Saturday, May 21, 2016

Speech: Ferguson Library Friends Literary Awards, April 17 2016

I constantly joke with my kids that you’re never a hero in your own hometown. But after today I’m going to have to stop saying that, because being asked to speak as an author at the Ferguson Library where I spent so many hours growing up, makes me feel like I am a hero. So I’d like to start off by thanking you for this incredible honor and privilege.

I’m a passionate supporter of public libraries, and especially the amazing librarians who work in them. Librarians made me writer. But just as importantly – or perhaps even more importantly, they helped to make me a thinker.

When it comes to literacy I confess that I started life on first base – maybe even on second. That’s because I was born into a family of readers and a home filled with books. But even within my family, I had a voracious appetite for the written word – I was the kid in the family who was kept getting caught under the covers reading with a flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep.

To satisfy my book cravings, Mom brought us to the library every week and I got to pick out a new stack to bring home. One reason why I feel fortunate to have grown up when I did rather than now is that, I never, ever, had a librarian, parent, or teacher say “Sorry, Sarah that book is above your Lexile level.” The grownups in my life just kept handing me interesting, challenging, books and I kept on reading them.

If I didn’t know the meaning of words – and I often didn’t – I learned to figure them out from the context of the sentence or if I really got stuck I’d ask my parents. But Mom and Dad never answered my question directly. Instead they’d point me to the “Shorter” Oxford English Dictionary and tell me to look it up. Now here’s some insight into the way my brain works. As I was writing this I suddenly thought: I wonder how much that thing weighed? So I went and got it off the shelf and put it on my kitchen scale. This sucker weighs almost 9lbs – imagine having to haul that around when you were a little kid wanting to know the meaning of a word.

Living in the social media age, I then felt compelled to tweet how much the Shorter OED weighs because the people who follow me on my author account would probably be interested in that kind of thing. And Robin Powell, a childhood friend of mine from England saw the picture and sent me back a picture of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary my parents had given him for his Bar Mitzvah in January 1973. In the flyleaf was an inscription written by my father: “It’s never winter in the land of HOPE and it’s never dull in a dictionary. Use this book a lot and reap its rewards.”

My father died two and half years ago after a long journey with Alzheimers, so seeing what he’d written 43 years ago made me pretty emotional. But it also made me realize that this apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

I was curious about the phrase “It’s never winter in the land of Hope” and I wondered if it was from a book. So I Googled it and it turns out it’s a Russian proverb. What’s interesting about that is my Grandpa Harry, who died when I was 11, was from the Ukraine, and so I wonder now if it’s a proverb my father heard from his father.

One of the things we lose with e-books is discovering these kinds of gifts from the past in books. But that’s not the only thing we lose with technology. When my parents made me look up a word in the dictionary, in the process I’d inevitably find other interesting words on the page around the word I was looking up, and so I’d end up further developing my vocabulary and love of language. By just entering the one word you don’t know in a web browser and getting the definition in seconds, you lose the magic of doing that.

I was also fortunate because my parents never censored my reading. They put the so-called “inappropriate books” on the top shelf, but they also always had a set of library steps in the room so that we could get to those books on our own when we were old enough to be curious.

I followed this strategy with my own kids. When my daughter Amie was in middle school, the film version of Alice Sebold’s book “The Lovely Bones” came out, and most of her friends were reading it. Amie asked me if we had it – which we did, because I’d read it many years before, and then wanted to know if she could read it.

I didn’t say no. What I did was discuss the book with her. I told her it was a thought provoking book and well written, but the first chapter was very upsetting to read. Because she had nightmares sometimes, I worried that it might be too much for her so my advice would be to wait a year or two. But I told her that I would leave the decision up to her, and if she really felt like she wanted to read it, the book was on the shelf, hers for the taking. She took my advice and waited.

That’s why I get very angry when parents try to censor books for other people’s children or ban books from school libraries. What they are doing is abdicating their own job as parents. It’s all about the conversations we have. Different kids are ready for different books at different times, and that’s why trained librarians are so incredibly important, both in our public libraries and in our public schools.

It’s thanks to librarians that I Journeyed to the Center of the Earth, went 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days with Jules Verne. It’s thanks to librarians that I solved the mystery of the Hound of the Baskervilles with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Because of librarians I went from wealth to poverty and back again like A Little Princess and discovered a Secret Garden with Francis Hodgson Burnett. Because of librarians I asked G-d if he was there and discovered how to improve my bust with Judy Blume.

Not long after my first book, CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC, came out, I met Judy Blume at the memorial service for my mentor, the late Paula Danziger.. I wanted to tell her how much she inspired me, not just because of her writing, but because of her passionate advocacy against censorship. The problem was I literally, couldn’t talk. 12 year old Sarah inside was like: “OMG OMG – I’M STANDING 18 INCHES AWAY FROM JUDY FREAKING BLUME!”

It just goes to show that even middle-aged authors can be utter and complete fangirls.

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in high school, but I didn’t try to write a book until I was almost forty. Even thought my parents always acknowledged that I was a talented writer, I was given the same message back in the late 70’s that I hear constantly from politicians and business leaders today: “You’ll never make a living as an English major.” So even though writing was what I loved, and literature was my passion, I majored in political science and got an MBA in Finance. I worked on Wall Street as a financial analyst, until I met my kids’ dad and moved to a small village in Dorset, England where by marrying I doubled the Jewish population (and by having Josh and Amie tripled and quadrupled it). I put my MBA to use by managing the finances of the family’s dairy farming and cheese making enterprise. If you want to know about the lactation yield curve of a dairy cow, I’m your girl, but in the 17 years I’ve lived in Greenwich it’s never once come up at a cocktail party.

But all along, a voice inside kept saying “I want to write.” I ignored it, because I was doing the things that everyone expected me to do: making a living, being a good daughter, a good wife, and a good mother. It wasn’t till I was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown at age 38 that I realized I didn’t want to end up in a nursing home at the end of my life thinking, “What would have happened if?” I was so busy being an overachiever that it took all my bricks falling down to finally give me the clarity I needed to build myself up in a stronger way. I knew then that I had to give myself the chance to pursue my long held dream of being a writer, even if I failed, because I’d rather have tried and failed than never have tried at all.

The good news is that I didn’t fail. Since that hospitalization in 2001, when I finally gave myself permission to write, I’ve written fifteen books, eight in my own name and seven under a pseudonym. I get emails from readers all over the United States and from abroad, too – my books have been translated into German, Greek and soon, Serbian.

When you get emails from teenagers saying: “I really loved your book, like more than I love the world! It felt like you described my whole life” or simply “Thank you for helping me,” - well let’s just say it’s so much more pleasant and rewarding than the comments I get from grown ups on my political columns. The emails I get from my teen readers remind me why it’s worth fighting every day to try to make the world a better place, even on the days when the hateful comments I’m getting from adults make it especially hard to be courageous.

I’m going to finish up with a few pieces of advice based on the things I’ve learned from my long, circuitous and somewhat unconventional journey to doing what I have no doubt is my G-d given purpose in life.

The first is something I learned from my father, and that’s to always be aware of what is going on in the world around you. Inspiration is everywhere, but you have to be paying attention.

The second is something I learned from my mother and that’s to be a good listener. Writers are like sponges – constantly listening to the people and ideas and dialogue, because we never know when something might be useful for a book.

The third is from me – and that’s don’t ever lose your curiosity. Writing is the perfect career for me because it’s lifelong learning. Each of my books begins with a question, which I start off by researching. One of the best parts of my job is that I get to interview really interesting people about what they do as part of the research process. Some people I’ve interviewed include a supervisory special agent at the FBI in New Haven, an emergency room doctor, a talent agent, a Catholic priest, the senior Naturalist and education specialist at Greenwich Audubon, an employment lawyer, and the head of the Special Victims section at Greenwich police. Using the information I learn from my research, I then create situations where my characters can help me work through the answer to the question I want to answer in the book.

But the most important piece of advice if you want to be a writer comes from Jane Yolen, who’s an incredibly prolific and successful author, as well as being the first cousin once removed of Stamford resident and travel writer, Malerie Yolen-Cohen. I heard Jane speak at a writing conference about ten years ago and the best advice she gave was: “Get your butt in the chair and write the damn book.”

Because in the end that’s what makes the difference between me and the people I meet at cocktail parties who tell me “Oh, I’d write a novel if I only had the time.” The difference is that I made the time. I wrote in doctor’s office waiting rooms and carpool lines while waiting to pick up my kids. I wrote late at night after spending the day doing freelance business writing, and early in the morning before I had to take the kids to school. I wrote when I didn’t feel inspired and when I was convinced that what I was writing was total rubbish – and it probably was. But that rubbish helped me write better rubbish and eventually I wrote something good enough to get published.

And now, all these years and fifteen books later, I’m standing here giving a speech in the library where I worked on papers in high school and dreamed about being a writer. Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart for giving me this honor. What I’m really looking forward to is the day in the future, when I’m in the audience listening to one of you giving this speech as the featured author. So make sure you get your butt in the chair and write that book.

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