There are times in life where two people’s journeys will intersect and you’ll remember it long after. It may not be life or death, it may not even seem significant at the time but that memory will stay with you.
N. Marie McCormick is an author that I met in New York, long long ago – a foot note to my year in the US. Thanks to the magic of social media and a mutual friend, we got together in cyber space to talk about her book and the story behind the story.
It’s been great to swap lines after…(pauses to count on fingers)…25+ years. A genuine blast from the past – I can almost hear the Staten Island ferry!
Now that I live in the shire with the hobbits, Derek, I empathize with your adventures in NYC. You showed more guts than me, being as young as you were. You don’t look much different, but you sound experienced and happier.
You’re too kind, as my transatlantic coming-of-age tale, Scars & Stripes, will show when it comes out! Okay, we’ll start with the easy questions.
1. What prompted you to write Adventures in Underland and did you know it was going to be a novel when you started?
I live in a small town with no public transportation. I worked for mileage. I worked a year driving foster kids for Child Protective Services. I had also drove screwed up teens to psych appointments for other agencies. The kids really liked talking to me, because I had been in the system as a kid and had two unstable parents. My first ride was a teen girl who had all her worldly goods in a garbage bag at a teen crisis house. She was turning 18 in a few months and was afraid of living on her own. She was still in school and this state will pay college tuition if a foster kid graduates high school. Everything is spread out, so we got to talk for several hours. The crisis house called my supervisor to ask if I could be the girl’s steady driver. I said great.
The next day, I had a cancellation in the afternoon. I wanted to go for a motorcycle ride. My bike wouldn’t start, but a bike we share with a couple that visits every summer runs fine. I got my two year degree earlier that summer and did a victory lap from WA to AZ to see my sister, on the newer bike. A couple of weeks after that 2500 mile ride, I crashed going out for ice cream. The docs said no one with my injuries had ever lived before. I was back driving in three months but the girl had turned 18, and I never got to speak to her again. I felt really guilty for that.
There were other kids, especially teens, that wanted to hear my story as pertained to their problems and ask for advice.I thought I had found my purpose in life and was happy to do it, but I couldn’t drive as much as I used to.
Then a false arrest from a police drug dealer fishing expedition finished me with that job . They trumped up some charges that were dismissed, but my job was gone by the time I got that mess done with.
I started writing out my anger and frustration, and wound up writing my whole childhood instead. If I can’t talk the foster kids one on one, maybe I can reach them this way. A book about being swept up in adult bullshit and making decisions that in retrospect were neither right or wrong.
2. You’ve said that you drew upon your own personal experiences. Did you think it a difficult if therapeutic process?
Definitely. There is some catharsis and some closure in writing about coming of age under difficult circumstances, but it’s also draining to go over all these traumatic experience again and again in editing. While writing the first draft, it felt like time travel when the story got flowing. I could remember small details, smells, sweat and grit of the city. Hanging with my friends on hot summer nights, the musty smell of subway tunnels. I would also relive the traumas like they just happened yesterday. My husband could tell by looking at the freaked out look on my face, that I’d been writing too long at one sitting. I started writing in smaller bites.
3. Given your previous work, and what you know about the lives of young people who grow up ‘in the system’, did you feel a responsibility to reflect that in all its positive and negative aspects?
I‘ve made it as honest as possible, including things I’d rather not admit about myself that are definitely unlikable traits. I changed some names but most of the names and places are part of historic record, so I went with the real names be it positive, negative or ambivalent, where I could. There are a few places that I wouldn’t mind calling on the carpet. There’s all kinds of laws to prevent people from doing that, but if it’s true, it’s not libel. They can purge their files and probably win in a corrupt courts system. We’ll see.
I felt the book would lose it’s power, if I glossed over the actual events.
Parents and schools try to protect kids from cuss words and other content, but this is an R rated book aimed at kids and young adults who lived R rated lives. I’m hoping teen crisis houses and other programs, like Safetynet, that help kids who are aging out of foster care, might want some copies. I feel it may be condemned by municipal counseling and psych centers, because it doesn’t show some of them in the best light and young adults might find there are other types of programs that help them work around their PTSD symptoms, instead of labeling them defective.
Books about all the pretty six pack ab vampires, and kid fighting it out in dystopian societies are great for getting kids interested in reading. They are good escapes for kids from problem homes as well. That is needed. This book takes on real life trials and predation and has many examples of what not to do, and a few good decisions thrown in. I would suggest having an escape book handy if my story gets to heavy. Kind of a palate cleanser.
4. Do you think your novel might be useful as an educational tool for young people and for professionals?
I’m hoping that places that genuinely want to help kids, make this book and subsequent books, available for kids. It would also make good reading for workers in the field to hear how and why unprotected children wind up in self defeating cycles. I want them to know there are alternatives to being labeled a psych patient.
5. Do you think the care system has changed since you first experienced it, and if so in which ways?
Well they probably don’t sell cigarettes to minors in the weekly canteens anymore. The courts still move as slow now as they did then. Yes they may want to protect the children in most cases, but the foster care system is one of the biggest precursors to the prison industrial system. Some kids luck out and get a solid foster home, others drift from home to home to group home to the psych system. Think of how many jobs one foster child supports? Social Workers, Foster Parents, Administrators, Attorneys, Judges, and even drivers like I was. 60% of foster children wind up as homeless adults at least once in their lives. I am no exception.
6. Are you planning to take your book ‘on the road’?
I’m starting local. I’ve ordered several cases. I’ve found an outlet and I have a friend who is a DJ at a local radio station. I’ll start with maybe a small book signing. I’ll learn from mistakes and then start working bigger markets. I’m also trying for some big fish, like The Daily Show or Rachel Maddow. A writer gets used to rejection.
7. What was your journey to publication?
As I said before, I had to write this book in small bites for my own sanity. The present doesn’t stop because you’re dwelling on the past. I had to be in both places at once. When I was writing about a painful time, a part of me would be stuck there until I completed the chapter, which took weeks in some cases. The most painful recollections, could only be written a few sentences a night. Other stories poured out of me, in one big barf fest. From journal to finished book, it took 7 years. The editing process is the longest most tedious part. Every time I thought I’ve corrected all the mistakes, someone else looks it over and finds dozens of places I missed, then I read it again and find dozens of places we both missed. I had the book copyrighted under another title to protect it when I sent it to publishers. They all promise to get back to you and none of them do. I self published through Page Publishing. By the time you get ISB Numbers, printing firms, and advertise and sell in e-book form, it costs nearly as much as paying someone else to do it. The easiest part was working with the graphics department on the cover art. I have taken Photoshop classes and got most of it together myself, though Pages art department did some nice final touches.
8. What are you writing now?
I am working on the 2nd book, that answers the question I ask at the end of the first book. “What could go wrong?” I focus on my “claustrophobia” where jobs, housing and men are concerned. Over many, many mistakes and misadventures, I slowly learn consistency, reliability, and how to work around my symptoms (PTSD) and not run away from challenges or throw monkey wrenches into my life.
9. Where can we find out more about your book? (Include any links and reference to any interviews you may have done.)
I’m starting interviews with the local press, but my paper back and e-books are available on Amazon and Kindle.
10. How do you keep the balance personally between authenticity and vulnerability as an author?
I don’t balance it. It would dilute the work and the kids and young adults as well as older adults who had similar experiences, would know falseness when they read it. I do when I read other books. I cut my self open like fish being cleaned for a bar-b-Que. It’s just as painful and gross as it sounds.
11. Give us a flavour of the Adventures in Underland.
The girl has spent the first part of her childhood with two loving but unstable parents. The inevitable happens all at once and the girl spends the rest of her childhood in her Mom’s old Brooklyn neighborhood that’s in the middle of a mafia power struggle. The girl makes friends with kids in situations as bad as, or more disturbing than hers. It’s a historical novel that chronicles the events that have led to the present state of affairs in the inner cities. Riots, blackouts, fires, drugs, sexual predation of unprotected minors, inequities in schools, and literally institutional racism through personal experience and much dry humor.