This is a photograph that I took of myself with a timer, in our apartment in Stuyvesant Town, when I was about four years old. I am holding our Siamese cat, Scatty. On the wall behind me, you can see one of my father's portraits of Ray Charles.
About Writing These Are Not the Words
These Are Not the Words is a semi-autobiographical novel. That means there are real people in it who do imaginary things, and imaginary people who do real things. I am not Miranda Billie Taylor, but we share a lot of history. In 1963, when this story takes place, I was eight years old. My mother and I were on the verge of fleeing to Toronto. Missy is eleven in 1963. Her parents' lives are just starting to unravel.
I didn’t set off to write a “semi-autobiographical” novel. I thought I was just using interesting people from my childhood as characters. But sometimes writing takes over from the writer. In the end, this is a story that I needed to write, and whether it is “true” or not doesn’t really matter.
The novel started as a picture book, then became a novel in verse. It was written in third person, then written in first. I think there are trails of that process throughout the book. The language is sparse as befits a picture book, and poetic as befits a novel in verse. Writing it in third person helped me to discover setting, plot and pacing. Moving it to first person made it immediate and close.
I used a lot of family photographs as reference points. My father was a photographer, and I have an amazing collection of his prints. Prints of Ray Charles and Miles Davis. Of John and Bobby Kennedy. Of friends in New York. Of our family, as it was in the early years.
I also used a lot of my father’s writing –– poems that I’ve used in the book, and writing he did much later when he was clean and sober.
My mother wrote a memoir of her life in New York called Love and All that Jazz (Porcupine's Quill, 2013). She always said to me “I’ve given you great copy, honey. Use it.” I have done so, freely.
The result is both a synthesis and a teasing apart. Missy gets to tell her own story, which is not mine, but she does it using parts of my father’s life, my mother’s life, and my life.