Sometime in 2009 I started writing my semi-autobiographical novel, Drinking Closer to Home. I had a vague idea what would happen and what the conflict would be—in general it would follow the lives of myself and my siblings and parents through the crazy ’70s,’80s, and ’90s. The story was to take place mostly in Southern California (where I grew up) and would cover drug- and sex-addiction, affairs, a coming-out, birth, death, and domestic battles so out-of-control that the second-floor master bedroom furniture was once pushed down the stairs to the first-floor landing.
Then I was reading The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass and I found this: “I shall begin far away from me; for no one ought to tell the story of his life who hasn’t the patience to say a word or two about at least half of his grandparents before plunging into his own existence.” I thought, Dang, he’s right, and I started the novel all over again with the birth of my mother and the fact that my grandparents left her, forgotten, in the back of a convertible on a cold Pennsylvania night and didn’t remember her, or find her, until morning when she was near-death. In starting the story that far back, I had many more chapters to write to bring the novel up to present day. This story, “Buzzy in Vermont,” was chapter three or four. The story is true and was told to me by my father and my mother, separately and on different occasions.
Eventually, Kate Nintzel, my editor at HarperCollins, suggested that Drinking Closer to Home start after the three kids (me, my sister, and my brother) are born and move on from there. I had a small pang—it’s always hard to “throw away” something you’ve worked on. But she was right. It’s a better novel. And though there aren’t any chapters with my parents as young people, all four of my grandparents did make it into the novel in other chapters. Essentially, I was still able to keep my commitment to follow Gunter Grass’ advice.