Crossing Over

The Website of Author Marina Budhos

Category: Publishing

Maplewood Literary Award 2018

This was the brief talk I gave before my interview with Sarah Lester at the Maplewood Literary Award event on March 24th, 2018.  It’s adapted from an earlier blog on writing in 9/12.

I should like to tell a story.  It is a story of failure and motherhood.  It is a story of post- 9/11, what I call 9/12.  And it is ultimately a story of rebuilding one’s self, of home and community.  Because the career I’ve had for the last sixteen years is intricately connected to our decision to move to Maplewood.

We were living on the Upper West Side in an apartment.  My ‘office,’ such as it was, consisted of a corner of a room, next to a swinging door into the kitchen, walled off with a Japanese screen from my son’s nursery area.  My husband wrote on a thin little table in a corner of the bedroom.  Our books teemed everywhere.  There wasn’t much light in the apartment.  This was not sustainable.

But it was not sustainable for another reason.  I had, in all honesty, lost my way as a writer.  I had always been a fierce and disciplined writer, driven in some ways by guilt—the child of an immigrant, of hardworking teachers, I felt that if this was my job, I had to attack it like a job.  I led a pretty monastic life, keeping my expenses low, my apartments small to make this vocation work.

And I did continue to write after I became a mother—a few weeks after my son Sasha was born I was in Bed Stuy, reporting on teenagers with AIDs.  But just like the gray atmosphere of our apartment, there was a smudged quality to my vision, a sense of not being able to blend motherhood, the pressures and anxieties of making a living, and the act of writing.  Even I—quite stubborn—was having a hard time of it.  I felt like a graduate student peering into grown up lives, but somehow I could not figure out how to be and writer have that grown up life.

Worse, even after publishing two literary novels and a nonfiction book, I could not sell my third novel.  I pause on this for a moment because we so often focus on success of an author’s life.  But as every writer knows, particularly in the punishing environment of publishing, behind that gleaming surface, there is so much rejection and sense of failure and uncertainty and tossed out projects.  And often for no good reason, just bad luck or bad timing.  I was amazed to learn the other night at the Montclair Literary Festival that Tom Perrotta’s novel, “Election,” was actually sitting in a drawer, unpublished, when it was discovered for a movie.

For me, at this time, I had written a novel in a somber mood, in the wake of an ectopic pregnancy that had sent me into life-saving surgery.  I woke up a week later in bed, loopy on painkillers, with an image of an elderly Bengali woman, the wife of a photographer, walking the amber-lit streets of the UPW.  That novel, too quiet, too submerged, still waits in my drawer.  I tried a few other projects but nothing quite held.

Here is the other significant part of our move: 9/11.  Or rather, I should say, 9/12.  The day after.  The decades after.

They are connected.

My son Sasha was just over a year old on that bright blue sky day, and I will never forget leaving him with Marc at the apartment, biking down the West Side with phone chargers in my back pack, looping to the Red Cross where I’d hoped to donate blood.  And then there was no need for chargers, no need for blood, just a police barricade, plumes of ashen smoke blotting that perfect sky.  That night, our son snuggled in our carry-on, we joined others at the Sailors and Fallen Soldiers Monument and sang and sang, almost wishing we could never leave each other, this fellowship, on such a painful and numbing day.

And then Marc had to go to the Bologna Book Festival (where he’s leaving for tonight), and on a whim, we decided to put our apartment up for sale.  If it sold quickly, we’d take it as a sign.  It sold immediately, cash.  We had to buy a house.  So we drove out to Maplewood.  We were so disoriented, so confused by NJ, we circled the area for two hours, with our realtor waiting on the porch the whole time.  Sometimes I think that we bought our house on Ridgewood Terrace because I felt guilty for making the realtor wait so long.

No—in truth we finally realized we wanted to move because we could envision a more capacious life.  Most people move for the schools, because they grew up in the suburbs.  We did not.  We moved for work space.  We moved for the light sweeping down through the windows in my little study, the big oak tree outside my window, the third floor which could be our library.  We moved to find something that could encompass all of who we were—writers, parents, people who liked to cook and entertain.  Virginia Woolf has famously written about how every woman needs of a room of her own.  As a mother, a co-author, I needed a room of my own wedged into my ever-expanding life.

Now I will say, it was not without its regrets: We are city people through and through and argue over what cafe used to be on what corner in the West Village. The day of our move, I sat on the pavement outside my building with two girlfriends sobbing.  How could this New Yorker leave?

And yet I could.

Somehow one year after 9/11, we encamped to Maplewood, NJ, waking up stunned in an empty house on a quiet street on a hot August morning in 2002.  We were not fleeing the city because of the attack.  But we did, in some way, need to rebuild, rethink, remold ourselves.

Somehow having a home, and a study, and feeling nominally grown-up, something in me shifted as a writer.  I was able to look up and around me.  The smudged vision cleared.  That physical capaciousness around me meant I grew more capacious within.  My husband and I, each with rooms on different floors, traded pages, shouted ideas to each other, shouted at the other to stop shouting.  We became co-authors.

Even this library had something to do with my inner spaciousness.  So many times I walked into this cheerful place, the kids’ room, the adult room, and it gave me a sense of the hub bub of reading, of reading lives.  The same is true when Words Bookstore opened up.  In New York City, I had wedged myself into the narrow world of purely literary friends and ambitions.  That sometimes eats away at you.  I relaxed.  I began to contemplate writing YA, which I’m not sure I would have done back in Manhattan.

And then there is 9/12, which also led to my re-envisioning as a writer.  9/12 is the world our children have inherited, and are shaped by: war, terror, counter-terrorism, Islamophobia, fear, immigration panic, security—and now gun violence.  Soon after we moved here, a novel tore out of me, about the crackdown on undocumented immigrants, which became my first YA novel.

My writing life, on a gray and quiet pause button, suddenly hit forward.  I learned within 2 weeks that I had sold Ask Me No Questions, was contracted for another novel, offered a teaching job in creative writing at William Paterson.  And I was pregnant with my second son, Rafi.  And we needed a second car!  I think of that as the moment of twos: 2 books, 2 cars, 2 children.  Life sped on, layered, stressful to the point of bursting.

The community we so impetuously moved to a year after 9/11—Maplewood—has proved to be a nurturing bath for that newly re-formed writer self.  It is where I have raised my children; it is where we weathered illness and loss here, the deaths of two mothers, our house now filled to bursting with all we’ve inherited.

And somehow, amidst the hub bub of family life, I carved out my writing, some out of the anguish and concern and puzzlement at the times we are living through.  Some motivated by just the drive toward curiosity or shadow pockets of history or personal obsession.  Living in a house means there are that many more corners to stack up research books and novels.  I often think our house is one great heaving ship taking in more book cargo, while chucking out others to create better ballast, so we don’t capsize and drown in print.

Sixteen years ago we decamped, we rebuilt, and re-envisioned.    Nearly every day I wake up to this street of porched houses, and children scattering toward school, commuters racing for the midtown direct train. From my desk, just beyond the trees, I glimpse the rooftop of novelist Pamela Erens‘ house, the 2017 award recipient.  It gives me quiet comfort to know she too is facing the page, so nearby.   And solace too for a community that so values art and words and expression, even in the face of our worst darkness.  This is my 9/12.   This is how we begin.

We’re Ready for Immigration Reform: A Novelist’s Perspective

A new Op-Ed in the Huffington Post:

With the bipartisan proposal on immigration just announced, and President Obama’s speech on reform delivered recently, we’re all braced for the polarizing winds of anger to rage.

But that’s not what I’ve found. For several years, I have been talking about illegal immigrants, all over the country. Every time I finish my talk, I wait for a blast of hostility.

It never comes.

More …

When Do You Write: Guest Post at Anjali Enjeti’s Website

Nowadays I write when the saws aren’t whining downstairs or one of my boys isn’t tumbling into my study, complaining about his odious brother.  Seriously, right now—living through a kitchen renovation during the summer, my prime writing time—has been a huge challenge.  It’s discombobulated my otherwise pretty disciplined rhythm, which I established in graduate school years ago.  At that time, I felt so guilty about leaving a ‘real’ job, and living on the tiny scholarship, I felt I had to be at it, every morning.  I lived in a tiny studio, worked at the kitchen table and listened to the family next door in a gorgeous Victorian back down their driveway every morning, going off to the ‘real world’.  I remember feeling terribly deprived, sure I would never have such a life, and yet pure, Spartan.

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Remembering David Foster Wallace (briefly)

This was a piece I wrote for our local Patch in anticipation of an event with biographer D.T. Max:

In 1989, when I was still a novice writer, I spent the summer at Yaddo, the beautiful writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs.  It’s a fairly intimidating and luxurious atmosphere (butterballs served at dinner!) for any new writer still trying to get a handle on a first novel. One feels both anointed and yet hollow, inadequate.

It was there I met—among many other writers—David Foster Wallace.  Already, there was a bit of star aura around David—he was clearly brilliant, and his difficult, opaque and challenging first collection, The Broom of the System, had been published.  Downstairs in the main room of Yaddo’s Victorian house was the mail table—and it was hard not notice the big packages that came for David—from publishers, from Michael Pietsch, his editor at Little, Brown.  Wallace was starting to hum with a true career while many of us were simply in the shadows, figuring out who we were as writers or artists.


David was a funny mix of Midwestern earnest, well-brought up, polite, and yet sharply arrogant.  He kept his cards to his chest, though one could still see the whirring, ambitious calculations within.  Evenings, some of us would sit around the screened-in porch for long winding conversations about the state of contemporary fiction, and he would dominate, posing quizzical questions, conducting the conversation as if he were the professor.  (Flustering a few of the more insecure young writers)  I could clearly detect that he was a professor’s son, used to the analytic seminar, even in his slacker trademark bandana around his long hair.  Indeed David was not teaching creative writing as many of us were—he was headed for Harvard to study philosophy.

Over the course of the month, a small group of us hung around quite a bit, shooting pool in town, or joining him as he smoked a lot of pot in his attic room.  I once made the mistake of playing tennis with him—he was a ranked state player in high school—and embarrassing myself not just with the ball, but with some of the intellectual volleys, so shy was I at the time.

Lobbing the ball across the net, he asked me what I thought was the next frontier in fiction.  Since I was actually trying to wean myself of the intellectual pyrotechnics of experimental fiction, I mumbled something about ‘ethnic’ or ‘multicultural’ fiction and then felt completely tongue-tied and embarrassed.  Somehow, I managed to say, “You know it’s mostly about writing a story that really hits you.”

He paused on the court.  Something had clicked.  He said quietly, “Yes, there is that.  It’s hard to deliver that emotional knockout that gets you right here—“ He pointed to his chest.  “That is rare.”

David would go on to write Infinite Jest, a book that was a huge achievement; as much a literary opus as it was a massive cultural event.  He also battled with severe and profound depression.  Shortly after he left Yaddo, I’d heard from mutual acquaintances that he’d had a severe crack up, dropped out of Harvard, and was in an institution.  All that pot smoking masked his constant internal struggles with “the black hole with teeth.”

Over the next decades, Wallace moved toward the luminosity of the truly gifted and brilliant, the public.  A cultish fascination grew around his maximalist work.  Though I was not one of those who dared crack open the over a thousand-page-tome, David’s journalism and essays, which appeared on the pages of Harper’s, were among my favorite—funny, erudite, slangy, relaxed, genre-breaking cultural commentary, where his penchant for the extended, hilarious footnote became a genre unto itself.

To my surprise, many, many years later, the author DT Max contacted me in his research for the biography of Wallace, which began with a New Yorker article he wrote about the last days of Wallace’s life before he committed suicide in 2008.  I was surprised, as I was no more than a speck in the huge number of famous figures and dear friends who populated David’s life.  But it speaks to DT’s scrupulous sense of fine research that he reached out to everyone.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a kind book, for it takes up, with compassion and insight, the twin struggles of Wallace, the ambitious literary author and Wallace the person, battling severe depression.


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First Stop: Barcelona

On August 5th, 2012, Marc, myself and our two boys, Sasha and Rafi flew to Barcelona—exactly 76 years after Capa and Taro when arrived to begin their photo-journey into the Spanish Civil War. Within a few months, Capa would become a world-famous war journalist. Both would reinvent modern photojournalism as we know it today. And in less than a year, the daring Taro would be dead.

We spent nearly three weeks in Spain, tracking, as best we could, some of the key sites and in some cases, visiting some of the exact locales where they shot photographs. Our last research day was in Brunete, where Taro was sideswiped by a swerving tank, and ultimately died in a hospital 30 kilometers away.

In this blog, I’ll be filling you in on our travels, our journey into the story of Capa, Taro, and Chim as we developed this book. Enjoy!


Barcelona, August, 2012: This is the Barcelona I remember from 1983-84 when I backpacked through–and it isn’t. Still the same frilly-edged art nouveau buildings rising off the grand avenues; still the winding streets in the old quarter; and still good Serrano ham and manchego cheese to be found at all hours.

Yet there is a difference. Gone are the old women washing on the balconies, the clamoring parakeets and teeming plants; gone are the old men and women on Las Ramblas benches, the smokey-eyed gypsy children; the seedy, red light district, the dark mouths of nightclubs, where you walked downstairs and were never quite sure what you would find; gone is the morning wake up when we stayed in the old quarter—a bakery where fat-armed women shoved aluminum trays of quivering flan; the men in their slightly ill-made suits and hair wet down; the shoes thicker, sturdier; so much less polish and high-strung tourist sheen as I had encountered in Florence and Sienna. I could feel, in this city, the sense of the peasant, of the rustic.

At that time—28 years ago—my friend and I were at the edge of their lives, observing. Now it is throngs of tourists driving down Las Ramblas who are the center of the action; now they are flanked by shiny stores, tapas places that seem like remakes of the dark wood dives I drank in and ate before. When we reach Placa de la Catalyuna, I feel as if I’m in Times Square. We’ve stopped off at the official FC Barcelona store, where Sasha understands that I am not spending 100 dollars on a Messie shirt.

But we are here for history, and so we oblige, with Alan Warren, our chipper and cheerful guide who is obsessed with Spanish Civil history, knows it down to his bones, and leads tours throughout the region recreating Orwell’s steps, battles, particular regiments.

He has arrived at our large, atmospheric (and slightly odd) Eixample flat in his floppy khaki hat, his folder of images and notes, and marches us past the elegant art nouveau buildings, shows us the Hotel Majestic, which at the time was taken over by the Republican forces, and where long tables of food were served for free. Now it is swathed in scaffolding; I peek through the revolving doors to see the lobby is completely renovated—sleek marble, barely adorned—and intimidatingly pricey in look.

Another doorway is where deserters from the Nationalist side straggled in, along with recruits from abroad. This is the international surge that brought Capa and Taro to Spain in the early days, along with George Orwell, who would immortalize his time in the classic Homage to Catalonia:

“When the fighting broke out on the 18 July it is probable that every anti-Fascist in Europe felt a thrill of hope. For here at last, apparently, was democracy standing up to Fascism.”

Most certainly this is what Capa and Taro felt, back in Paris. Both were refugees from Hungary and Germany respectively; both were Jews who had begun to see the iron hand of anti-Semitism start to choke the political life of their countries. Indeed Capa had already had his run-ins for political activism, as did Taro, which is how they wound up in Paris, mingling among the many artists and emigres who had flocked to the city at this time.

Capa and Taro were also opportunists—in the best sense of the word. They sensed a chance, an opportunity, to make their mark through the growing field of photo journalism. They had met when Taro worked for Maria Eisner, who ran a photo agency, Alliance Photo. Taro helped to groom the scruffy Hungarian so he might better sell his work. Then she too took up the camera. It was only a matter of time before they felt the siren call to Barcelona, to Spain, where already, international volunteers were pouring in to fight Franco.

The Barcelona they would have encountered would have been similar to the city George Orwell described:

“… when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt.”

“The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town were crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.”

“There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

Certainly, Taro’s photographs during this time capture the revolutionary fervor, the joyous and ordinary ways that residents had taken up arms and were remaking their very city, their society. Taro shot children happily scampering on sandbagged walls, donning anarchist caps like any children playing made-up war games.

She followed Republican militiawomen training on the beach near the city—one of her most iconic a silhouetted woman, crouched, aiming her pistol—a symbol of equality promised women during this halcyon period, a time, as Orwell noted, when people did not address anyone as “Senor or Dona” or even use the formal “Usted.”

My favorites of Taro’s during this period are those of people laughing, relaxing in the August sunshine (Catalonia is indeed hot during those months). In one, a man and a woman lean back in two wicker chairs, heads tilted to one another, exchanging laughter; he casually holds a rifle between them. There’s an easy grace to the photo, men and women as comfortable compadres, as Taro and Capa were themselves.

In August 1936, when Taro and Capa and Orwell arrived in Spain, to join what they saw as the greatest struggle of their generation, they did not yet detect its dangerous and self-destructive undertow, nor did anyone anticipate the terrible destruction that would be unleashed with ariel bombing. (Indeed Barcelona was used as a testing ground for this new technology and the brutal air raids gave way to something called the “Barcelona Effect”—the more a civilian population was bombed, the more they in fact resisted) We pause at the reconstructed Coliseum, which now has a stark black steel memorial in front to memorialize those killed in the dreadful pounding that pummeled these grand streets.

“There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

Yet if anything characterizes the Spanish Civil War, it was the deadly factionalism that would eventually splinter the Left, particularly as the Soviets played a deadly game of suppressing the Anarchists and undermining their hold on the local population.

Less than a year after that optimistic period that Capa and Taro recorded visually, a stand-off between the Communists and Anarchists was taking place: “The word flew round the town that the workers’ buildings were being attacked, armed Anarchists appeared on the streets, work ceased, and fighting broke out immediately.”

Today, we stand in the thronging Placa de Cataluyna to see the Telefonica Building, the tallest building at the time of the Spanish Civil War, a blank modern building that juts up over the teeming plaza.

We press onward, past the fountain where everyone descends after a Barcelona soccer team game (No, we tell the kids, you cannot drink the water), and stand just opposite Café Moka, where Civil Guards were holed up inside. Across the way was the Poliorama, where the P.O.U.M. (the party Orwell fought with and more or less came to support) patrolled on the roof domes.

“I used to sit on the roof marveling at the folly of it all,” Orwell writes. “From the little windows in the observatory you could see for miles around—vista after vista of tall slender buildings, glass domes and fantastic curly roofs with brilliant green and copper tiles; over to eastward the glittering pale blue sea—the first glimpse of the sea that I had had since coming to Spain. And the whole huge town of a million people was locked in a sort of violent inertia, a nightmare of noise without movement.”

The Real Read: Empathy, What Mr. Franzen Can’t Show to Edith Wharton

So here’s my take on Jonathan Franzen’s recent New Yorker piece on Edith Wharton. Continue reading

On Bad Reviews

This post recently appeared in my friend Judith Lindbergh’s The Writer’s Circle:

Every published author has experienced the harsh, dismissive, or critical review. Recently I received my first bad notice of a new novel, Tell Us We’re Home. Up to this point, I had been basking in the glow of a wonderful launch: two well-attended book readings where I could sense, in my audiences, a startled, intense listening; a starred review in Kirkus; other enthusiastic, appreciative notices. I felt myself lofted out of the gate of publication into the starry universe of success–every writer’s fantasy. And then of course, comes the negative reaction that sends you plummeting down to earth. You land with a hard thump, stunned, dazed, wondering if you can ever write again. Continue reading

When Someone ‘Gets’ You

Today I received a lovely blog post and review from Uma Krishnaswami (a writer whom I much admire and who has done so much to expanding our notions of children’s/ya) about Tell Us We’re Home.  What moved me about her post is that she articulated something that I have long felt: after I wrote and published The Professor of Light, I had a sense that I would venture into young adult.  I would not abandon the world of adult fiction or nonfiction, but I knew there were many coming of age stories I wanted to tell.  For me, writing young adult has enabled me to touch a certain part of myself–a bit less guarded, not yet clapped into adult attitudes, still striving, still yearning.  It’s rare to have a reader be so attuned or even cognizant of your own arc and development as a writer–a true gift.

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