For the past several weeks, I’ve been on book tour for my novel, The End of Everything. Tours are funny things—marathons of sorts, running from city to city, hopping time zones, talking endlessly about yourself and your book until you want to plug your ears and hide under the table. And then punctuated by moments of sustaining bliss: the reminder that you are spending at least an hour every day in a new and special bookstore with passionate staff and ardent readers.
On tour, you end up having intimate (in the way book lovers always are with each other) conversations over warped wooden stacks, talking about things like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the early days of Cinemax and why I need to read George Simenon immediately. Thanks to Jeff at City Lights I came home with a book by David Markson, thanks to Corey Mesler at Burke’s Books, one by Charles McCarry. Sometimes, you even have once-in-a-lifetime I’m-Really-An-Author moments, like my visit to Murder by the Book in Houston when a wonderful man named Ed Wey had me sign his leg with a Sharpie so he could make my signature part of his elaborate Maltese Falcon tattoo, which now stretches up his entire leg.
But the part I always forget: Your book transforms when you’re on tour. the story you thought you were telling only turns out to be only half the story. The more you meet with readers, the more you hear the things to which they responded and why, you realize all books are really mirrors, for readers and writers. For me, the mirror held up to my face revealed, more than ever, how much my own suburban adolescence suffuses the book.
The End of Everything is set in an unnamed suburb and, writing it, I purposely tried to keep its locale vague. But I wasn’t aware until the last few months how closely I had duplicated my sense memory of my hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan—a serene, trapped-in-time ‘burb that arches, luxuriantly, over its struggling center: Detroit. A town I had spent twenty years itching to escape.
In the days following publication, culminating in a book signing in Michigan, I had a series of surprising exchanges with people I haven’t seen since grade school, including many who had lived on my childhood block. There were Facebook exchanges steeped in nostalgia, with one former Grosse Pointer even pinpointing, based on having read my book, which precise block on which I grew up.
Then there was the book signing itself when a trio of women whom I knew in grade school or high school—all terrifically lovely with downy-headed children seemingly up and down each leg—came up to get their books signed.
“I can’t believe you used our teachers’ real names,” one laughed, noting she’d already read the book.
“I did?” I asked, but in saying it I suddenly knew I had.
And these were not common names. No, they were Mr. Moskaluk, our high school chemistry teacher (with the handsome beard and Alan Rickman-as-good-guy aura) and Mr. Silverston, our genial but challenging middle school math teacher and one of the kindest men I ever knew. There is no way I could have failed to realize I had used their real names. In some way, I must have wanted them there. Maybe because I liked them both so much. (And here I am, using them both again.)
The most uncanny moment, though, was the moment when my own brother, a year older, came up to me after the reading. He had just finished reading the book the night before. Grinning, he said, “You put our raft in there. The Hawaiian punch raft.”
I stared at him dumbly until he reminded me that we shared the same inflatable raft all through childhood, its yellow fading, the faint splotches of the Hawaiian Punch mascot scattered across it. And the raft occupies a prominent place in the novel. For him, reading it, it must have been like a tap on the shoulder. A wink. There it is, remember that? I must have wanted it there.
And then there was Meg. In The End of Everything, the narrator, 13-year-old Lizzie spends all her time at the house of her best friend, Evie Verver. For her, the Ververs are one those “golden families” (didn’t we all know one?) who seem more glamorous, more perfect, more everything than our own. In interviews, I kept finding myself talking about the family that enchanted me, the family of my best friend Meg, who lived three doors down.
Then, the same day as publication, I received a message from Meg herself, the first time in decades.
Wending through the Dallas airport at the time, I could barely look at the email message. My heart skittering, I felt suddenly ashamed of myself. Joan Didion famously said “writers are always selling someone out,” and while my novel isn’t about Meg or her family, I had to admit that friendship, the intensity of my feeling towards the family, had found its way into the book and I hadn’t considered the impact of my talking about that on Meg herself.
I think I sat in the plastic airport chair a good five minutes before I clicked open that email. But it turned out to be a gift. “Isn’t it funny,” she wrote, with all the wisdom of someone who has known life, “how all the things we thought were so drab in our simple lives growing up there were anything but?”
Sitting there, I felt relief. Inwardly, I had feared she would resent my intrusion, my carelessness in talking about her family, our suburban block, its private miseries and wonders. But she didn’t. And now I see it wasn’t Meg whom I had laid bare but myself. Reading my interviews, she had figured out something it had taken me an entire novel, and a book tour, to figure out. About how significant my town, my childhood, my friendship with her was to me, how it still lingers with me. How it can still make my heart speed up. How it matters.