Friday, July 29, 2016

Betty Draper's Eyes

Earlier this year, I was told that in order to find my place in the publishing world I should write a vampire or zombie novel.  “They’re really hot right now,” he said.
I replied that those types of genres don’t appeal to me and I wouldn’t sell out just to find an agent.  Yet recently, I realized that I've already written a book about the clandestine life of a vampiress, albeit one circa 1969.  She’s not a monster, but a manipulative woman who drains the life force out of whomever she can, all the while endlessly sucking on her filtered-tip cigarettes. 
Twenty-two years ago, Annie Schreiber appeared as a supporting character when I wrote Surfacing.  Twelve years later, her own narrative revealed itself to me in the early drafts of A Tapestry of Truth.  Six years and nine revisions later, the final manuscript was published.  Throughout the writing process, I endlessly struggled with Annie’s darkness, her denial and dysfunctions.  It’s taken more than two decades for me to fully accept that some characters may be completely unlikable, yet there is intrinsic value in telling their story. 
So here’s a repeat of a blog I wrote in 2014 for all the Betty Drapers out there…and their children.


Betty Draper’s Eyes
Originally published in May, 2014

Now that the sun is rising earlier, so am I.  No longer spending my mornings shivering beneath a pile of blankets listening to furnace blow, I wake to feel fresh air breezing through the windows.  I hear the sounds of birds twittering in the treetops.  I revel in the sight of blooming columbine that brightens my garden.
Solomon must have felt as I do when he wrote:  "For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard on our land."  Now, I'm not sure what a turtle would sound like.  Perhaps it's all a metaphor anyway...turtles rising from the sea to lay their eggs on the land before returning once again to their primordial home.
It's peculiar to imagine it -- turtles having voices, but I'm very familiar with the energy of this most ancient of creatures.  Native Americans call our earth "Turtle Island" as it represents our primordial mother, our source of sustenance.  Turtles take their time.  They carry their homes wherever they may travel.  They instinctively know how to protect themselves.  Possessing both an incredibly hard outer shell and an exceptionally soft underbelly, turtles can never shed their protective layer, for if they did, they would perish.
In retrospect, I can clearly see why I chose the name "Turtle Island" as one of the primary settings in both my first and third novels.  In fact, for three years, my former agent pitched one of my books with that title.  I've recently changed it as I returned the manuscript to its original premise, but the core of the symbolism remains the same.  
The newly re-titled A Tapestry of Truth will be released on June third, and it's been a long journey to get this novel out of the sea and onto dry land.  I created the narrator, Annie Schreiber, in 1994.  Started writing the manuscript of her story in September of 2006 and finished the first draft the following June.  Now, seven years later, you'll have the opportunity to read a book that has been the most difficult for me to write as Annie is by far the most unlikable character I've ever had worming her way around my imagination.  
Still, I imagine some of you may readily recognize this uncommon protagonist, particularly if you're a fan of "Mad Men."

In the winter of 2011, I came across an article in a magazine entitled something like "Shows We Love That Keep Getting Better."  I've always loved period piece movies and television, so when I read about how the writer was enthralled by the fourth season of "Mad Men," I was intrigued. Having never heard of the series, I readily found the DVD's at our local library.
Starting from season one, I was hooked.  By the third episode, I called my agent and said, "People are going to think I ripped off Matthew Weiner.  Annie Schreiber is another incarnation of Betty Draper, right down to her blonde hair, ruby red lips, and her tight-lipped, narcissistic sarcasm."
"Don't worry about it," my agent said.  "It's a good thing...it shows you've written an authentic representation of the time."
But by the time I finished watching the third season, I started to worry.  I called my agent again.  "Okay...now I get that women of the sixties had a certain look and manner, but I just watched a scene in the Draper kitchen that could have been directly lifted from chapter six in my novel."
"Don't worry about it," my agent echoed.  "I'm actually pitching your book by describing Annie as being very much like Betty Draper.  'Mad Men' is hot right now...it could really work in our favor."
"Yeah, but she does some of the exact same things I wrote about years ago," I replied.  "That's too weird...even for me."

Since then, three years have gone by.
Now "Mad Men" is in its eighth season.  I've watched Betty Draper get divorced.  Remarry.  Gain weight.  Lose it.  Have a brief affair with her ex.  And all the while, she continues to lie, manipulate, and subjugate her feelings.
In that time, I've edited A Tapestry of Truth at least nine times, but with each rewrite, I realize that perhaps there's a bit of Betty Draper in all of us.  We may not manifest it in the world.  We may not act on our childish emotions or our desire to "get exactly what we want when we want it”.  But I imagine one of the reasons people love Betty (or love to hate her) is because they see a little of themselves in her experiences...or pray they never have to encounter a person like her.
Neither Betty nor Annie would win Mother of the Year awards, but I believe that, in the end, they did the best they could with what they had.  Our reaction or response to their behavior is ultimately colored by our own character.
For as Rumi once said, "Delight in someone else is simply something you've suddenly remembered about yourself."
I wonder if the same is true about revulsion.

In looking through Annie Schreiber's eyes one last time, I've seen a lot more of my hidden shadows.  But what's a shadow if something that's lacking light?  It's not necessarily good or bad.  It's just waiting in the dark for the next sunrise to reveal its true nature.
So as I embrace the longer days that springtime brings, I'm also celebrating a new awakening of much more than the earth's rebirth.  I'm learning that, like a turtle...like Annie Schreiber...and even like Betty Draper, I too have a tough outer shell, but a vulnerable interior.
To accept and honor both places has been both difficult and delightful.