I left home at 17, thinking I would never look back.
I grew up in an old frame farmhouse on six acres of land outside of Rochester, New York. Those six acres were the kingdom of my childhood. We had fields, a stream, a breathtaking stand of American elms, an extensive vegetable garden, the remnants of an apple orchard, asparagus and strawberry beds and two sixty-foot grape arbors. There were summer afternoons at the picnic table outside the back door, under the shade of an elm, snapping beans to be blanched and put in the freezer. I remember melting paraffin and sterilizing canning jars as I helped my father make grape jelly and grape juice, tomato juice, tomato sauce and salsa.
But in 1971, the world was in turmoil, and I was hungry for the wider world and the adventures of a would-be writer. I worked and traveled in Europe for a year. I had no intention of going to college, but a year of working jobs I could get without any discernible skills, including child care, selling used office furniture, temping in offices, washing dishes in restaurants, and working on a factory floor pressing plastic check book covers, woke me up to the profound privilege of getting an education.
In college I was an English major, but minored in art history and studied singing seriously, knowing that the rest of life might not give me time to spend an hour a day in practice rooms making music. After college, I married and my husband and I moved to New York where he went to work restoring Central Park and I went to grad school thinking I would write a novel. My first semester I took a playwriting class with Arthur Kopit for the electrifying reason that the class description, which said we would have to read each other’s work out loud, terrified me. That class changed my life. In the three dimensional world of the theatre, I found an art form that was built from language and image and often, music. The three loves of my life.
For the next twenty-five years I wrote for the theatre: plays, operas, musicals, radio plays, screenplays and teleplays, librettos and lyrics. I was in love with theatre; the never-ending challenges were intoxicating. I was blessed with opportunities, with wonderful collaborators: composers, directors, designers, performers. My work was performed across the US, and in Canada and Europe.
And then in 2008 I was given this incredible award that changed my life again. The Kleban Award is given each year to “the most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre.” This was both a wonderful affirmation of my theatre career and a cash award that gave me two years of writing time. But when they gave me the award I didn’t think, “Oh boy, I can’t wait to write my next musical.” Instead I thought: I want to do something I‘ve never done before. I want to re-connect to the creative process. I want to be a beginner again.
I decided I wanted to try to write a novel. Bringing me full circle to my first weeks of grad school when I dropped fiction for theatre. And then the book itself brought me full circle to the house and garden and community I’d left at seventeen.
The world of my childhood is feeding my work in ways I could never have imagined. When I began work on Alice Bliss, I heard a voice inside me saying, bring it in close; bring it in really close. My father’s garden, my father’s and my brother’s service in WW II and Viet Nam, the streets of my hometown, the landscape of my childhood and my imagination are all part of Alice Bliss.