The Story Behind The Story
One of the realities of life as a beginning novelist is finding a legal way to finance my avocation. As I believe no experience is wasted, much of what I’ve learned from my various jobs has gone into my fiction. The spark that formed the backbone (and some of the principal characters) of The Joke’s on Me came from three years as office manager of a small business in Woodstock, New York.
Nestled in the shadow the Catskill Mountains, Woodstock is a beautiful place, in its geography and mythology. Little wonder we have the greatest number of creative people per capita than just about anywhere in the United States. You can’t throw a rock without hitting an artist, writer, actor, or musician. Celebrities as diverse as Howard Stern, Uma Thurman, Milton Glaser, Todd Rundgren, and Bob Dylan live in or have lived in the area. Although rock throwing is discouraged (I believe there is a very specific ordinance on the books, sparked by an incident with Sean Penn and a photographer), there were times during my employment when I gave it serious thought. Especially when I was stuck in traffic. And there was plenty of traffic, especially on Thursdays and Fridays, when the weekenders started drifting in.
Some of the Woodstock locals have a love/hate relationship with the weekenders. We love their money, but we hate fighting for a parking space just to pick up our dry cleaning. We love their money, but we hate hearing about how much better the bagels are in Manhattan. We love their money, but we hate the odds that many of them will eventually become full-time residents, driving up prices and adding to the crowding at the dry cleaner and the bagel shop.
One day, as I was stuck in traffic during my lunch hour, my body bubbled over with resentment (or maybe it was the burrito from Maria’s Bazaar), and I thought, what an interesting premise for a novel. The conflict between those who have immersed themselves in the Woodstock experience body, mind, and spirit, and those who think tie-dye and incense should be outlawed. I didn’t start the actual writing of The Joke’s on Me for several years after the company I worked for folded, but the seed of the strained relationship between Frankie and her sister Jude that forms the heart of the novel took root as I was idling my Toyota on Tinker Street, waiting for the driver of the car in front of me to finish her conversation with an acquaintance who’d been crossing Woodstock’s busy main drag.
Weekenders, both, no doubt.
As long as I had these conflicting personalities— the repellent poles of two magnets, equal in strength, as Frankie puts it—why not raise the stakes? That’s how Frankie found me, and began to tell me her story, of the older sister she barely knew and could barely tolerate. Of being the thirty-something daughter of a mother who wasn’t supposed to be in a nursing home, forgetting Frankie’s name. Of leaving Hollywood in desperation, and facing her own love/hate relationship with the small town where she grew up, and the people in it.
Local readers may recognize some of the geography and the personalities (and no, the family B&B was not Bob Dylan’s former abode) but I think the themes and conflicts are universal – like it or not, sometimes the only place you can go is home. Even if it smells like patchouli and environmentally correct cleaning products.
Woodstock, I love you, and I hope you’ll forgive Frankie her trespasses upon you.