EDITOR’S NOTE: Suzanne Berne’s second novel, A Perfect Arrangement, plunges us into the lives of the Cook-Goldman family, for whom everything should be coming up roses. But as she demonstrated in her first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, darkness lurks in every heart, even in suburbia. The mother of two, Berne found herself juggling her time between her real and fictional families. Occasionally, she got confused.
One of the disconcerting things about writing a novel while taking care of young children is that—for the time it takes to write the novel at least— you have too many people on your mind. There’s your real family, of course, who need lunch, clean underwear, a trip to the park, Kleenex, your undivided attention. Then there’s your fictional family, who need a place to live, something to do, disasters to keep them interesting, minor triumphs to keep them going. And by the way, that fictional family also requires lunch and clean underwear from time to time, and they certainly need your undivided attention.
I’ve just spent two years between families, as it were, with an overpopulated brain and perpetually bisected attention, and though it’s by no means impossible to write a novel and raise children, frankly it’s not the most comfortable way to live, either.
For instance, last year both of my daughters were out of the house three days a week for five hours. Those fifteen hours a week were supposed to belong exclusively to the Cook-Goldman family, so that I could help them first make a terrible mess of their lives and then, more or less, get out of it. I’d drop off the girls, race home, sit down at my computer and start typing. Then inevitably my neighbor would stop by, my mother would call, the UPS man would appear. Or I’d walk down the hall and notice the unmade beds, the broken crayons littering the bathroom floor, the foothills of laundry surrounding the hamper, the list of messages on the kitchen wipe off board. Not surprisingly, all those things made it into my novel, adding to the burdens and irritations of my characters as they added to mine.
Just as my life was always intruding into my novel, my novel was forever intruding into my life as well. I’d work as hard as I could during my five hours, then switch off my computer and run out to the car to go pick up the girls— usually forgetting any number of things in the process. School health forms, juice boxes, my contribution for the Pre-K jumble sale, the day care provider’s check. Even though I’d driven away, I hadn’t left the Cook- Goldmans’ house yet, and sometimes I’d lose track of where I was going and drive right past my older daughter’s school. Once I got there early and sat in the parking lot scribbling dialogue onto the back of a phone bill, then looked up to find that I was ten minutes late.
“When are you going to finish your book?” my girls began demanding, especially in the final months when it was all I could do to keep my eyes from crossing. “Soon,” I would mutter back. By this time I’d gotten the Cook-Goldmans into a truly dreadful situation; they were in a panic and then suddenly —it was summer vacation, the children were home, we were going to Vermont for a week, then Alabama, then California to visit relatives. The flu hit my whole family, including my husband the night before he was starting a big trial. My younger daughter wound up in the emergency room. And still the Cook-Goldmans were insisting on being attended to. Look what you’ve done to us, they seemed to shout. What’s going to happen next ?
I worked at night; I worked early in the morning. I worked when the girls were playing, even when they were fighting. I worked while they drew pictures on old drafts on the floor of my study or sat in my lap poking at the keyboard (in fact, one of them is in my lap right now). Sometimes my husband would ask me a question and I would answer in strange non sequiturs. “Do you want Chinese take-out?” he might say. And I’d say, “Dolores has a baby.” “What?” he’d say. “Never mind,” I’d tell him. “Just explain to me one more time what happens during a planning board hearing.” Lest any of this sound charming, I’ll confess that I’ve never felt closer to schizophrenia than while trying to finish my novel. Not that my characters came to life in any fey or whimsical way—I didn’t hear voices, have visions, etc., and I don’t believe in writing as channeling—but I was a truly divided person, as are many women who have careers and families. I did my best. I went grocery shopping and I finished chapters. But much of the time I felt I was disappointing everyone in my life, whether they were flesh and blood or paper and ink.
Then again, I can’t think of any other way to go about writing a novel and having a family. I hope somebody else will figure out the
ideal way to do such a thing someday and publish a book about it. They can even call it A Perfect Arrangement. I won’t mind a bit.