Rachel Simon’s bestselling memoir, Riding The Bus With My Sister: A True Life Journey, was adapted for a 2005 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie starring Rosie O’Donnell and Andie MacDowell, with Anjelica Huston directing. The book garnered numerous awards and is a much beloved selection of many book clubs, school reading programs, and city-wide reads throughout the country. Its success led to Rachel developing a second career in professional speaking, and she is now a frequently sought-after speaker at conferences, fundraising events, and universities across the country.
Her second memoir, Building A Home With My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love, was published in June 2009. In it, she recounts how renovating her home with her architect-husband inspired her to confront memories she had long since tucked away, and repair fractured bonds with those closest to her. Kirkus calls Building A Home With My Husband a “spiritual pilgrimage” that offers a “poetic, unsentimental appraisal of life’s big questions.”
Check her website for updated appearances, tips on writing, and details on the Rachel @ Home book tour.
Q: How did your writing process, or your approach to the craft in general, change after the success of Riding The Bus With My Sister?
A: Fortunately, it was my fourth book, and since I’d also written many others that had never been published, some of them when my personal or professional situations were either euphoric or depressing, I’d had a lot of practice with persistence regardless of life’s circumstances. In the case of Building A Home With My Husband, my circumstances amounted to frequent travel to all parts of the country to give talks for organizations in the disability community and public transit industry, among others. So the main change was that, instead of doing my first drafts in libraries, I needed to write on airplanes and in hotel rooms. This proved far easier than I would have anticipated, as airplane flights and hotel stays tend to eliminate all other distractions. I also produce my first drafts by hand, so I was able to be delightfully low-tech about my needs: one pen and one spiral-bound notebook did the trick. My process, therefore, didn’t really change.
However, I did experience a lot of self-consciousness about what I would write about. I’d begun my career as a fiction writer, with a collection of stories and then a novel, yet my breakthrough book was a memoir. I kept feeling I should return to fiction, but the material that kept presenting itself to me was nonfiction. I tried fighting this, and wrote a short, entertaining novel about a woman in love with a ghost. I also tried giving into it, and wrote two-thirds of a book consisting of linked personal essays about major turning points in my life. My agent was not interested in either. I also tried to find a true story that wasn’t mine, but kept being told, by people with really good stories, that they were going to write them on their own (which most likely meant the stories would never get written).
Finally, right after the movie of Riding The Bus With My Sister aired, I got on a train to visit a friend. My plan when I took my seat was to write a short story before I reached my destination, so I could try returning to fiction yet again. I had no particular idea in mind other than the desire to produce something. To my surprise, when I put the pen onto the paper, I found myself writing about what I’d just been living, which was the packing up of my house in order to begin a major home renovation.
Packing had been very emotionally draining, because, I’d realized, so many of my possessions were mementos of relationships that were no longer in my life, some from death, and some from lost friendship. As I wrote the piece, recounting that experience, I found the writing taking two paths: one through the outer world of the actual packing, and one through my inner world of grieving the lost friendships, and coming to terms with how to let them — and therefore the possessions — go. I finished the piece as the train reached the station. Within a day or two, I wrote another essay about the inner and outer journey I was living as the renovation proceeded. Within a week I had a third essay, and realized I was writing another memoir.
So my process didn’t change, and in a way my material didn’t either. But I suppose I knew, from the success of Riding The Bus With My Sister, that I needed to let myself be vulnerable and flawed on the page, and that readers would attend to every detail, so I was able to accomplish more with the second memoir because I already knew the basics of what I needed from the first.
Q: In Building A Home With My Husband, your frequent public appearances and hectic traveling schedule are a running theme. How do you strike balance between maintaining a public persona, and the private act of writing and revising? Are you more comfortable in front of a crowd, or in front of your own words on a computer screen?
A: This is a very interesting question, and one I haven’t gotten before. It probably deserves a long, complicated response, but I’ll try to be succinct. (At least relatively.) I love both the public speaking and the private act of writing and revising, and I suppose I negotiate the public and private parts of me the same way everyone else does, whether they’re in medicine, the clergy, education, bus driving, or anything else.
In public, I am genuinely myself while at the same time being aware that I’m saying things that could make a huge difference for people in the room. I take this responsibility seriously, having discovered that some people who attend my talks are in serious need of hope or guidance, or who have a need to unburden themselves. That is, I realize I’m playing a role, not just of writer and speaker, but of someone who can provide something deeply important to others. So I keep myself on track during my talks, stay lively even when I’m fatigued, and am fully engaged with everyone who asks a question or needs to talk.
In my writing life, I might aim to have the same effect on readers, but I know I can make many errors as I produce the text over months or years, so I can take my time to find the best way to communicate effectively. I can also berate myself (and I do), go days without engaging with anyone (except my husband, and he’s gotten used to my bleary-eyed trances), and do things I’d never do in public, like chew gum, wear wrinkled clothes, and leave my hair a moppy mess.
I don’t find the transition difficult to make at all. Perhaps this comes from doing a lot of writing when I was a kid, often in the school lunchrooms or in the back of the class, so I acclimated myself early on to shifting from the writing trance to the social world and back. That said, I do use some tricks to help me make the transition. As you can tell, I put on make-up and nice clothes. I also switch into using pseudonyms for the people in my life whose real names are disguised in my books.
But, all that said, perhaps I don’t make as much of a transition as you might imagine, because when you write memoir, people assume they know you before they’ve ever met you, and as a result they tend to approach any interaction as if you were already old friends. So in a way, the transition is pretty easy, because I don’t have to be a fake me in public, and because no one else is being a fake them. This is one of the never-discussed rewards of writing memoir: it opens the door to authentic and honest exchanges with strangers. In turn, I’ve come to understand the inner workings of thousands of people, and that, as any writer would know, can only deepen one’s craft.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from Building A Home With My Husband?
A: I can say what I hoped would happen, but it might be better to share what people have actually written to me after finishing the book, which is a great deal, but which differs to some extent by who they are as people.
First, pretty much everyone feels caught up in the story. As I’d hoped, they find it to be a strong, fast-paced, emotional story that’s compassionate and loving, with likable characters, a serious disaster, multiple “Aha” moments, and an everything-comes-together ending. It’s also populated by the kinds of people, and sometimes challenging relationships, that readers have in their own lives—an ailing parent, a long-standing stepparent, an estranged sibling, a difficult in-law, a best friend left behind, a cherished neighbor, a beloved spouse who doesn’t fit a conventional description of a romantic hero. So everyone seems to relate to it.
More specifically, the readers who are inclined to think about issues that are psychological or relationship-oriented have said that they were prompted to re-examine and reconsider their own intimate relationships and feel hope that they might move them toward repair. Among the specific details they’ve commented on are the sections where I share my own formidable experiences learning forgiveness, compassion, acceptance, and respect for the other person’s differences. Then there are the readers who are spiritually-inclined, and they’ve come away feeling pleased that someone else is asking the big questions about who we are, how to love, and whether there’s a grand design to the universe. The readers who are building professionals have said they picked up a detailed understanding of the emotional journey that their clients go through, and hence they’ve realized how they could provide better customer service. And the readers who have done their own renovation, or are contemplating doing so, have seen themselves, either in me, a renovator who was essentially clueless, or in my husband, who, being a professional architect, had a level of knowledge that helped him move forward with a sense of composure.
Q: What inspires you?
A: What doesn’t? I’m inspired by everyone and everything and every moment I live. I can zip into a highway rest stop and emerge with a full-blown story.
Q: You’ve published novels in addition to memoirs. Which medium do you prefer? How is your “head space” different when working on fiction, as opposed to memoir? Which is more difficult to write?
A: I love writing both book-length fiction and book-length memoir, and see the two forms as quite similar. They use the same kind of craft: scene, character, setting, dialogue, conflict, etc. However, with fiction, you create something out of nothing, whereas with nonfiction, you peel away a whole lot of everything to get to the essential something. The shorthand I use for this is that fiction is addition, nonfiction is subtraction. So really, they’re inverses of each other, though they use the same techniques.
I can’t say I prefer one over the other. It’s more a matter of what I feel drawn to write at any particular moment in my life. The last several years I’ve felt more drawn to memoir, though for the first many years of my writing career, I was much more engaged with fiction. I’m now back to fiction, though I don’t wish to say I’ve now returned to the fold; it’s just what I felt like writing at this particular moment.
As for level of difficulty? I think both forms present challenges, but the challenges tend to be specific to the material and project at hand. Both forms also present many rewards. So I can’t say I see either as being harder, or easier. They’re both best friends.
I love Halloween. With a background in theatre, a glue gun, and duct tape, I can make any costume. Whether it resembles what I had in mind or not, remains to be seen. I have dressed as a tree sprite, Pippi Longstocking, Tigger, a baseball clown, a cat, a butterfly, and more…and yes, this is all in the last fifteen years.
However, I thought for today’s post, it might be more fun to skip ahead to October of the year 2040, and see how my main character, Molly, might spend her Halloween in the future. This is before my book actually takes place (summer of 2041). For those of you who don’t know anything about the book, you can read something here, but I’ll also say that ten years before my book takes place, there has been a worldwide economic crash and oil has all but disappeared. Molly lives on an island in B.C. where they have returned to a more agrarian way of life.
Without further ado, here’s Molly.
My sister Katie has been working on her princess dress for months now. We’re all going to a dance at the community hall and she plans to whirl around the room, the envy of every girl there. Just like Scarlett O’Hara in that really old book, she made the dress out of some old rose coloured silk curtains she found in the attic. In spite of the colour, it looks so much like a wedding dress that no one is fooled. She’s trying to get Nick to propose. I take it back, he might just be foolish enough to fall for it.
“Oh…Katie! You look beautiful. Like a real princess,” he’ll say.
“And you’re my Prince Charming,” she’ll coo. “We could live happily ever after…if only…” Then she’ll bat her long eyelashes and toss her dark curls and it will all be over for him.
My brother James thinks he’ll propose before the candles burn out in the jack-o-lanterns and the witches fly home on their broomsticks. Better her than me, that’s all I can say. I personally wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress. At least not in October. It’s going to rain, and the old barn that serves as the community hall is all the way at the other end of the island from our farm. Freezing my butt off in our wagon eighteen kilometers each way is not my idea of fun. I just hope my fiddle’s okay out in the cold like that. Dad says we’ll wrap the instruments in blankets.
I’ll be wearing James’ overalls, my work boots, and Dad’s flannel shirt. Everyone in the band is dressing that way. Katie says we’ll just look like the bunch of farmers we are, and it’s not a real costume, but it is. It’s our Old-time American String Band look. Dad, Big Earl, Macy and I have been practicing a bunch of tunes from the American South and we plan to blow the roof off that old barn.
Dad’s been trying out his Southern accent, and lucky for him, there aren’t any real southerners around to tell him if he’s any good or not. He can’t help but add a bit of Canadian to it too though, and he thinks he’s pretty funny. Yesterday, he totally embarrassed me when we took some pumpkins into the village store. Everyone he saw got the same greeting. Dad would give them a big smile and say, “How y’all doin’, eh?” And then he’d crack up. Parents. You can’t take them anywhere.
I plan to lose myself in the music and just ignore him! Since it’s not likely you all will make it to our dance (the ferry’s not running that day), I’ll leave you with a this really old picture my mom gave me.
It’s circa 2009 and it’s a country dance way back when we used to have a real community centre here on the island. Didn’t the men dress funny then?
And here’s me, playing Jewels, my fiddle.
In our house, we basically celebrate Halloween all the time. My husband makes sure of this by delivering the same annoying joke for 12 straight years now, and it happens whenever I pick up a broom (which is at least once a week depending on my energy level and how many Starbucks lattes I’ve had). Anyhow, here’s how it goes down. I’m usually going about my business at home, chasing my son around, tidying up, etc. and the moment I reach for the broom is always the exact same moment my darling husband will happen to stroll by and casually say “Oh, going for a ride?” (long pause for laughter.)
Yes, my husband thinks calling me a WITCH is just side-splitting comedy, and frankly, I can’t help but grudgingly breaking out in laughter from time to time when he happens to catch me off-guard, and I actually give his silly question a moment’s thought.
Now while we’re on the amusing topic of being a “bruja,” (Spanish for witch, or a kind word for bitch) I am proud to say my grandmother was something of a bruja herself back in the day (she was also quite fond of dark rum and cigars, but that’s a different story altogether.) Anyhoo, unbeknownst to many, my grandmother –who’s name I happen to bear- was a devout Catholic with a deep, dark, and scandalous secret. On certain days, when the moon was full -and she felt like scaring the bejesus out of her many grandchildren- my gramdma would search deep in her overstuffed closet (past the contraband liquor and smokes) and emerge holding an ancient heirloom passed down from bruja to bruja in my family; a tattered, yet 100% authentic wooden Ouija board.
I gotta tell you, I’m a grown-ass woman, and those damn things still freak me out. Yeah, I knew it was just supposed to be a game, but I swear I saw that darn triangle thingy (aka the “planchette”) move on its own, and that’s all I’m gonna say about that. The weird thing is, when my grandmother passed away several years ago I tried to recover her mysterious board, and it was never found. I spent hours in her closet and emerged heavily intoxicated, but empty-handed. No box, no board, and no trace of that possessed planchette.
What do you think happened to my grandmother’s board? I’d love to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, I’ve got my broom and I’m going for a ride.
Martial arts movies are an unapologetically over-the-top art form, and I deeply appreciate them. Jackie Chan’s one of my favorite kung fu stars. When I watch him spinning like a cyclone to ward off a gang of axe-wielding thugs, I feel grateful and empowered. Performers like Chan promulgate potent ideas — namely, that justice really does prevail, and that evil is instantly recognizable, and can be defeated with cheesy humor and a flying knee to the face. It’s Chan’s utter concentration that wows me. The timing and flow, the here-and-now urgency, creative solutions to a life-or-death dilemma, and — most of all — laughter in the face of danger.
Those who know my softer side seem to find my indulgence in martial arts films either amusing or downright perplexing. I practice yoga; compose airy songs for piano; and write gentle characters. And yet I insist on seeing Tony Jaa movies on opening night, and Matt and I usually leave the theater fake-elbowing each other and screeching, “Hiiii-ya!” That an apparent peacenik like me is a fan of Muay Thai boxing seems the ultimate contradiction.
Just as the beatific Seane Corn balances on her hands with ease and grace, so, too, Jackie Chan achieves absolute mastery of body and mind in close-combat scenes. Of course, his dazzling heroics are pure movie magic. He’s not really beating up misogynists, thieves, murderers, drug-lords, and other assorted bad guys. But that’s part of the thrill: the illusion he creates is so convincing, it makes us cringe, laugh, and root him on.
Martial arts films and Halloween draw from the same aspect of make-believe. We can open the door to the trick-or-treater wielding a plastic knife and a scary mask, knowing it’s innocent fun, an expression of the yang. We can file out of the movie theater without a scratch.
According to Halloween’s pagan roots, the veil that separates the dead from the living becomes very thin, so thin as to allow us contact with loved ones passed. Rules that govern every other day don’t apply. The dead might walk, and if they do, candles in pumpkins will light their way. In this sense Halloween honors themes of the greatest stories ever told: love, chance, fear, adventure, danger, reverence, fate, mystery, mortality, and courage. As do the most farcical martial arts movies, by embracing the idea that dancing with death is, in effect, celebrating life.
Years ago, I was working as a feature writer for The Baltimore Sun newspaper when an editor told me to go find a Halloween story. I think my editor had a vague idea of me interviewing a father who was trying to convince his kids to not get a violent, bloody costume — or maybe a modern Mom who wanted her daughter to dress up like a brain surgeon instead of Cinderella.
Armed with a pen and the trusty spiral notebook that fit so well into my back pocket, I hit a Halloween costume store and did what I loved: Wandered around and watched people. Within an hour, I had my story. But instead of the interview I expected, I stumbled across something very different.
The woman who caught my attention was a mother of five, and her two oldest kids had suddenly decided dressing up wasn’t cool in junior high school. My article became a story about a woman who was mourning the loss of childhood. She talked longingly about how she’d helped transform her older boys into anything their imagination desired in years past – once, one of her kids had morphed into a box of popcorn, with real popcorn sewn onto his hat. But the decision to leave Halloween behind was theirs alone; that was part of growing up. So she hid her sadness from them.
Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, and not just because of the chocolate. Like the Mom I interviewed, I love the fact that Halloween celebrates imagination. And the reason why I’m incredulous, ecstatic, and beyond grateful that I now write fiction is because it means I never have to leave that piece of my childhood behind.
As a little girl, I spent hours daydreaming, happily inhabiting the colorful stories that played out in my head. Most of the time adults didn’t understand this; to them I probably appeared spacey and unfocused. But on Halloween – on that one magical day – adults joined in the celebration with me, understanding that I really was a fairy princess, or an Olympic gymnast, or a fat orange pumpkin with skinny little legs.
This year I bought a giant, hot-pink, fuzzy hat to wear while my husband and I take our kids trick-or-treating. I’ll put away the hat for another year on November 1, but my imagination gets to stay. Because there are characters to create – people who do and say things that completely surprise me – and scenes to craft, and moods to conjure, and it all comes from the strange, shimmering place I remember so well from my childhood. The place we all get to visit, on Halloween.
I tried it on just for fun. I was fifteen years old, from New Jersey, in a London department store with my parents. We weren’t really shopping; we were having a “cultural experience” and just looking around. Mom checked out raincoats. I wandered into formalwear.
One dress called to me, so I took it into a fitting room. I tried it on, admired myself, and took it off again. I wanted to show it to my mom, just hold it up in front of me and say “Isn’t it pretty???” So when the lady managing the fitting rooms asked me if I wanted it, I said “yes.”
I’m used to that “yes” meaning “don’t take it away from me and hang it back on the rack, at least not yet.” But, in this more-upscale-than-I-was-used-to store, that was her cue to scoop the dress out from my arms and wrap it in tissue paper. As she prepped it for purchase, I saw my mom heading for me. I panicked! We were in a foreign country and an officious adult was expecting me to buy a formal gown! I didn’t have any money. What would my mom say??
What she said was that it wasn’t too expensive and I needed a dress for high school choir. Relief came first, that I wasn’t going to get into trouble for misleading the fitting room matron, and then thrill–my first formal dress! Just like the ads in the prom issue of Seventeen!
Besides choir, I was mostly into drama in high school. That beautiful white dress was my costume in a lot of plays. It was the wedding dress when I played Olivia in Twelfth Night. It was my party dress as Isabelle in Ring Round the Moon. It was my ballgown when I played Cinderella. I sang choir solos in it, and wore it to a Regency dance at a Science Fiction convention.
Ring Round the Moon was my favorite. Here’s a pic of me and classmate Randi Driscoll just before our cat fight:
And this is another, in an Irving Berlin music revue. A gym-class jump-roping accident (seriously) just days before fractured one ankle and sprained the other, so I sang “Let’s Take an Old Fashioned Walk” from a wheelchair:
Dressing up can be the most fun in the world! What’s your favorite costume memory? (And, anyone else ever been put in a wheelchair by a jumprope??)
Deb Sarah and Graduate Deb Jenny Gardiner will be speaking at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March 2010!
Graduate Deb Meredith will be appearing on The Writing Show in Richmond Virginia, Thursday, October 29th at 6:30 PM on the panel “An Evening with Three Mystery Masters,” hosted by the James River Writers at the Children’s Museum.
Graduate Deb Kristina talked recently about “Sense of Place in Fiction” at the Celebration of the Book at the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Public Library Main Branch. You can listen to the talk here ! During that time Kristina quotes from great works, reads from Real Life & Liars, and for the first time publicly, reads from The Life You’ve Imagined, coming in August 2010.