sad diagnosis on to my parents: glasses weren’t going to fix me.
He had missed one tiny detail, though. It was READING that had made me so clumsy in the first place. I was one of those kids who didn’t just “learn to read”: I fell all the way in. Given the choice between Oz and the real world? Oz, Oz, 1000%.
But when you live in Oz, and then reach for a glass of milk back on a table in the real world, let me tell you: nine times out of ten, Clumsiness Happens.
2. Liking Strange Music
A piano moved into our house when I was seven. Twenty-four hours later I had composed my first piece, “The Rainy Sunny Day.” It sounded odd, so that’s how I knew it must be really good. Even once I started real lessons, I would spend hours sitting at the piano, hunting out the notes that would sound most beautifully peculiar when played together. My first teacher (fortunately for me) liked strange music, too. She taught me little tiny modern pieces, and then we moved up to Bartók. Dissonance forever!
Footnote: I mellowed with time. I learned to love all the B’s: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. I started playing the violin. It still makes me glad, though, every time I squeeze a little weirdness into a song.
Here’s how I played with my favorite toys: I built huge imaginary worlds and then just sat there and looked at them. Sometimes I would hang my head over the edge of the piano bench to look at them upside down. I didn’t like making the little people walk and talk in our world: they could do their walking and talking so much better in my head.
(This has made me a very disappointing parent, I’m afraid. When a kid says, “Now YOU be the CLOWN doll,” I enter a state of panic. I have to pretend to pretend in the ordinary way. Don’t tell!)
4. My First Novel
In sixth grade I discovered writing a novel was just like playing with toys: you set up a huge imaginary world, and then you think about it a lot. (And then write things down: that’s the tricky extra part.) My first book was called “Liz in Artland,” written when I was 11, and it was going to be really, really, really good. I was perfectly confident about its goodness! I had the whole story all worked out: Liz was going to be sucked into a museum catalog and find herself in a world where paintings by Paul Klee and Marc Chagall and Vassily Kandinsky had all come to life! and where monsters in Surrea, the dreadfully scary land of the Surrealists, were about to destroy the Castle of the Mind! which would mean the end of all painting and drawing everywhere unless Liz could SAVE THE DAY!! Which she was totally going to do in a really dramatic scene involving filing cabinets! You know what? Just thinking about “Liz in Artland” still makes me happy.
In real life, what happened was I wrote the first thirty-five pages and then the story got worn in a rain boot, which was completely my own fault in a very complicated way, and some of it was destroyed, and that was the end of “Liz in Artland.”
5. My Second Novel
was typed on a real typewriter, and it was about heartbreaking alienation, and it had this scene in it about what a man saw when he looked out over the ocean one day that was so fabulous I’m not even going to say anything about it here because someday I swear I’m going to write something else and use that scene, and I was 18, and I had to go away to college and leave the typewriter behind, and it never got finished.
6. My Third Novel
was a thriller set in Nepal. I know, pretty great, right? And I managed to work the Bolshoi Ballet in, too. Here’s the special thing about Novel #3: I finished it! I was just a little older than when I wrote the heartbreakingly alienated Novel #2, and when I showed #3 to a friend’s mother who actually taught writing classes, she said, “Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to use adverbs?” And I was very sad to hear this bad news about the forbiddenness of adverbs and filed Novel #3 away in a dark drawer . . . swiftly, sorrowfully, and forevermore.
7. My Fourth Novel
was an Oz book. Had to happen, of course. Destiny! I wrote it when I needed to escape from intensive Latin classes one summer. It worked like magic.
8. Stop Telling Us Stories About Books; Don’t You Have a Dog?
Yes, a Border Collie. She is a very beautiful and extremely intelligent creature, and she doesn’t understand why I am so against her favorite indoor activity, which is chewing on anything wooden. She never met a former tree she did not want to sink her teeth into. Just ask the chairs, tables, banisters, and piano benches at our house. They bear her mark. They live in fear. (Have you ever seen a table tremble? Ours does.)
The dog and I get along best when we’re hiking in the hills. Then, we agree, life is good. She runs back and forth (and, being a sheep-herding sort of dog, in arcs and circles) and chews on pinecones and muddies her very beautiful paws, and I get a book out and read while walking, which is my extra-special supertalent, and at the top of the tallest hill I shut the book and think about the story I’m writing now: I put it together like an imaginary world, and I look at it, and I think of where I could get some strange music going in it somehow, and the dog and I are both perfectly happy.