The question I’m most often asked by readers is, “What part of this book comes from your life?” I know I’m not the only author to get this question. Sue Miller writes that she prepared for her last book tour by memorizing a quote from John Cheever that begins, “It seems to me that any confusion between autobiography and fiction debases fiction.” She also says that reciting this quote wasn’t enough to deter her audience; they still wanted to know the parts that came from real life. Truthfully, even though I know that the journey from fact to fiction is not a straightforward one, it’s what I always want to know too. Since I have a pretty good idea what events in my life gave birth to Jane Hudson–and where her story breaks off from mine and becomes her own–I can’t see any real reason not to tell (sorry Mr. Cheever!).
Jane’s circumstances at the beginning of the book are similar to the situation I found myself in the fall of 1994. I had moved back into my parents’ house with my two year old daughter after separating from my husband. I was thirty-five, soon to be divorced, broke and unemployed. Not the high point in my life! But as bad as things were, I knew my situation would have been worse if I hadn’t had generous and supportive parents to come home to. What would I have done, I wondered, without them? What did women do?
I imagined finding a job as a Latin teacher at a private school that would provide onsite childcare for my daughter and a place where we could live. Out of that imagined scenario I wrote a short story called “Girl, Declined.” Even in that early story my female protagonist, Jane, seemed largely defined by the things she lacked. Why didn’t she have family or friends to turn to? Why had she married so badly? I began to sense connections between her deprivation and the teenage girls she might encounter in a second-rate girls’ school. Their shared preoccupation with a dead language became both a distraction and a metaphor for being emotionally shut down.
I finished that story and moved on to other things. I wrote other stories, got an MFA, started teaching again when my daughter was older and, eventually, remarried. I never forgot, though, how close I was to having nothing. And that woman, alone with a young child at a girls’ school, stayed in my mind. Every once in a while I’d return to her. I imagined that she’d have a hard time remembering her Latin after years of disuse, just as I had when I went back to school in my mid-twenties to get my teaching certification. I pictured her studying her declensions and practicing the oral Latin they use nowadays in the classroom. The story didn’t really come alive, though, until I settled on the right location for the school. In the summer of 1999, while vacationing at Mohonk Mountain House, it occurred to me that the lake there would make a good location for the girls’ school. Once I chose that setting other pieces of the story started falling into place: someone Jane loved had drowned, leaving her as closed and frozen as the lake in winter. No wonder she had married the wrong guy!
Choosing that setting introduced a dimension to the book which I couldn’t have planned. I spent as much time at Mohonk as I could, taking nature hikes and speaking to Mohonk’s amazing naturalist, Ann Guenther, about the geology of the rock formations around the lake and the eerie moaning noises the lake made when it froze. She also recommended some books that described the process a lake goes through when it freezes (who knew there even was a process! I thought it just froze). When I read about “overturn” I couldn’t help seeing it as a metaphor for how the past sometimes rises to the surface and how our lives seem to move in cycles.
By that fall, as I started working on the book, my own life moved into a new cycle. Some of the new things in my life were wonderful and they fed into the book I was writing in unexpected ways. My daughter’s creativity and confidence were (and still are) a source of inspiration. It was Maggie who invented the corniculum by linking a few hairpins together into an animal shape. She asked a million questions about the book I was writing and (minus its most disturbing elements) I told her the basic plot. The part she liked the most were the legends surrounding Heart Lake. She helped me draw a map of the school and she wrote a poem inspired by the legend of “The Lady of the Lake” (which won a Scholastic award). I couldn’t help wondering, though, if she’d always be this confident. I’d read a lot of books about how teenage girls often suffered a falling-off of confidence when they reached puberty. Looking back on my own adolescence (and reading the journals I’d religiously kept through my teens) I relived all the agonizing self-doubts of that era. Writing about the troubled teens in The Lake of Dead Languages was, perhaps, my way of exorcising those spirits–or an attempt to come to grips with my own adolescence before Maggie began hers.
The hardest part of my life that fall, though, was that my father had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died that October. Once again my life felt precarious, balanced on the edge of some precipice. It was difficult to keep working on the novel, but my husband kept urging me to work on that “Latin teacher story.” At first I worked on it so I could tell him I’d written that day. Eventually, as the days got colder, the story seemed to take on its own life and I found that working on it gave me some respite from the pain I was feeling. Just as Jane found comfort in returning to her Latin studies, I found writing about an imaginary Latin teacher in the frozen north country a distraction from my own grief. I thought, though, that in this particular instance, Jane’s life and mine had little to do with each other. Jane’s father is one of the most absent characters in the book. I wouldn’t try to write about my father until my next novel–and in many ways, I’m still not ready to write about him. By that spring, though, I saw that I had written about grief and dying in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to before my father’s death. I don’t think we really know what our books are “about” until they’re done and maybe we never know for sure, but I think The Lake of Dead Languages is about how we talk to the dead. And I don’t mean by using a Ouija board or attending a seance. Jane says at one point that Matt’s death left her feeling, “like I’d been talking to someone on the phone when the lines went down.” How do you keep that conversation going? What’s the language for speaking to the dead? Only after I finished the book did it occur to me that a “dead language” might also be the means by which we speak with the dead.
There are other snippets of my life lurking in Jane’s. She goes to my alma mater (but is much more studious there), she has the same troubles getting her papers graded as I do, and we own the same copy of Tales from the Ballet. She’s a much better ice-skater, though, and, I suspect, ultimately braver than me. She’s someone very much like me minus some of my advantages–like good parents. And so, the book ends up being about deprivation and loss, but also how we traverse that terrain of grief–something as tricky and perilous as making your way across broken ice.