Last July, at a reading I was giving in Washington, D.C., a woman raised her hand and asked: “You write so well about trauma, but has anything really terrible ever happened in your life?”
Normally at these events I’m asked different versions of the same fairly innocuous questions. Where did the idea for your novel come from? How long did it take to write? When did you realize you were a writer? As far as I can remember, I had never before been asked about my own proximity to trauma or misfortune. Yet, as chance would have it, I had discovered, just the morning before, that my husband and best friend were having an affair.
That day, July 20, also happened to be the publication date of my new novel Listen to Me, which is centered around a marriage in crisis. The story takes place over the course of a single day, on a road trip that the couple, Maggie and Mark, makes from Chicago to rural Virginia. Their journey, which is interrupted by a massive storm, is fraught with misperception and miscommunication.
When I answered the audience member’s question, I shied away from talking about the affair; likely I anticipated the awkwardness such a comment would inspire, or knew deep down that to mentioning it to a crowd would break whatever spell was allowing me to remain in a semi-coherent state. What I said instead was that my adoptive father died of pancreatic cancer in 2006.
In the painful days that followed the discovery of my husband’s affair, the woman’s question refused to go away. Soon it brought to mind a more distressing one: Had I written my novel in search of the truth about a particular fictional marriage, or as a means of escaping the deteriorating state of my own?
In 2014, my husband and I moved from Chicago to Kentucky for matching tenure-track jobs at the same university in the same field in the same department. It was the type of opportunity we had long hoped to secure by our early fifties, maybe our late forties if we were fortunate. Instead, we were still solidly in our thirties when we landed the gig, and our writer friends from all over—L.A., New York, Chicago—wouldn’t stop telling us how lucky we were and how jealous they were of our good fortune. Our days of struggling to find adjunct jobs to stay afloat were over. We would both be teaching two classes per semester, instead of the three-three-three schedule we’d endured at our school in Chicago. Professionally speaking, we were made.