Patty Dann is the author of the novel, Starfish (Greenpoint Press, 2013), a sequel to her novel, Mermaids, a coming of age novel about a teenage girl which was published in 1986. In 1990, Mermaids was made into a movie of the same name, starring Cher, Winona Ryder, Bob Hoskins, and Christina Ricci.
Dann is the author of another novel, Sweet & Crazy, about a 39-year-old woman living with her young son in a small town in Ohio, as their lives are impacted in the aftermath of the events of 9/11. She is also the author of two memoirs, Baby Boat: A Memoir of Adoption (1998) about the adoption of her son, and The Goldfish Went on Vacation: A Memoir of Loss (2007) about the death of her husband from brain cancer.
Dann has served as a judge for the Scholastic Young Writers Awards. She has an MFA in Writing from Columbia University, and a B.A. from the University of Oregon. She taught at Sarah Lawrence College and teaches at the West Side YMCA.
She is a member of the New York Writers Workshop, the Authors Guild, and P.E.N. Dann was also cited by New York Magazine as one of the “Greatest Teachers of NYC.”
Derek Alger: In your new novel, Starfish, you return to your quirky, memorable characters from your novel, Mermaids.
Patty Dann: The characters in Mermaids had become so real to me that I did wonder where they were over the years, but until recently I never could picture where they had moved after they left the fictional town of Grove, Massachusetts.
Suddenly, three years ago I could see Charlotte Flax so clearly sitting on the porch in the same house back in Grove, and she was reading a letter. That was the seed that got me writing Starfish.
She did not have a cell phone though. I needed to set it in a time when phones were firmly attached to the wall in the kitchen or on the counter, so I chose 1991, when the War in the Gulf was raging.
DA: That’s a period to which I can relate.
PD: In Starfish, Charlotte is now 42. She never married, but she did have a son when she was young, and he is grown. He married young himself and has twin toddlers. The dynamics of the family are similar. Mrs. Flax, the Cher character, as I’ve come to think of her as well, still moves a lot, but the little girl Kate, who was played wonderfully by Christina Ricci in her first movie, has given up swimming and has become quite wild.
Charlotte plans a 60th birthday party for her mother, whom she still refers to as Mrs. Flax, and the book takes place in the summer before the party, back in Grove. The big difference is the convent next door, which was the scene of so much drama and heartache, has been turned into Condominiums.
I’ve always felt that tragedy and comedy are adjoining rooms in a house. I like to move back and forth between the rooms.That was a big question in making the Mermaids movie, of whether it was a comedy, when in the course of a day we all deal with sorrow and humor as we walk through our lives.
DA: Did you grow up in a creative family?
PD: My parents started out in radio. My father began as a comedy writer. My mother was more intellectual. She wrote her Master’s Thesis on Wordsworth. She also read poetry to my brother, sister and me when we were young. Even when my father went into television, we were only allowed to watch one hour of t.v. a week. I watched the Patty Duke show, of course, and a half hour of Ed Sullivan.
The first word I remember learning was eavesdrop. I thought that was such a great word. I did a lot of that. There was a lot of arguing in our house. I would say it was an “animated” home, which of course is a euphemism. I participated, but I also did a lot of listening.
DA: What were your college years like?
PD: I went to Bennington for one year, which was quite wild then – I remember one night I went into the kitchen in our dorm and there was a girl covered in whip cream, lying on the table. I had some wonderful teachers. Bernard Malamud came to my English class a few times and talked about working on a novel, then taking a break to write short stories, and then returning to his novel.
After freshman year I spent the summer working in a stationery store, where I sold Playboy Magazines to men and had to staple the magazines in brown paper bags. At the end of the summer, I got into a car with three friends and headed west. The last night of our trip we camped out in a field and ate corn we’d stolen from a field over a fire. The next day we drove into Eugene, Oregon, which is where I spent the next three wonderful years, and graduated in Art History.
DA: Were you aware of wanting to become a writer?
PD: I knew I wanted to be a writer, although for my college essay I’d said I’d wanted to be an anthropologist and photographer and run an orphanage. I wrote a lot of dreadful poetry in college, but I had a wonderful writing teacher in Oregon, Ralph Salisbury, who let me sit in on the graduate writing classes.
At that time I was bolder than I am now. I got on a plane and flew to Paris because that’s what I thought real writers did. I found a room in a strange office, whose name translated as The Institute of Life. I have no idea what they did, but they turned off the heat in my room on the weekends when they were not at work. I did some typing for them, listening to an old-fashioned headset as I typed incoherent letters on a manual typewriter. I also took French classes at the Sorbonne and babysat for a wonderful little boy. Oh, I also took Karate lessons four nights a week at the French-Vietnamese Center, which looked out on a beautiful courtyard. That room was very cold too. I ate no meals in restaurants. I ate lots of crepes on the street. My pockets were sticky from all the pastries I consumed.
Of course I had romances as well.
DA: And then New York City was calling.
PD: I don’t know if N.Y. ever called me, but I decided I should try it because I was always so overwhelmed by it, and I seem to be here still. I spent my twenties writing unpublished novels and working as a secretary at the Saturday Review Magazine and a music company. I was a good secretary but never could seem to get the right hand margins correct. Some of my bosses threw their used tea bags and worse in the Out Box and expected me to clean it up, and I did, dutifully.
DA: You decided to earn an MFA at Columbia University.
PD: I thought that maybe I could learn something in an MFA program, and I certainly did, although perhaps only after I left. They weren’t fond of the draft of Mermaids I handed in as my thesis. “A Jewish girl who wants to become a nun is absurd,” is what I recall.
DA: You proved persistence can eventually pay off.
PD: My goal had been to publish by the time I was thirty, but I had not, so I gave up writing for two years. I worked at A&E Entertainment, first as a secretary, then selecting documentaries. I’d sit there all day, in a cubicle, pressing the VCR buttons with my foot — watching stories about Amish, foot binding, and cars that moved sideways. Then one day I decided to take Mermaids out of the drawer.
I got to the office early every day and wrote from 7:30 to 9 a.m. I changed Mermaids from the third person to the first and the voice changed completely. There was no rational reason I did this. I was angry I hadn’t published. I wrote out of anger, and I think that added to the humor.
I quickly found an agent, and within a week she’d sold it to Ticknor & Fields, who published Thoreau for goodness sakes. When my editor called to give me the news he said, “Congratulations to us.”
I then told my boss I was going out for a long lunch and celebrated by going ice-skating in Rockefeller Center. I recall I was wearing a tweed suit, jacket and skirt, not pants then, and carried my pocket book. I think we’re supposed to say purse now.
DA: A movie was adapted from the novel starring Cher and Winona Ryder. How did that feel?
PD: It was all very exciting – especially after being told it would never be a book, never be translated into many languages, and certainly never a movie.
Everybody working on the film was wonderful and asked me about my ideas about the characters.
The best part was when I went up to Boston and sat at a table with the actors and they read the whole script. Then it felt real, like a play. After that, the movie set was so strange, with everything being shot out of sequence and a whole kitchen full of hors d’oeurvres, which is what Mrs. Flax always served.
I first saw the movie with no music. When I flew out to Hollywood to see a screening with music I was quite overwhelmed. I had never thought of the music as I wrote the book. I think the movie has much more humor with the music and dancing.
DA: You turned to memoir with The Baby Boat: A Memoir of Adoption.
PD: Yes, I seem to write every other book, fiction, non-fiction. This was the real-life story about adopting our son from Lithuania when he was seven months old. He’s now 18. For that book, writing a daily journal helped me get through the year of waiting, which involved the joy and frustration. It will be very interesting to see how all these kids who were adopted from other countries make their way in the world. I think it is much more complicated emotionally for them than any of us adoptive parents ever thought of at the time.
DA: Your next memoir, The Goldfish Went on Vacation: A Memoir of Loss is a very poignant and courageous book.
PD: Actually first I wrote a novel, Sweet & Crazy, about the same subject, a woman raising a young son when her husband dies of brain cancer, which is what happened to me. At first it was so painful, I thought I had to write a novel. And then it was so painful I thought I had to write non-fiction. People always ask what the difference is, and I don’t’ know. They’re both a mix of memory and imagination. As with the adoption book, I imagine it “helped me get through” difficult times, but I don’t actually think of it that way. It’s just what I do. I still get letters, actually more e-mails now, from widows with young children.
I decided to take notes. I asked my husband if he minded if I wrote about it all when he got sick. “Of course not, leveling,” he said. “Leveling” is Dutch for “darling.” He was a wonderful man. And now I’m married to another wonderful man, a Southerner, which is as foreign to me as being Dutch. My life has always been like this, fragmented, with sudden sorrow and sudden joy.
DA: Quite an honor, you were cited by New York Magazine as one of the “Great Teachers of New York City.“
PD: I never cease to be excited by students’ work. I’m a story junkie. Whether it’s Shakespeare or People Magazine, I’m fascinated by daily life. I love to be present when a writer really hones on his or her real story.
I limited my classes to 55 and over for many years, because I found that it often took decades for people to write the truth, but now I open my classes to all ages.
DA: Tell us a bit about New York Writers Workshop?
PD: It’s a group of good people and good writers – not two things that always go hand in-hand. We watch out for each other – support each other’s successes, but personally too. A lot of good friendships have been made. Writing is a lonely occupation so it’s been great.
DA: And now you live in Baltimore on weekends and New York City during the week.
PD: When I wrote The Goldfish Went on Vacation about my first husband’s death, a journalist at the Baltimore Sun had just been widowed and read it. He wrote about it in the Sun, and my publisher forwarded me the piece. One night at 2 a.m. I wrote to thank him, just because I did things like that at the time and I had insomnia. We corresponded for three months. Then, reader, I married him.
He still works in Baltimore. I take the train there from N.Y. on weekends. I love working in the garden. Ann Tyler lives down the street and I pass her sometimes as we’re both taking walks. I would never bother her. It just makes me smile to know she’s there. I’m at a very lucky time of my life.