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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Moldy Oldie: a speech for the Riverton Porch Club

MM jacketI gave this speech to the Riverton Porch Club in the fall of 2007. There are parts of it I quite like, so I thought it might be worth sharing here.

* * *

I’ve written a novel called Mary Modern, which was published by an imprint at Random House this past July. It’s about a girl, a genetic scientist, who clones her grandmother. Yes, it’s strange, and people are always curious about the novel’s unusual premise and how I came to write it. The story is in no way autobiographical, though the book’s genesis has a lot to do with the women in my family and how they encouraged my love of reading.

A few years ago my aunt Eileen gave me a copy of my great-grandparents’ engagement portrait, which was taken sometime in the ’teens. It’s a very striking portrait, and not only because it shows a handsome young couple on the cusp of their life together. I would stare at that portrait and think of what I knew would happen to them, and my great-grandmother Anna in particular, after they left the portrait studio. She would die after giving birth to her fifth child, her fifth daughter, at the age of thirty-three. My grandmother was five years old at the time, and she spent most of the rest of her childhood in foster homes. I was unsettled by the thought that Anna knew nothing of her future life, and I knew too much. I started wondering what we would have to say to one another if, through some temporal blip, we were granted an hour in each other’s company.

I started creating a family called the Morrigans, with a daughter, Lucy, who is so lonely in her crumbling ancestral home, and so ambitious, that she actually sets out to clone the dead. As I researched the possibility of human cloning, I learned that the function of what scientists call “junk DNA” is still a big question mark. Some say these seemingly useless codes in between our functioning genes had their purpose much earlier on in the course of human evolution, but are now obsolete. This mystery of science really captured my imagination. What if, in Lucy Morrigan’s fictional universe, “junk DNA” codes memories and physiological changes over time? So that when Lucy clones her grandmother from an old bloodstain, thinking she will give birth to a baby girl, she winds up with a young newlywed from 1929? So I set the stage for a rather unprecedented identity crisis when a young Mary Morrigan wakes up in the year of her 80th wedding anniversary, with all her memories intact. Needless to say, she’s pretty angry at this girl, Lucy, who is older than she is but claims to be her granddaughter.

My grandmother was an avid reader, and passed her love of a good yarn on to my mother, who passed it on to me. When I was in elementary school I wrote whimsical little stories, and I was fortunate to have many teachers who encouraged me. Some of them were so encouraging that I saw fit to name characters after them. My grandmother encouraged me, too, of course. But it was only after she passed away that I really started to see myself as a writer. I began to write as a way of dealing with my grief. So you might say my grandmother first made me a reader, and then, through the loss of her, a writer.

Oddly enough, I never thought about any of this until the novel was finished, and I began reading the first proof pages. But a novel about a girl who clones the grandmother who read to her as a child, played with her, humored her, protected her—well, when you put it that way, the psychology behind the story isn’t so complex. I dedicated Mary Modern to all four of my grandparents, but to my Grandma Dorothy most of all.

One of the best experiences in the process of publishing Mary Modern was being able to watch my mother devour the book in galley form. She read it in about twenty-four hours, and said most of the time she was so engrossed in the story she forgot who’d written it. We have a lot of books in our house. My mother sometimes jokes the bedroom floor is going to collapse under the weight of my bookcases. If that ever happens, though, I will tell her it is actually her own fault for reading to me too much when I was a kid.

John Ruskin said that if a book is worth reading, it’s worth buying, and I’ve always believed that; but there are other people, like my grandmother, who subscribe to the “that’s why we have the library” school of thought. Those people are more sensible than I am, I suppose; they will never have to worry about their ceiling caving in. Still, I enjoy not only reading but owning my books: making tick marks when I come across a particularly beautiful or clever sentence, and the ability to revisit a beloved book any time I choose. I also just like to glance over at my bookshelf, recognize the title on a spine, and remember how much I enjoyed it, or how much I’m looking forward to reading it. I am very taken with the idea of not only a room, but a library of one’s own.

It’s only recently, too, that I noticed how many of the story’s plot turns transpire in the Morrigan family library. I don’t think this is a coincidence. This is a room that holds thousands of books that once belonged to Lucy and Mary’s ancestors (and my heroines would probably tell you the books belong to them still). There is a velvet sofa before a grand old fireplace where the characters sometimes gather with a glass of wine for a long chat. There is a butterfly collection displayed on the mantelpiece and old portraits arranged on a great wood desk by a bay window. Every character in the novel harbors a fascination with this room, even if they aren’t a member of the family. The library is in essence a repository of family knowledge, and it also serves as a rather eerie metaphor: for oftentimes, the most profound family secrets are hidden in plain sight.

But no matter how grave the secrets or difficult the dynamics, I believe that the love, protection, and encouragement of the family can transcend death, and that’s a belief I’ve brought to bear in this novel. I guess what I’m really trying to say here is this:

Literacy is fostered through dedicated teachers and organizations like the Porch Club, but it begins on the lap of someone who loves you.


2 Comments to Moldy Oldie: a speech for the Riverton Porch Club

  1. Di's Gravatar Di
    April 28, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I put your book on my Amazon wishlist and hope to read it soon … based on reading this 🙂 Thank you. And now to work out how I added you to my blog feed reader. I’m glad anyway.

  2. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    April 29, 2014 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    Pretty well done by yourself of 6 years ago 😉

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.