Author Media Kit
Michelle Richmond was born and raised in Alabama and has made her home for more than a decade in Northern California, where she lives with her husband and young son. She is the author of six books, including the novels Golden State (2014), No One You Know (2009), the New York Times and international bestsller The Year of Fog (2007), and Dream of the Blue Room (2003). Her story collection, Hum (2014), won the Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, and her debut book, the story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress (2001), won the Associated Writing Programs Award.
Richmond has received the Hillsdale Award for Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Associated Writing Programs Award, and the Mississippi Review Fiction Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, the Oxford American, Salon, Playboy, The Guardian, The Believer, Best American Fantasy, The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, The Washington Post, and many magazines and anthologies.
She holds an MFA from the University of Miami, where she was a James Michener Fellow. She has taught in the MFA programs in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco, California College of the Arts, St. Mary’s College of Moraga, and Bowling Green State University. Michelle currently serves on the board of The Authors Guild and recently held the Sister Catharine Julie Cunningham Chair at Notre Dame de Namur University.
She is represented by Valerie Borchardt of Georges Borchardt, Inc.
The Year of Fog Synopsis
Life changes in an instant. On a foggy beach. In the seconds when Abby Mason—photographer, fiancée soon-to-be-stepmother—looks into her camera and commits her greatest error. Heartbreaking, uplifting, and beautifully told, here is the riveting tale of a family torn apart, of the search for the truth behind a child’s disappearance, and of one woman’s unwavering faith in the redemptive power of love—all made startlingly fresh through Michelle Richmond’s incandescent sensitivity and extraordinary insight.
Six-year-old Emma vanished into the thick San Francisco fog. Or into the heaving Pacific. Or somewhere just beyond: to a parking lot, a stranger’s van, or a road with traffic flashing by. Devastated by guilt, haunted by her fears about becoming a stepmother, Abby refuses to believe that Emma is dead. And so she searches for clues about what happened that morning—and cannot stop the flood of memories reaching from her own childhood to illuminate that irreversible moment on the beach.
Now, as the days drag into weeks, as the police lose interest and fliers fade on telephone poles, Emma’s father finds solace in religion and scientific probability—but Abby can only wander the beaches and city streets, attempting to recover the past and the little girl she lost. With her life at a crossroads, she will leave San Francisco for a country thousands of miles away. And there, by the side of another sea, on a journey that has led her to another man and into a strange subculture of wanderers and surfers, Abby will make the most astounding discovery of all—as the truth of Emma’s disappearance unravels with stunning force.
A profoundly original novel of family, loss, and hope—of the choices we make and the choices made for us—The Year of Fog beguiles with the mysteries of time and memory even as it lays bare the deep and wondrous workings of the human heart. The result is a mesmerizing tour de force that will touch anyone who knows what it means to love a child.
From the hardcover editio
The Year of Fog Excerpt
HERE IS the truth, this is what I know: we were walking on Ocean Beach, hand in hand. It was a summer morning, cold, July in San Francisco. The fog lay white and dense over the sand and ocean–an enveloping mist so thick I could see only a few feet in front of me.
Emma was searching for sand dollars. Sometimes they wash up by the dozens, whole and dazzling white, but that day the beach was littered with broken halves and quarters. Emma was disappointed. She is a child who prefers things in a state of perfection: sand dollars must be complete, schoolbooks must be pristine, her father's hair must be neatly trimmed, falling just above his collar.
I was thinking of her father's hair, the soft dark fringe where it touches his neck, when Emma tugged at my hand. "Hurry," she said.
"What's the rush?"
"The waves might wash them away."
Despite our bad luck so far, Emma believed that on the beach ahead lay a treasure of perfect sand dollars.
"Want to go to Louis's Diner instead?" I said. "I'm hungry."
She tried to extract her fingers and pull away. I often thought, though I never said it, that her father spoiled her. I understood why: she was a child without a mother, and he was trying to compensate.
"Let me go," she said, twisting her hand in my own, surprisingly strong.
I leaned down and looked into her face. Her green eyes stared back at me, resolute. I knew I was the adult. I was bigger, stronger, more clever. But I also knew that in a test of will, Emma would outlast me every time. "Will you stay close by?"
"Yes." She smiled, knowing she had won.
"Find me a pretty sand dollar."
"I'll find you the biggest," she said, stretching her arms wide.
She skipped ahead, that small, six-year-old mystery, that brilliant feminine replica of her father. She was humming some song that had been on the radio minutes earlier. Watching her, I felt a surge of joy and fear. In three months, I would marry her father. We hadn't yet explained to her that I would be moving in permanently. That I would make her breakfast, take her to school, and attend her ballet recitals, the way her mother used to do. No, the way her mother should have done.
"You're good for Emma," Jake liked to say. "You'll be a much better mother than my ex-wife ever was."
And I thought, every time, how do you know? What makes you so sure? I watched Emma with her yellow bucket, her blue cloth shoes, her black ponytail whipping in the wind as she raced away from me, and wondered, how can I do it? How can I become a mother to this girl?
I lifted the Holga to my eye, aware as the shutter clicked–once, softly, like a toy–that Emma would be reduced to a blurry 6´6 in black and white. She was moving too fast, the light was insufficient. I turned the winding knob, clicked, advanced again. By the time I pressed the shutter release a final time, she was nearly gone.
HERE THEN is the error, my moment of greatest failure. If everyone has a decision she would give anything to retract, this is mine: A shape in the sand caught my eye. At first it looked like something discarded–a child's shirt, perhaps, or a tiny blanket. By instinct I brought the camera to my eye, because this is what I do–I take pictures for a living, I record the things I see. As I moved closer, the furry head came into focus, the arched back, black spots on white fur. The small form was dusted with sand, its head pointing in my direction, its flippers resting delicately at its sides.
I knelt beside the seal pup, reaching out to touch it, but something stopped me. The wet black eyes, open and staring, did not blink. Spiky whiskers fanned out from the face, and three long lashes above each eye moved with the breeze. Then I saw the gash along its belly, mostly hidden by sand, and felt some maternal urge bumping around inside me. How long did I spend with the seal pup–thirty seconds? A minute? More?
A tiny sand crab scuttled over the sand by my toe. The sight of it reminded me of those miniature creatures that littered the beach at Gulf Shores when I was a child. My sister Annabel would capture them in mason jars and marvel at their pink underbellies as they tried to climb out, legs ticking against the glass. This crab kicked up a pocket of sand, then disappeared; at most, another ten seconds passed.
I glanced eastward toward the park, where the fog abruptly ended, butting up against startling blue. As a transplant to this city from the bright and sultry South, I had come to love the fog, its dramatic presence, the way it deadens sound. The way it simply stops, rather than fading, opaque whiteness suddenly giving way to clarity. Crossing from fog into sunlight, one has the feeling of having emerged. Traveling in the other direction is like sinking into a mysterious, fairy-tale abyss.
Just beyond the beach, along the Great Highway, a hearse led a line of cars south toward Pacifica. I remembered the last funeral I attended, a healthy guy in his late twenties who broke his neck in a rock-climbing accident; he was a friend of a friend, not someone I knew well, but because I'd talked with him at a dinner party two weeks before the accident, it seemed appropriate to go to the funeral. This recollection took another five seconds.
I looked ahead, where Emma should be, but did not see her. I began walking. Everything was saturated a cool white, and distance was impossible to measure. I clutched the plastic Holga, imagining the great images I'd get, the deep black of Emma's hair against the cold white beach.
I couldn't help thinking of the dead seal pup, how I would explain it to Emma. I believed this was something mothers instinctively knew how to do. This would be a test, the first of many; at that moment I was not thinking entirely of Emma. I walked faster, anxious to know if she had seen the seal; it was a good thing for her to see that day, alone on the beach with me. I wanted her to be frightened by the dead seal pup so I could step delicately into the role of stepmother.
I don't know exactly when I realized something was wrong. I kept walking and did not see her. I pushed my hands in front of me, aware even as I did so of the absurdity of the gesture, as if a pair of hands could part the fog.
"Emma!" I called.
The panic did not strike immediately. No, that would take several seconds, a full minute almost. At first it was only a gradual slipping, a sense of vertigo, like the feeling I used to get as a child when I would stand knee-deep in the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico, close my eyes against the white-hot Alabama sun, and let the waves erode the platform under my feet. First the sand beneath the arches would go, then the toes, and finally I would lose my balance and tumble forward into the surf, mouth filling with seawater, eyes snapping open to meet the bright spinning world.
I yelled louder, feeling the shifting, unreliable sand beneath my feet. I ran forward, then back, retracing my steps. She's hiding, I thought. She must be hiding. A few yards from the dead seal pup stood a concrete drainage wall covered with graffiti. I ran toward the wall. In my mind I pictured her crouched there, giggling, the pail propped on her knees. This vision was so clear, had such the ring of truth, I almost believed I had seen it. But when I reached the wall, she wasn't there. I leaned against it, felt my insides convulse, and vomited into the sand.
From where I stood, I could make out the shape of the public restrooms down the beach. Racing toward them, I felt a sense of dread. I knew, already, that the search had somehow shifted. I crossed the two-lane-highway and checked the women's room, which was dark and empty. Then I circled around to the men's side. The windows were made of frosted glass, dim light spilling onto the tile floor. I plunged my hand into the trash bin, looking for her clothes, her shoes. I got down on hands and knees and looked behind the urinals, holding my breath against the stench. Nothing.
As I crossed back to the beach, I was shaking. My fingers felt numb, my throat dry. I climbed to the top of a sand dune and turned in circles, seeing nothing but the impenetrable white fog, hearing nothing but the soft hum of cars along the Great Highway. For a moment I stood still. "Think," I said out loud. "Don't panic."
Up ahead, more fog, a half mile or so of beach, then the hill leading to the Cliff House, the Camera Obscura, the ruins of the Sutro Baths, Louis's Diner. To the right, there was the long sidewalk, the highway, and beyond it, Golden Gate Park. Behind me, miles of beach. To my left, the Pacific Ocean, gray and frothing. I stood at the center of a fog-bound maze with invisible walls and infinite possibilities. I thought: a child disappears on a beach. Where does that child go?
I WILL RETURN again and again to that moment. I will keep a notebook in which I record the details. There will be poorly done sketches, graphs of time and motion, page after page on which I attempt to recover the past. I will pretend that memory is reliable, that it does not erode as quickly and completely as the brittle lines of an Etch-a-Sketch. I will tell myself that, buried somewhere in the intricate maze of my mind, there is a detail, a clue, some tiny lost thing that will lead me to Emma.
Later, they will want to know the exact moment I noticed she was missing. They will want to know whether I saw anyone unusual on the beach, whether I heard anything in the moments before or after she disappeared. They–the police, the reporters, her father–will ask the same questions again and again, staring into my eyes with desperation, as if by repetition they might make me remember, as if by force of will they can conjure clues where there are none.
This is what I tell them, this is what I know: I was walking on the beach with Emma. It was cold and very foggy. She let go of my hand. I stopped to photograph a seal pup, then glanced up toward the Great Highway. When I looked back, she was gone.
The only person to whom I will tell the entire story is my sister, Annabel. Only my sister will know I wasted ten seconds on a sand crab, five on a funeral procession. Only my sister will know I wanted Emma to see the dead seal, that in the moment before she disappeared, I was scheming to make her love me. For others, I will choose my words carefully, separating the important details from misleading trivialities. For them, I will present this version of the truth: there is a girl, her name is Emma, she is walking on the beach. I look away, seconds pass. When I look back she is gone.
This single moment unfolds like a flower in a series of time-lapse photographs, like an intricate maze. I stand at the labyrinth's center, unable to see which paths lead to dead ends, which one to the missing child. I know I must trust memory to lead me. I know I have one chance to get it right.
The first story I tell, the first clue I reveal, will determine the direction of the search. The wrong detail, the wrong clue, will inevitably lead to confusion, while the right clue leads to a beautiful child. Should I tell the police about the postman in the parking lot, the motorcycle, the man in the orange Chevelle, the yellow van? Or is it the seal that matters, the hearse, the retaining wall, the wave? How does one distinguish between the relevant and the extraneous? One slip in the narrative, one mistake in the selection of details, and everything disintegrates.
PI TIMES radius squared equals the area of a circle. Time is a continuum, stretching forward and back infinitely. I learned these things in school.
In a ninth-grade classroom at Murphy High School, Dr. Thomas Swayze, an exhilarating and shady character who was rumored to have received his doctorate through the mail, drew a giant circle on the chalkboard. On the outer rim of the circle and on a straight line drawn from the midpoint to the circle's edge, he scribbled numbers and formulas. His bicep flexed, straining the white sleeve of his T-shirt. "Radius, diameter, circumference," he said, his FM radio voice inciting in me sweaty adolescent desires. He turned to face the classroom and rolled the gleaming white cone of chalk from palm to palm, looking straight at me.
The sun glared through a long row of windows, turning the copper hair of the girl in front of me to flame; she smelled like Juicy Fruit gum. My hand lay on the desktop in a pool of burning light; all around my thumbnail were flecks of blood where I had chewed the skin to shreds. In my head, a steady, maddening hum. Dr. Swayze turned toward the blackboard. Some hidden object formed a faded and perfect circle on the back pocket of his blue jeans.
"And the greatest of these is area," he said. My knees slid apart, and I could feel little pools of sweat gathering on the plastic seat beneath my thighs.
Years before, Mrs. Monk, my third-grade teacher, had moved the hands on a giant cardboard clock and extolled the virtues of time. Seconds were grains of sand, she said. Minutes were pebbles. Hours were the bricks of which past, present, and future are made. She talked of days and years, decades, centuries. She talked of the millennium, when we would all be grown. She opened her big arms wide and whispered the word eon. In our portable classroom, the air conditioner sputtering mildly against Mobile's April heat, Mrs. Monk, teacher of the year for 1977, preached and glowed and sweated.
I sat at my wooden desk, looking up at that huge circle with its eternally trapped hands, and cried. She came over to me and laid warm, damp fingers on my neck. "Abby, what's wrong?" she asked. I leaned into her ample, motherly waist, buried my face in deep folds of polyester, and confessed, "I don't understand time." It wasn't the clock itself that confounded me, the half-past and quarter-till, the five-of and ten-after, but rather the essential nature of time. I did not have the words to explain this to Mrs. Monk.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond. Copyright © 2007 by Michelle Richmond. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Discovery, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Year of Fog Q&A
You are having tea or coffee with one of your favorite authors. Who is it, and what would you ask that author if you only got to ask him/her one question?
I would ask Chekhov how he managed to get the ending precisely right, every time. Or I would ask Grace Paley, who may have had the best ear for dialogue of any American writer working in the last half-century, how she managed to make the voices on the page sound so real and smart and biting, while at the same time creating incredibly sympathetic characters.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about having a book published?
Emails come from parts unknown with the most fascinating information, the most surprising connections. I heard from a woman whose father-in-law had done seminal work on the cesium atom, which is mentioned in Abby’s ruminations on time, and from a sea captain who read The Year of Fog while at sea and decided to trace Abby’s journey on land with his camera. What moved me most were the emails I received from people whose loved ones had gone missing.
What’s your typical writing day like? And what environment is most conducive to your process?
The environment in which I work best is an almost ascetic one—very quiet, no outside distractions. I primarily work at home, and although I do have a window overlooking the street in my home office, it’s a fairly quiet street “out in the avenues,” as we say in San Francisco. In fact, I live in the area of the city that used to be referred to as the Outside Lands, an area which figures prominently in The Year of Fog.
For me, good coffee is a prerequisite for writing. On the days when I teach (in the MFA program in writing at a local college), I don’t write at all. On the days when I write, I try to completely forget about teaching so that I can focus on my own work. After taking my son to school, I sometimes walk to the coffee shop near my house, just to remind myself that the outdoors exist and to get in a little human interaction before sitting alone in front of my computer for five hours. More often, though, I make my coffee at home; this is one of my most cherished daily rituals, involving very fresh beans which I grind myself. No milk. No sugar. Just very good, very fresh coffee.
Coffee in hand, I sit down in front of my computer. If I’m working on a novel, I usually begin by reading the chapter I was working on the previous day. I’ll tinker a bit with the previous day’s work—fine-tuning sentences, adding details—before writing new material. Several hours later I’ll emerge from the fog of writing and try to reconnect with the world again. If the writing is going well, there’s this fuzzy border zone between writing and not writing, a period when my brain is still inside the novel, even though, physically, I’m no longer at the computer and am dealing with the external details of the day.
Can you name the first book you read that inspired you in some special way? Why?
Old Hasdrubal and the Pirates, by Bethe Amos. My mother must have read this book to me hundreds of times when I was a child. It’s long out of print, but when I found out I was pregnant a few years ago, one of the first things I did was go online and find a copy. It’s a swashbuckling story with dark, dramatic watercolor illustrations and wonderfully cheeky writing: “Now old great-great grandfather Hasdrubal was about to shove off, when he heard the sound of paddled pirogues in the sultry swamp. He pushed his pirogue into high marsh grasses just before a dozen pirates with a captive maid glided into sight and landed on a shell bank.”
It was many years later that I read Madam Bovary, possibly the first novel I read as an adult that moved me as deeply as the books that were read to me as a child. At about the same time, I read Lolita for the first time. With both Flaubert and Nabokov, I was inspired by the way beautiful sentences worked in tandem with rich characters and storylines; I also loved the sense of playfulness in their work. Later, when I began writing short stories seriously, I was inspired by the prose style of Grace Paley, the beauty of ideas in novellas by Lars Gustaffson. And I will always come home to The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy, which makes an appearance in The Year of Fog: “To become aware of the possibility of a search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
Many writing experts advise “write about what you know.” Do you agree with this? And what practical advice would you give an aspiring author?
I tend to write what I don’t know, because for me a major part of the joy of writing comes from immersing myself in a subject I know little about. While writing The Year of Fog, for example, I had a wonderful time delving into the nature of memory and into the details of surfing culture. Those, of course, are the more external aspects of the book. I think from an emotional standpoint, I do tend to write what I know. I know what it feels like for a relationship to fall apart. I know what it feels like to care deeply about someone else’s child. I was able to write about Abby’s obsession with the search because I’m no stranger to obsession.
My advice to an aspiring author? Be the quietest person at the dinner party. Listen. Observe. Tune into the way people behave, their motivations. To be a novelist, one needs empathy. Empathy comes from truly trying to understand how people feel, how they make decisions. Being a keen and quiet observer of human nature will go a lot farther toward making you a good writer than any writing class. And read, read, read.
Can you tell us about the book you are working on now?
I’m very excited about my new novel, No One You Know, which will be published by Delacorte in July. My new novel is a perfect example of writing what I don’t know. The narrator is a coffee buyer, which gave me the opportunity to spend time at a coffee roaster—pretty much my dream research. The narrator’s now-deceased sister was a math prodigy, and I spent a lot of time reading up on math—biographies of famous mathematicians, G.H. Hardy’s classic A Mathematician’s Apology, books about famous unsolved problems. Who knew that the stories behind math could be so interesting? I’ll never be the kind of person who enjoys balancing the checkbook, but thanks to No One You Know, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the beauty of mathematics.
When you finish writing your answers to this Q&A, what will you do next?
I happen to be writing this on Valentine’s Day. In a few minutes, I’ll be frosting the cupcakes for a party at my son’s school. Seriously! If you told me three years ago I’d be frosting cupcakes at 1:30 on a Thursday afternoon, I never would have believed you. As timing would have it, just minutes ago, as I was answering these questions, the UPS man arrived with a package from Bantam. I haven’t opened it, but I know what it is: the paperback version of The Year of Fog, hot off the presses. So once the cupcakes are frosted, I plan to sit down (with a cupcake of course, and coffee), open that package, and call my mother, who had the good sense to make me fall in love with books thirty-something years ago.
Reading Group Guide: The Year of Fog
1. The Year of Fog unfolds as a series of flashbacks and present-tense scenes. How do Abby’s impressions of her own past shift as she searches for Emma? What does her research on the neuroscience of memory tell us about the limits and the power of the mind’s imagery?
2. How much was Emma a factor in Abby’s relationship with Jake? After Emma’s disappearance, what did they discover about each other? Why was it awkward for Abby to see Jake turn to religion? Why was he skeptical of her insistence that Emma didn’t drown but was kidnapped?
3. How does Abby’s eye as a photographer shape the way she sees the world around her? What does she see that others don’t? What kinds of images captivate her the most? What does her approach to photography indicate about her approach to life?
4. Are Ramon and Jake entirely different, or was there a common thread that attracted Abby to each of them? What keeps her from sleeping with Nick in chapter 40? What has she needed from men in general at crucial points in her life?
5. How did Abby’s recollections of her own mother affect her approach to being a stepmother?
6. Describing the ancient history of memory studies in chapter 43, Abby mentions the concept of Renaissance “memory theaters” and later has a dream in which her memories are displayed in ways she cannot fully comprehend. If your past were to be categorized in such a way, what would it look like? Which objects would best represent various events? Which of your memories would you most like to preserve?
7. Abby struggles with feelings of inadequacy, seeing herself as the sister who often botches her chances at a happier life. What accounts for the tremendous differences between her self-perception and Annabel’s?
8. How would you describe Lisbeth’s wavering, extreme motivations? What would explain her dangerous decisions? How is she able to appear trustworthy?
9. For Abby, one of the most difficult aspects of the search is the fact that she doesn’t receive full respect as a key figure in Emma’s life. Ultimately, how do you define “a devoted mother”? What are the best examples of good parenting in the novel? What determines whether someone has what it takes to be a good parent?
10. What enabled Abby to uncover the truth while Jake could not? Was it her intuition? Determination? Hypnosis? Fate? Or simply the deep guilt she felt? What ultimately caused the fog to lift in Emma’s disappearance?
11. In many ways, the novel is a poignant portrait of coping with grief, in this case a very unresolved form of grief. What is the best way to confront tragedy?
12. How did you attempt to solve the mystery of Emma’s disappearance? Were you able to hold out hope for her survival?
13. Goofy’s help leads Abby to the sojourn in Costa Rica. What do both beach communities begin to mean to her? In what way does the landscape, both liberating and treacherous, form an appropriate place for her to come to terms with her greatest fears?
14. What is distinct about Abby’s storytelling voice? How might the novel have unfolded had it been told from Jake’s point of view?
15. What did the novel reveal to you about the world of missing children and their families? Did it change your perspective on the real-life cases you encounter in the media?
16. As you saw Abby catch a wave in the final paragraph, what did you predict for her future?
No One You Know Synopsis
All her life Ellie Enderlin had been known as Lila’s sister—until the day Lila, a top math student at Stanford, was murdered, and the shape of their family changed forever. Twenty years later, Ellie is a professional coffee buyer who has never put down roots. When, in a chance meeting, she comes into possession of the notebook that Lila carried everywhere, Ellie returns home to finally discover the truth about her sister’s death—a search that will lead her to Lila’s secret lover, to the motives and fate of a man who profited from their family’s grief, and ultimately to the deepest secrets even sisters keep from each other. From the bestselling author of The Year of Fog (“Highly recommended [for fans of] authors like Jodi Picoult and Jacquelyn Mitchard.”—Library Journal [starred review]), this is a riveting family drama about loss, love, and the way hope redefines our lives—a novel at once heartbreaking, provocative, and impossible to put down.
No One You Know Excerpt
When I found him at last, I had long ago given up the search. It was late at night, and I was dining alone in a small cafe in Diriomo, Nicaragua. It was a place I had come to cherish during my annual visits to the village, the kind of establishment where one could order a plate of beans and a cup of coffee any time of the day or night.
I had spent the evening wandering the dark, empty streets. July days in Diriomo were scorching; come nightfall, the buildings seemed to radiate heat, so that the air possessed a baked, dusty scent. Eventually I came to the familiar intersection. Going left would lead to my hotel, with its hard bed and uncooperative ceiling fan. Straight ahead was a baseball diamond where I had once seen a local kid beat a rat to death with an old wooden bat. To the right was a wide road giving way to a crooked alleyway, at the end of which the cafe beckoned.
Some time past midnight, I stood on the doorstep, ringing the little copper bell. Maria appeared, dressed in a long blue skirt, white blouse, and no shoes, looking as though she'd been expecting me.
"Did I wake you?"
"No," she said. "Welcome."
It was a ritual greeting between us. I had no way of knowing whether Maria was actually asleep on those nights, or whether she was sitting patiently in her kitchen, waiting for customers.
"What are you serving tonight?" I asked. This was also ritual, for we both knew that the menu never changed, no matter the time or season.
"Nacatamal," she said. "Esta usted sola?"
"S’, se–ora, I am alone." My answer, like the menu, had remained unaltered for years. And yet she asked it, each time, with a kind of naked hope, as if she believed that one day my luck might change.
The cafe was empty and dark, somehow cool despite the heat outside. She pointed to a small table where a candle burned in a jar. I thanked her and sat down. I could hear her preparing coffee in the kitchen, which was separated from the dining area by a narrow doorway in which hung a curtain of red fabric. I watched the patterns made by the candlelight on the far wall. The images seemed too lovely and symmetrical to be random—a bird, a sailboat, a star, followed by a series of rectangular bars of light. It was a feeling I often had in that town, and one of the reasons I kept returning when my work as a coffee buyer brought me to Nicaragua—a feeling that even the simplest natural acts were somehow ordered, as if some unnamed discipline reigned over both the animate and inanimate. I rarely felt this way at home in San Francisco. It was no wonder the locals referred to Diriomo as pueblo brujo—bewitched village.
Maria had just set my plate on the table when the bell clanged outside. Together we looked toward the door, as if something miraculous might materialize. In all the times I had taken a midnight meal among the porcelain dolls and carnivorous plants in Maria's cafe, I'd rarely met another customer.
Maria went to the door and opened it a crack. For a moment my table was flooded with moonlight.
"Buenas noches, Maria," a man's voice said.
The door closed, plunging the room once again into near darkness.
The man passed by my table. His face was turned away, but in the pale light from the kitchen I observed that he carried himself in the way very tall men often do, shoulders slumped in a sort of apology for taking up so much space. He wore a baseball cap pulled low on the forehead. A hardback book was tucked under one arm. He went to a table in the corner, the one farthest from my own. When he sat down, his back to me, the wooden chair creaked so violently I thought it might break.
Maria took a match out of her apron pocket, struck it against the wall, and dipped the flame into a crimson jar on the man's table. Only after she had retreated into the kitchen to fetch his coffee did he turn around and glance at me from beneath the brim of his hat. In the flickering red candlelight only his slightly jutting chin was visible, the rest of his face receding into shadows.
"Hello," I said.
"You're American," I said, surprised. Foreigners were scarce in Diriomo. Encountering a fellow American at this particular cafe in the middle of the night was utterly strange.
"I am," he said.
He gave a polite wave of the hand before leaning over the table and peering into his book. He held the candle above the page, and I considered warning him it was bad for his eyes to read in the darkness. He seemed like the kind of man who needed to be told these things, the kind of man who ought to have someone taking care of him. Soon Maria brought him coffee. Something about the way he lifted his cup, the way he turned the pages of his book, even the way he tilted his head toward Maria in silent thanks when she brought him a napkin and a bowl of sugar cubes, struck me as familiar. I watched him closely, wondering if the feeling that I knew him was simply an illusion brought about by my having been traveling alone for too long. The longer I sat there, however, the more I became convinced that it was not the vague familiarity of one countryman to another, but something more personal.
While he drank his coffee and read his book, seemingly oblivious to me, I tried to recall the context in which I might have known him. I sensed, more than knew, that it had been a long time ago, and that there had been some degree of intimacy between us; this sensation of intimacy coupled with my inability to remember was completely unsettling. The thought crossed my mind that I might have slept with him. There had been a period following my sister's death when I slept with many men. This was a long time ago, though, so long that now it almost seemed like a different life.
Maria brought my food. I waited for the steaming plantain leaves to cool before peeling them away, picking up the nacatamal, and biting in. Back home, I had tried several times to replicate Maria's combination of pork, rice, potatoes, mint leaves, raisins, and spices, but it never came out right. When I tried to tease the recipe out of her, she just laughed and pretended not to understand my request.
"You should try these," I said to the man between bites.
"Oh, I know Maria's nacatamal," he said, glancing my way once again. "Delicious, but I already ate."
What could he be doing here so late at night, I wondered, if he had already had his supper? In Diriomo, men did not sit alone in cafes reading books, even American men. A few minutes later, when I took my wallet out to pay, he closed his book and stared at the cover for a few seconds, as if to gather courage, before standing and walking over to my table. Maria watched us shamelessly from the doorway of the kitchen. The red curtain was pulled aside, filling the room with soft light. For a moment it occurred to me that perhaps Maria had set this whole thing up for my benefit, perhaps she was trying to pull off a bit of matchmaking.
The man removed his baseball cap and held it in both hands. His shaggy hair grazed the low ceiling, gathering static. "Pardon me," he said. Now I could see his face completely—the large dark eyes and wide mouth, the high cheekbones and prominent chin, covered with stubble—and I knew at once who he was.
I had not seen him in eighteen years. There had been a period of several months in college when I thought of him constantly. I had watched for his name in the paper, had performed drive-bys of his ground-floor flat in Russian Hill, had taken lunch at a certain small Italian restaurant in North Beach that he frequented, despite the fact that the menu stretched my student budget beyond its limits. At that time I suspected that if I shadowed him without ceasing I could begin to understand something—maybe not the thing he had done, but the mechanism by which he had been able to do it. That mechanism, I was certain, was a psychological abnormality; some moral tuning fork that was present in others was absent in him.
Then, one afternoon in August of 1991, he vanished. That day I walked into the restaurant in North Beach at half past noon, as I had been doing every week for three months. Immediately my eyes went to a table in the corner, above which hung a miniature oil painting of the Cathedral Duomo of Milan. It was where he always sat, a table that seemed to be reserved specifically for him. He always arrived on Monday at a quarter past noon, and after sitting down would place a notebook on the table to the right of his bread plate. He rarely bothered to glance up at his surroundings as he scribbled furiously in the notebook with a mechanical pencil. He would pause only to order spaghetti with prawns in marinara sauce, which he ate quickly, followed by an espresso, which he drank slowly. The whole time, he worked, scribbling with his right hand and eating with his left. But that day in August, he wasn't there. Immediately I sensed something had changed. I dipped my bread in olive oil and waited. By the time the waiter brought my salad, I knew he wasn't coming. At one-fifteen I called in sick to the University of San Francisco library, where I held a work-study position, and took the bus to Russian Hill. There was a For Rent sign in front of his flat, and the shutters were open. Through the large windows I could see the place was stripped clean, all of the furniture gone. It occurred to me that I might never see him again.
A story has no beginning or end," my sophomore English professor used to say. "Arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead." It was a motto that Andrew Thorpe managed to work into every session of class, no matter what book we were discussing. One could almost anticipate the moment he was going to say it, as the statement was always preceded by a lengthy pause, a lifting of his eyebrows, a quick intake of breath.
I would choose a Wednesday in December 1989. Again and again, poring over the details, I would choose that day, and it would become the touchstone from which all other events unfurled, the moment by which I judged the two parts of my life: the years with Lila, and those without her.
On that morning I was in the kitchen, listening to Jimmy Cliff on the radio and waiting for the coffee to brew. Our parents had already left for work. Lila came downstairs, dressed in a ruffled black blouse, green corduroy skirt, and Converse high-tops. Her eyes were red, and I was startled to realize she'd been crying. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen Lila cry.
"Nothing. It's just been a stressful week." She gave a little wave of her hand as if to dismiss the whole thing outright. She was wearing a ring I'd never seen before, a delicate gold band with a small black stone.
"Dance with me," I said, attempting to cheer her up. I grabbed her hand and tried to twirl her around, but she pulled away.
The coffeemaker beeped. I turned down the radio and poured her a cup. "Is this about him?" I asked.
"It is, isn't it? Come on. Talk to me."
She was looking out the kitchen window, at a small limb that had fallen onto our deck the previous week during a rainstorm. Only later, as I replayed the events of those days, would it seem strange that none of us had bothered to remove the fallen limb from the deck.
"How long has that been there?" Lila asked.
"We should take care of it."
But neither of us made a move toward the kitchen door.
"Tell me his name," I said finally. "I know guys on the basketball team. I'll have his face rearranged." I was only half joking.
Lila didn't respond; it was as if she hadn't heard me at all. I had learned long before not to be offended by her silences. Once, when I accused her of ignoring me, she had explained, "It's like I'm wandering through a house, and I happen to step into another room, and the door shuts behind me. I get involved in what's going on in that room, and everything else sort of vanishes."
I reached across the counter and touched her hand to summon her back. "Nice ring. Is it opal?"
She slid her hand into her pocket. "It's just a trinket."
"Where did you get it?"
She shrugged. "I don't remember."
Lila never bought jewelry for herself. The ring must have been a gift from him, whoever he was. The very thought of a romantic entanglement was new to Lila. She hadn't had more than half a dozen dates in high school and college combined. Throughout those years, my mother was fond of saying that boys didn't know how to appreciate a girl of such exceptional intelligence, but I suspected my mother had it all wrong. Boys were interested in Lila; she simply had no use for them. During my freshman year of high school, when Lila was a senior, I'd seen the way guys looked at her. I was the one they talked to, the one they invited to parties and asked on dates, the fun and freewheeling sister who could be counted on to organize group outings and play elaborate pranks on the teachers, but Lila was far from invisible. With her long dark hair, her general aloofness, her weird sense of humor, her passion for math, she was, I imagined, intimidating to boys in a way I would never be. When she walked down the hallway, alone and deep in thought, clad in the eccentric clothes she made on my mom's old Singer sewing machine, she must have seemed completely inapproachable. Although boys didn't talk to her, it was clear to me that they saw her. I was well-liked, but Lila had mystery.
Even after she had graduated from UC Berkeley and started the Ph.D. program in pure mathematics at Stanford, Lila was perfectly content living in her old bedroom, eating dinner with the family most nights, watching rented movies with Mom and Dad on weekends while I was out with my friends. Lately, though, she had begun going out several evenings each week, coming home after midnight with a smile on her face. When I tried to get her to tell me who she was with, she would say, "Just a friend."
Excerpted from No One You Know by Michelle Richmond. Copyright © 2008 by Michelle Richmond. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
No One You Know Q&A
First published at ReadersPlace.Co.uk
What was your inspiration for No-One You Know?
I think part of what inspired the story was the experience of being one of three sisters. At the heart of the novel is Ellie’s relationship with her sister Lila. After Lila’s death, Ellie realises there had been so much that Lila kept private, even from her. So the intimacies and complications of the sisterly bond were very compelling to me. I also knew from the start that I was interested in the fine line between fact and fiction, and the way stories shape our lives – the idea that the stories others tell about us can have enormous repercussions.
Coffee and mathematics are quite diverse elements to include in a novel. Was there anything in particular that drew you to each?
I’ve been rather obsessed with coffee for a long time. I drink it every morning, religiously. It has been a ritual since my college days – the morning cup of coffee to clear the cobwebs in my brain before I begin my day. Having the protagonist be a coffee buyer gave me a chance to explore coffee’s origins, some of the interesting stories behind it. It also gave me an excuse to attend cuppings, tour a coffee warehouse, and try many different kinds of gourmet coffee. That part of my research was sheer pleasure! Maths is another matter. I have nightmares to this day of walking into a university maths class at the end of the semester, on the day of the final examinations, having never attended a single class. While writing about coffee was a way of indulging my passion, writing about maths may have been a way of tackling my demons. I also thought it would be an interesting contrast between the sisters – Ellie the coffee buyer, who experiences the world through her senses, and Lila the maths prodigy, who experienced the world through her intellect. While I didn’t want the novel to hinge too much on esoteric maths, I did want the flavour of mathematics to be part of the book; while the narrator is as math-phobic as I am, she is able to appreciate some of the stories behind mathematics with a layperson’s eye. I have always been drawn to “found texts” in fiction, so it was great fun for me to have Ellie come across Lila’s maths notebook from her days at Stanford.
Do you have a favourite time of day to write? A favourite place? What’s your writing process: are you a planner?
I prefer to begin writing in the morning, as early as possible. I find my mind is clearer in the morning. I write in my home office, which is a small room piled with books. I usually write on the computer, although sometimes, when it’s sunny, I’ll sit on the sofa in my living room, beside the row of windows, and write in a notebook. In order to get into the spirit of it, I need good pen and a simple moleskin notebook with unlined pages. I do plan to some extent, but I never outline. I rarely know how the novel is going to end when I begin it; I tend to figure out the plot as I go along. However, from the moment I begin, I do have a very clear idea about characters, theme, and structure, as well as a strong handle on what the emotional and intellectual centres of the book should be.
Which book are you reading at the moment?
I tend to have a couple of books in progress at any given time, and will open whichever book fits my mood at the moment I sit down to read. Right now I’m reading everything I can get my hands on by Paul Auster, in preparation for an interview, as well as Pers Petterson’s In the Wake. I’ve also been reading Charlotte’s Web, one chapter per night, to my young son.
Who are your favourite authors?
Jorge Luis Borges, Bohumil Hrabal, Vladimir Nabokov, Walker Percy, Ismael Kadare, Grace Paley, Richard Yates, Ian McEwan, E.B. White, George Orwell, Gustav Flaubert, Italo Calvino, Paul Auster, Jose Saramago, Milan Kundera, Lars Gustafsson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Connor.. I’m sure I’m leaving many out, but these are the names that immediately come to mind. Ask me tomorrow and I may have a different list!
Which classic have you always meant to read and never got round to it?
H’mm, what a wonderful question! Dare I say that I have never read Tristam Shandy? Not for lack of trying, I might add.
Which fictional character would you most like to have met?
Oh, this is good! Wouldn’t it have been a riot to meet Don Juan? Or Gregor Samsa! As a child I had this fantasy that Pippistocking lived next door. I’d also love to meet Scout from To Kill a
Who, in your opinion, is the greatest writer of all time?
Oh, I can’t begin to answer this! For fear of incurring the wrath of the literary gods, you know.
Other than writing, what other jobs or professions have you undertaken or considered?
I have taught college writing, primarily creative writing, for the past ten years. But before I began teaching I worked as a waitress, an advertising copywriter, a tanning salon attendant…oh, there were so many inglorious jobs, it’s difficult to remember all of them. I also had a job at a major PR firm in Manhattan, but I quit after three weeks because the cubicle was suffocating and my boss kept “correcting” my memos and making them grammatically incorrect. The best job I ever had, perhaps, was as the private English tutor for the president of a Chinese trading company. I was hired to work in the company’s U.S. office at the Empire State Building, but within two weeks of accepting the position I was on a plane to Beijing. I spent a few months in China, but because my employer had very little time to be tutored, I spent most of my time wandering around China by bus and by train, writing about what I saw and heard. My first novel came out of that experience.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m taking a few weeks off from writing to promote No-One You Know. At the end of the summer, I will begin a new novel. I have the basic situation for the novel in my mind, the fundamental structure, and I know what is propelling the main character forward. I know it is set, once again, in San Francisco. But that’s all I should say at the moment. If I talk too much about a novel-inprogress too early into the process, I end up talking myself out of the story!
Read an extract of No One You Know here.
Reading Group Guide: No One You Know
1. How did Ellie’s storytelling voice enhance your reading? How might the novel have unfolded if it had been told from Peter McConnell’s point of view, or even Lila’s?
2. The title No One You Know captures the quest to find Lila’s killer, but it also describes the secrets Lila kept from Ellie. Discuss the relationship between the sisters. In what ways did they know each other well? In what ways were they different? In your family, do siblings tend to be close or distant?
3. How did your opinion of Andrew Thorpe and Peter McConnell shift throughout the novel? When did you trust each of them the most and the least?
4. Why was Lila drawn to mathematics? What did it mean to her? What life philosophies did it provide? How did she fit into a community of mostly male math scholars?
5. What lay at the heart of Henry’s breakup with Ellie? How were Ellie’s other relationships affected by her sister, even when they were teenagers?
6. Were Thorpe’s books inappropriate? What is the nature of true crime books? Do they sensationalize and fabricate, or can they reveal important truths?
7. Chapter Ten describes the distinctions between conjecture and proof. How did these concepts, along with the quotation from Pascal at the beginning of the novel, echo throughout Lila’s story? What did the Goldbach Conjecture represent to Lila and Peter? How might the word “proof” carry a different meaning to a mathematician than to a “regular” person? 8. At the end of Chapter Twenty-nine, Ellie says that she had always thought of her sister as blameless. Was Lila blameless in her affair with Peter?
9. Discuss Billy Boudreaux and his music. Ultimately, who was he, and how did he perceive himself? What were his greatest strengths and vulnerabilities?
10. In what ways did the coffee trade give Ellie a soothing way to escape the tragedies of her life? Why was she so well suited for the cupping process?
11. How do the landscapes of Central America and San Francisco affect the tone and mood of the novel? What aspects of Ellie’s personality are captured in both locales?
12. Which character did you most suspect of being Lila’s killer? When the truth about her death was revealed, how did you react? How was Ellie’s family affected by so many years of not knowing? Would her parents have stayed together if they had not been forced to live in the shadow of the unknown?
13. What did you think of Thorpe’s advice about how to tell a good story? In what ways does Michelle Richmond defy Thorpe’s approach? What is meant by the novel’s closing lines, asserting that stories belong to listeners and authors in equal measure?
14. Both this novel and Richmond’s The Year of Fog portray families coping with tragedy. How is San Francisco used as a character in each novel? How does Richmond use mystery and the unknown to portray a character’s strength and grace?
Dream of the Blue Room Synopsis
Jenny and Amanda Ruth were best friends in a small Alabama town until eighteen-years-old Amanda Ruth was murdered. Now, fourteen years later, Jenny has traveled with her husband to China to scatter Amanda Ruth’s ashes and finally fulfill her friend’s dream of visiting her Chinese father’s homeland. It’s also, Jenny hopes, an opportunity to repair her own troubled marriage. But as she journeys through a foreign landscape, the guilty secrets of Jenny’s past rise up and her life will be inexorably altered.
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog (“Highly recommended [for fans of] authors like Jodi Picoult and Jacquelyn Mitchard” —Library Journal, starred review) and No One You Know (“Luminous . . . will keep you thinking long after the last page has been turned”—Family Circle), Michelle Richmond’s stunning novel captivates with its depiction of the powerful intimacies of marriage, friendship, and family that shape our paths and the bonds of home that buoy us—wherever home may be.
Dream of the Blue Room Excerpt
In the dream Amanda Ruth is not dead, she is only sleeping. We are lying under a sycamore tree beside a rugged mountain path. The grass around us is littered with the pits of fruits we have eaten: peaches and figs, plums and nectarines. Her fingers are still wet from our feast. In the cool mountain light, they glisten. So elegantly she sleeps, one leg bent slightly beneath her, one arm flung wide on the grass.
I slide the strap of her sundress off her smooth brown shoulder. She does not stir. All down the front of her dress are small blue buttons. I undo them one by one, careful not to wake her. A fine rain begins to fall. I feel her fingers in my hair and discover that she is awake, smiling, watching me.
"You look different," I say. "Older."
"Yes. Thirty-two, now."
"But I thought you had died."
"Died?" she says. "What do you mean?"
I tell her never-mind. I tell her it was only a dream. She asks me to describe it. I say, "You were dead. You'd been dead for a long time. I missed you terribly. I went to China to find you."
"No," she says. "You went to China to lose me."
"That's right. To let go of you. But now it doesn't matter."
The wind rustles the tree above us; raindrops are slapping the leaves, the sound getting increasingly louder. Soon, the drops will work their way down through the branches and begin to fall on us.
"You went to China?"
"And what did you see?"
"Well," I close my eyes, trying to remember, trying to come up with some answer, some truth that will satisfy her.
"Was it wonderful?"
"Yes," I want to say. I want to tell her that China is everything she dreamt it would be, a strange but familiar place. I want to tell her that I finally lived up to my promise, and we have been to the center of the earth together. But then the rain stops, the mountains disappear, and Amanda Ruth is gone.
The shellac is smooth beneath my fingers, rising slightly over the photos, a random Braille I know by heart. Amanda Ruth would have laughed at it, her mother's lack of good taste, the collage of photographs she carefully cut and arranged on the round cookie tin: Amanda Ruth as a baby, wrapped in her proud father's arms; Amanda Ruth in her majorette's costume with gold piping at the shoulders; Amanda Ruth sitting on the narrow bed in her dorm room at Montevallo. I hold the tin in my lap and recline on a deck chair. Its metal seat is wet from the spray.
My husband, Dave, is down in our cabin sleeping. He does the sleeping for both of us. I do the staying awake. I am an insomniac of the old order. I spend long nights waiting for my mind to snap shut, mornings bent over the coffeepot, hands shaking from exhaustion and caffeine. I haven't slept since we left New York two days ago.
It is five past midnight. Muddled voices drift up from the lounge. Lights glimmer along the riverbank. There is the cool dark drift of the Yangtze, the smell of something not quite clean. I feel a welcome heaviness approaching, a soft weight pushing against my eyes. I dream of water, a white body drifting naked upon it. I extend my arm and bring the body toward me, look into the round wet face of Amanda Ruth. She opens her eyes, takes my hand and stands; we are on land now, walking, the jagged pebbles of the riverbank cutting into our bare feet. Amanda Ruth is eager to show me something. We walk for many hours, coming at last upon the mouth of a cave. The entrance to the cave is thick with growing things.
When I wake, it feels as though I have slept for a long time. I lift my watch to catch the moonlight, scan its small silver face.
"Twelve forty-five," a voice says. Startled, I turn to see a man sitting a couple of feet away. He is long and slim and gray-headed, with a broad, handsome face and thick eyebrows. He looks to be in his early fifties, although he could probably go several years in either direction. He wears a white oxford with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, loose linen pants and brown sandals. His toes curl inward, oddly out of tune with the lean symmetry of his body. He holds a glass of white wine in each hand.
"Here," he says.
I accept, taking the glass by its stem. "Thank you. Now, I suppose your plan would be to get me drunk and then toss me into world's longest river."
"Third, actually." His accent is Australian. "After the Congo and the Nile. Don't worry, it's too risky. There'd be a search of the ship come morning, when your husband reports you missing." His speech is slow, as if he has difficulty forming words, but in his eyes there is none of the dullness of a drunk.
"Maybe they'd think I tossed myself over. I'm sure it's been done." I taste the wine, which is too sweet. Within moments I feel a pleasant light-headedness coming on. "What makes you so sure I'm married?"
"I saw the two of you this afternoon in Shanghai. You bought a scarf before boarding the ship. It was dark green. The woman who sold it to you thought it went well with your eyes."
"You speak Mandarin?"
"I try," he laughs, "but I wouldn't trust my own translation." He scans the river. I study his face in profile--the long line of his jaw, the thick tendons of his neck, a tiny mole riding high on his cheekbone. He turns suddenly, locks eyes with me in that way men do when they know you've been staring.
I look away, clear my throat. "Are you here on business?"
"Pleasure. Sort of."
"It couldn't be me--I'm a married woman." He is staring at me, his eyes focused somewhere near my mouth. I can't remember the last time I flirted with anyone. It feels good.
"Yes," he says, "I'm on my own." He raises his glass in my direction. "To you, Jenny, and your first trip to China."
I hesitate. "I never told you my name."
"Sorry. This afternoon I heard your husband calling you. He was trying to catch up. You were in the market on Huaihai Road, remember? He shouted your name several times, and finally you stopped and waited for him."
"You were spying on us?"
"You make it sound so sinister. I was just observing. Look, I'll tell you about myself, and then we'll be even. My name is Graham. I'm fifty-three years old. I have no children, no wife, no siblings, no family at all to speak of. I was in the crane safety business for twenty years. I don't eat carrots or squash, and I'm a big fan of sweets of any kind, particularly Key lime pie. I'm rotten at poker but good at backgammon." He takes a long sip of wine. "Now you know more about me than I know about you, which means you've established a power position in our relationship."
I can't help but laugh at Graham's rushed monologue. "You win."
"What do you have there?" he says, eying the tin.
I lie. "Just some postcards."
"You'll have plenty of time for writing. They're predicting rain. Of course, Xinhua is always coming out with exaggerated reports of flooding to drum up support for that awful dam."
The ship jerks, tilting us starboard. I reach out and clutch Graham's arm. The ship rights itself. Embarrassed, I let go, noting the tiny pink marks my fingernails leave on his skin. "How did you know it's my first trip to China?"
"In Shanghai you looked nervous, like you'd just landed on another planet. Let me guess. You're from the Midwest. One of those wheat and corn places."
"Not quite. A small island near New Jersey. You may have heard of it."
"New York City?"
"I've always wanted to go." He pours me another glass of wine.
The air smells like rain, mixed with a hint of vinegar. I feel myself relaxing for the first time since Dave and I set out for China. On the plane from JFK to Hong Kong we argued. From Hong Kong to Shanghai we hardly spoke. When I reached over the armrest on the last leg of the flight, hoping for a truce, he pulled his hand away as if he'd been stung. I can't help but wonder if Graham has me pegged. Does he look at me and see a woman trying to piece her marriage back together? Do I give off some vague scent of desperation and neglect that makes me an easy target for men on the prowl? If this were Animal Planet, I'd already be dead or pregnant.
"Earlier," Graham says, "I saw your husband with the captain."
"I'm not surprised. By tomorrow Dave will know everyone on the ship." I picture him standing with his hands in his pockets, chatting up the captain. He would ask about celestial navigation, slowly draw out the story of the captain's maritime career, inquire about the wife and kids. It's one of the things I've always admired about my husband; he can convert strangers to friends within minutes.
Graham settles into his chair as if he plans on staying for a long time. In the sky there are no stars, and only the dimmest suggestion of a moon, the round warmth of it emerging periodically from a mass of slowly moving mist. Low hills make soft silhouettes against the sky. In the darkness, the river looks black and endless.
Graham glances over at my empty glass. "Impressive." He lifts the bottle to pour me another.
My head feels warm and slightly off-center. "I better not. I drink when I'm nervous."
"Do I make you nervous?"
"It's not often I discover a strange man watching me sleep."
"It's a habit, I confess. Most people seem so much friendlier when they're sleeping."
"Yes. When you woke up you started asking me all sorts of questions, demanding that I account for myself. But when you were sleeping I was free to observe without hassle."
"Spoken like a true voyeur."
"You were completely yourself, because you didn't know to erect a defense against me. Like today in the market. You and Dave were among strangers, and you thought you would never see any of these people again, so you didn't bother to be discreet. I even saw you arguing."
I think back to the afternoon's small battles. There were several, but I can't focus on a single one. Graham stares at me, expectant, as if he's waiting to hear the source of my marital troubles.
"These days, we're always arguing about some silly thing or another. Dave didn't really want to come to China in the first place."
What I don't tell Graham is that Dave and I have been separated for two months, living disconnected lives on opposite sides of Central Park. We'd planned and paid for this trip months before the separation. To his credit, Dave understood how much I needed to make it, to fulfill some unspoken obligation to Amanda Ruth, and I think that's why he agreed, in the end, to come along. As we rode together in the taxi from his place to the airport, two duffle bags squeezed between us on the seat, I secretly hoped that this trip might somehow save our marriage. I thought that if I got him away from New York City, away from our routine, we might stand a chance. I imagined us discovering each another anew in this exotic place, where none of the old rules would apply.
Suddenly Graham stands, moves his chair a few inches closer to mine, and sits down again. "What do you think of me?"
I consider my words carefully. We are two grown adults who know, at least vaguely, the rules. Two adults on a ship in the dark while my husband, who has fallen out of love with me, is sleeping. Everything I say to Graham from this point on is a negotiation. Each word defines the boundaries between us. "I'm not sure yet."
We sit for a while in silence, and I pretend to sleep. At some point, a glass shatters. I open my eyes to find Graham's wineglass lying in pieces by his feet.
"It's my hands," he says, all his cool composure gone. His hands are in his lap, palms up, and he's looking at them as if they belong to someone else. "You probably think I'm drunk." He sweeps the glass shards under his chair with his sandal. "You come out for a quiet evening and here I go breaking things. Do you want to be left alone?"
"It's all right. You're pretty good company."
"What about Dave?"
"Won't even know I'm gone."
"We'll sit here all night, then?"
"It's a deal."
"Good. I don't get much sleep these days anyway."
"We have something in common. I'm an insomniac too."
"Not true. I caught you sleeping."
"Your eyes were moving," he says. "What were you dreaming about?"
"I can't remember. It was nothing, just a dream."
"Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then we shall perhaps find the truth."
"Friedrich Kekule, the German chemist."
In college, I knew a guy who never read entire books, only first chapters. From these he gleaned quotes that he kept in a big red notebook under various headings: nature, romance, fear of death, etc. Once, in a Lower East Side apartment after three martinis, he confessed to me that he memorized these quotes as a way of attracting women. He'd drop them into conversations at parties, in bars, on first dates. His tactic seemed to work; he was rarely without a date. Ever since, whenever a man reels off an interesting quote, I find myself testing him.
"Kekule?" I ask. "Wasn't he the one who said politics is just applied biology?"
"No, you're thinking of Ernst Haeckel. Kekule found the molecular structure of benzene. It came to him in a dream." He talks on about Kekule for a couple of minutes before stopping midsentence. "I suppose I'm a bit of a nerd," he says, blushing.
We fall into an easy silence. Beneath us, the grumble of the engine, and in my bones a dull vibration. Every now and then the ship passes a cluster of lights along the riverbank, or changes course to overtake a barge laden with large rectangular boxes. The lights of passing sampans blink in the dark. One heads straight toward us, and I'm certain the Red Victoria will slice right through it, but at the last minute the tottering boat swerves out of our way.
Excerpted from Dream of the Blue Room by Michelle Richmond. Copyright © 2010 by Michelle Richmond. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Story Behind Dream of the Blue Room
Dream of the Blue Room began with a classified ad in The New York Times. The year was 1997, and I was living on New York’s Upper West Side. I had just quit my cubicle job at a major public relations firm. Desperate for a paycheck, I answered an ad for an English tutor, and a couple of days later I was being interviewed in a posh apartment in midtown by the president of a Chinese trading company who went by the name of Tony. We sealed the deal on the spot. As I understood it, my job would involve light administrative duties, along with accompanying Tony to restaurants, farmers’ markets, art galleries, design stores—anywhere that he could learn new vocabulary.
My first day on the job, I assembled a vacuum cleaner in Tony’s apartment. My task: to decode the instructions. Three hours after we began, we stood admiring the partially functioning vacuum cleaner. That’s when Tony hit me with the news: “I go to China next Monday. You go Wednesday.” “China?” I said, trying to hide my shock. “How long?”
“Maybe two months. Maybe three months,” he said.
I’d been under the impression that I would be working in the company’s offices in the Empire State Building. Whatever Tony might have said about the impending trip to China during our interview had apparently been lost in translation. That weekend I bought a travel guide, a phrase book, a refurbished laptop, and a comfortable pair of sandals. Two weeks after answering the ad, I was on a plane to Beijing, the computer stashed under the seat in front of me. If I was going to spend three months in China, I figured I might as well make a book out of it. I decided my book would be a memoir— something about a girl from Alabama who goes to China by way of New York and discovers—what? I hadn’t planned that far ahead.
When I arrived in Beijing, I was met by a black Mercedes with tinted windows. As the driver swerved wildly through crowded streets teeming with bicycles, Tony and I sat awkwardly and silently in the backseat, the fledgling familiarity we had established during our week together in New York having entirely evaporated. An hour later, the car pulled up to a towering apartment building across the street from a shopping mall. Tony accompanied me to the penthouse, where he showed me how to work the TV, the stereo, and the karaoke machine, and promised to return the next day. After he left, I went scavenging in the kitchen. The only thing in the refrigerator was a spoiled carton of soy milk. I didn’t have a single yuan to my name. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese. I was hungry and had already eaten all my granola bars on the plane. A couple of hours later, as I tried unsuccessfully for the umpteenth time to place a phone call to my boyfriend back in New York, there was a knock at the door. It was a teenaged boy, very shy, bearing a few bottles of water and a small wad of colorful paper money. I tried to ask him when Tony was coming back and where I might buy food, but he just nodded, said “Thank you,” and left. I took out my laptop, thinking that if I couldn’t call home or feed my growling stomach, at least I could write. But the battery was dead, and my charger didn’t fit into the electrical outlets. So I did what people used to do, long ago, in the dark age of letters: I took out a pen and a sheet of paper. Thus began my adventures in China.
As it turned out, Tony had very little time to be tutored. He would frequently call on a Tuesday to tell me that he would be traveling until Friday, and I could use the time as I pleased. The freedom suited me. I spent my days walking around the city, eating at roadside stalls, shopping in the flea market behind Tiananmen Square, wandering down ancient streets crowded with centuries-old hutongs. When I needed a break from the constant noise and crowds of the capital, I’d take a taxi to the Forbidden City and find an empty corner within the majestic walls to read. One of the books I read in China was Dream of the Red Chamber, the classic seventeenth-century novel by Tsao Hsueh-Chin. Eventually, I would turn to Hsueh- Chin as the inspiration for the title of my first novel.
I also took several trips outside the city. One of the most interesting was to Xi’an, where I saw the legendary terra-cotta warriors. On the bus ride into Xi’an from the airport, I met a Chinese geologist who was surprisingly candid about the Three Gorges Dam, the construction of which was then underway. I had been doing some reading about the dam, so I knew the basic facts. Millions of people who lived along the Yangtze would be forced to evacuate their homes to make way for the dam’s reservoir, which would be the largest manmade lake in the world. Hundreds of thousands of ancient artifacts would be destroyed. Thousands of towns and cities would be inundated. According to the geologist, the dam was a disaster waiting to happen; he was certain it would eventually result in catastrophic flooding. Although there was a great deal of antidam sentiment, it wasn’t a subject many were willing to talk about. Despite recent nods to a more open society, speaking out against the communist government was still a very dangerous thing to do in China.
I found myself writing a lot about the dam during those months, as well as about the people I met during my travels. Upon returning home, however, I realized that my heart wasn’t in the memoir. There was another story I wanted to tell, and it wasn’t about myself. The story I wanted to tell was about Amanda Ruth, an eighteen-year-old Chinese American girl who is mysteriously murdered in a small town in Alabama. As soon as the idea for the story came to me, I knew it would be told by her best friend, who journeys up the Yangtze River more than a decade later to scatter Amanda Ruth’s ashes near her ancestral village. I was interested in racial and sexual prejudice, in the ways we use the concept of difference and the fear of things we do not understand to define ourselves against others. I was interested in the damage this kind of thinking can do. While Amanda Ruth’s early death may make her a tragic character, she is also a courageous character; it was her courage that drew me to her. This is a young woman who defies the constraints her own closed society—living life without apology, and on her own terms.
While I was in China, I filled notebook upon notebook with observations. A good deal of the material from those notebooks made it into the novel. Several characters are influenced by people I met on my travels, especially Elvis Paris. One of the staff members at my apartment building had business cards bearing that very name, which he had chosen because Elvis Presley was his favorite singer, and his lifelong dream was to go to Paris. An Australian gentleman I met in Guilin was the inspiration for Graham. The real Graham was traveling with his wife, a handsome woman from Dalian, and the two of them provided excellent company on a brief cruise down the Li River.
But the most vivid character, in my mind, is probably the landscape itself, which made such an unforgettable impression on me. To me, this ancient nation in flux seemed like the ideal backdrop for the story of a woman who is traveling back into her own past.
Dream of the Blue Room was my first book-length foray into the subject of memory. A massive inundation of water, one of nature’s most powerful forces, threatens to destroy a nation’s collective memory. Since the writing of this novel, the dam has come almost to completion. The Three Gorges as they appear in this book no longer exist. Many of the towns mentioned here are now buried beneath a massive, stagnant lake, their inhabitants eking out an existence far away from the homes where their families lived for generations. The dam threatens the loss of memory on a massive scale. But it may also be the starting point of a new kind of oral history. When the physical things that define us are gone, what are we left with but story? Stories, after all, do not live in things. They live in the words we pass down from one generation to the next.
Years later, in The Year of Fog, I would return to the theme of memory—its complexities, its power to restore. In No One You Know, I would tackle the idea of story—how narratives, both true and false, define the lives of individuals and of families, and how one woman must rewrite her own narrative twenty years after her sister’s death. Three novels and one short story collection into my life as a writer, I understand something I could not have imagined when I first stepped foot in Beijing twelve years ago: that certain themes would haunt me, would grow and converge over time, and that the big questions about life and the world we live in which perplexed me in my late twenties would follow me into my late thirties, and beyond.
I keep coming back to a line in Lars Gustafsson’s beautiful book, The Death of a Beekeeper: “We begin again. We never give up.” For me, each novel is a process of beginning again. But each one, in some way, traces back to the beginning, to the first stories I attempted to tell. It is possible that in Dream of the Blue Room, my first novel, one can find the seeds of the books I have written since then, and the ones I have yet to write.
Dream of the Blue Room Reading Guide
1. What causes the rift in Jenny and Dave’s relationship? What is their fundamental difference that causes their marriage to fail? Before they part ways in China, Jenny wonders if all Dave needs is “some slight indication that I’m losing my way, that I won’t make it without him—and that if I can give him this, not just now but forever, he’ll come back to me” (page 232). Could she have saved her marriage in this way? Should she have?
2. What attracts Jenny to Graham? Graham to Jenny?
3. Do you believe sexuality is a dichotomy or a spectrum? Do you think a person can love—and be physically attracted to—a person of the same sex but not be gay?
4. Amanda Ruth embraced her otherness—her race, her lesbianism— at an age when so many young women try to be like everyone else. Was this courage? Rebellion? How was Amanda Ruth able to stand out so gracefully?
5. Why does Richmond describe the announcements on their boat as “The Voice”? What does it represent?
6. Place is a recurring theme in Dream of the Blue Room. What about the characters’ origins defined them? How can a person’s geographical origins affect his or her story?
7. On page 133, Graham explains his decision to end his life before he is incapacitated by ALS: “Imagine—to choose one’s own time and place of death. To make a conscious decision to leave this earth while you’re still intact, still functioning.” What might you do in Graham’s place? Would you stick it out to the end, alive but not living? Or would you choose the time and place of your own death?
8. On page 159, Jenny explains her love for Dave when she muses that “it is possible to love a person for being sturdy and reliable in a single, impossible moment, for responding with perfect timing and absolute precision to your unspoken needs.” Do you agree with her? Who else in Dream of the Blue Room loves another character for their actions in a single moment? Have you ever experienced this? Is it ever possible to build a lasting relationship on this kind of love?
9. What does Amanda Ruth’s yellow scarf symbolize? Do you agree with Jenny that she betrayed Amanda Ruth by denying that she had a romantic relationship with her? Why or why not? 10. For many years after Amanda Ruth’s murder, Jenny believed that it was the one defining moment of her life, “that other events would never hold for me any real sense of drama. . . . I have lived my entire adult life with a sense that the timing is all off.” Did other defining moments follow? Have you experienced one of these moments yet in your life? Might there be others?
11. After days, almost weeks, of insomnia, why is Jenny finally able to sleep in Yeuyang?
12. The author retains some mystery about Amanda Ruth’s killer for most of the novel. Why? When did you first realize it was her own father?
13. What is it about Jenny that convinced Graham she could help him die? What is it about her that allowed her to identify her cousin’s body? Kill the rat in her neighbor’s bathtub with no emotion? Do you think she still retains these characteristics when the novel closes?
14. Consider the drowned river victims whom the cruise staff refuses to acknowledge, the staged funeral procession, Yuk Ming’s fabricated “Chinese experience.” Jenny calls her visit to China “an amusement park version of the country” (page 234). Why might this “amusement park” sensation be amplified in China? Do you think you have ever had an authentic experience of a foreign place?
15. What is the significance of QiQi the baiji, Jenny’s dream about him, and the baiji’s appearance as she leaves Fengdu? 16. Do you agree with Graham and Jenny that “to be away and adrift, distant and foreign and lost, alone, is to be somehow free” (page 293)?