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Sunday, May 30, 2010

FAQs on Annie’s Ghosts (Part #1)

A few weeks ago, at one of my book talks, I handed the microphone to a woman in the audience, who began by saying, “You’ve probably been asked this before, but…”

She was right – and I didn’t mind a bit. (Authors who do mind shouldn’t engage in Q&A with the audience.) She hadn’t attended any of my other events, and she hadn’t heard my answer.

“Has a photo of Annie turned up yet?” she wanted to know.

It’s one of the most frequently asked questions that come my way. “Not yet,” I said. “But I hope people keep asking. Maybe some day I’ll be able to say yes.”

Her question lingered with me, and spawned this idea: Over the next several weeks, I will post several FAQs (and answers) that I’ve been asked about Annie’s Ghosts. If you have another one that you would like me to answer, send it along to steve@steveluxenberg.com for consideration. (Book clubs might be interested in the Discussion Guide list of suggested questions on my website.)

Today’s FAQ involves three variations of the same query:

Q. What’s up with the title? Why is it Annie’s Ghosts, plural, and not Annie’s Ghost, singular? Why isn’t it Beth’s Ghosts, given the book’s focus on your mother Beth and your search to understand her reasons for hiding her sister Annie’s existence?

A. Book titles can say a lot or they can say too little – or they can mislead. Annie’s Ghost, singular, sounded to my ear as if Annie might be haunting my mom. That seemed too narrow to describe the story I was telling. I wanted a title that suggested a universal story, a broader story of the many ghosts and secrets that haunt us all.

My mom is any woman whose sister has physical and mental disabilities. Annie is any woman who finds herself being pushed into a mental institution in the first half of the 20th century, a time when patients had few rights and large asylums dominated the mental health system in the United States. For me, Annie’s Ghosts, plural, signals immediately that this book has broader ambitions.

The title did present one problem at first: During radio interviews, I would take extra care to emphasize the plural, and I feared that I sounded like a hissing snake – “Ghostsssss.”

The snake is under control, and the title has taken on the attributes of a good suit: It fits.

Next: “Looking back, do you see…”

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Monday, May 17, 2010

The Surprise

One frequently asked question at my recent talks about Annie’s Ghosts: Since the hardcover came out last year, have you learned anything more about your secret aunt Annie? Have you found anything new about her three decades at Eloise, the psychiatric institution outside Detroit where she spent almost all her adult life in anonymity?

For months, I shook my head. No, nothing beyond what I put in the book. No dramatic phone call or email, no surprise moment at a speaking event.

Until last Thursday.

“I think I met Annie at Eloise,” the woman said softly, almost in a whisper.

The woman had approached me just a few minutes before my scheduled talk at the West Bloomfield Library, in the northern suburbs of Detroit, about 20 miles from Eloise. I had just finished chatting with one of the other guests, and I was thinking about how I could incorporate our conversation into my opening comments.

Susan Matlas’s quiet statement yanked me out of my thoughts.

I mumbled something suitably unintelligent, and asked her to go on. Her story had the ring of truth, as well as logic, although there’s no way to know for certain that the Annie she met at Eloise was the Annie whose life I had painstakingly sought to reconstruct.

On my journey, I found others who knew Annie, but none from among the hundreds of people who lived or worked at Eloise. My mom had kept her sister a secret, and then my mom’s death in 1999 had inadvertently brought Annie’s existence to light.

During my talk, I turned the microphone over to Susan, telling the crowd to be prepared for a surprise. Here’s what Susan said:

Her parents worked at Eloise during the 1950s, just before and during her teenage years. She had two older sisters, and when they returned to the Eloise grounds after school, they would often head to the small soda shop for a late-afternoon snack. Patients would come into the store as well.

One day, a woman struck up a conversation with them. “I’m Annie,” she said. “I’m going to get married.” She held out her finger to show them a ring.

Susan told the crowd, “I was about 11 years old, but even at that age, I knew that the ring came from a Crackerjack box. I wondered why she was making up this story, but I didn’t say anything, of course.”

She asked her father, who was on the psychiatric staff, about the woman’s story. He told Susan that this Annie probably had a fantasy about getting married, but that it probably gave her some comfort to believe that. He told Susan not to say anything to undermine Annie’s belief that she getting married.

Susan says she saw Annie at the shop almost every day for about two months. Then Annie stopped coming. She didn’t think about her again until she read Annie’s Ghosts. As she got deeper int the book, Susan grew more and more excited as details of two Annies matched: Frizzy hair, not very tall, a social worker’s report that described how my Annie had expressed a strong desire to get married.

Then she called one of her sisters, and asked if she remembered the woman with frizzy hair at the Eloise shop. Her sister said, “Her name was Annie. She walked crooked.”

My Annie walked with a noticeable limp, the result of having a wooden leg, the result of an amputation at age 17.

As the detectives would say, this is still just circumstantial evidence. Yet it seems unlikely that two women at Eloise would have all these attributes in common. I’m inclined to believe that, for those two months at the soda shop, Susan did have episodic encounters with the aunt I never knew.

Susan wanted to tell me this story personally, she said, because “I wanted you to know that Annie seemed happy.”

That, of course, is the hardest truth to know. It may be wishful thinking, but it’s a nice wish.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Book touring occupational hazard

Definition of enthusiasm: Three book groups coming for a talk about Annie's Ghosts in Springfield Township, Michigan, this past Wednesday.

Definition of embarrassing: A question from one reader that showed the author had not remembered an important detail in the book that he had written.

Definition of kindness: The large audience forgave me, enthusiastically, for my lapse.

The talk in Springfield was one of four library visits that I'm making this week and next, part of my Michigan Notable Book tour. The Library of Michigan honors 20 books a year as Michigan Notable Books, and I'm delighted that Annie's Ghosts was fortunate to be included among this year's winners.

In return, the Library asks the winning authors to promote the program and their work through speaking events. I drew good crowds for the first two library talks -- in Royal Oak, outside Detroit, and Springfield Township. Next week, I'm invited to speak at two more -- Grand Rapids and Morenci, on the Michigan-Ohio border.

Libraries provide two important public spaces for authors. Not only do they put our books on their shelves, but they serve as community places for writers and readers to come together.

Join me, if you're nearby, in Grand Rapids or Morenci. Don't expect to trip me up, though. I'm re-reading my book, just in case.

-- Steve Luxenberg

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