Judy Chicurel: In My Own Words

December 15, 2014

Years ago, I attended a housewarming party given by one of my colleagues at the alternative high school where I taught English. The house was in a more affluent, secluded part of town, close to the ocean and further from the threat of retail expansion. My colleague took several of us on a tour of the house, which had three or four floors, I forget the exact number. But the last staircase led us to a small room at the top, a regular room, not an attic. She explained that during the 1920s or 30s, the house had been owned by a doctor who had used this room to perform illegal abortions. I was fascinated by this; it defied all the stereotypes we’d grown up with regarding back alley abortions performed in dark rooms by butchers with dirty fingernails. For years, I tried writing about it, long after I’d forgotten what the room actually looked like. Finally it became the impetus for the chapter, ‘When Catholic Girls Have Considered Going To Hell When The Guilt Was Not Enough’ in If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go.

Writing this book taught me something about myself: though my writing is very character-driven, it’s really the setting, the sense of a specific place that drives the work from the very beginning. The setting for If I Knew…, Elephant Beach, is comprised of bits and pieces of seaside towns where I lived over the years; Long Beach, Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard, the North Shore of Boston – all those honky-tonk, down-at-the-heels, oceanfront hamlets left to seed during the 1970s until federal funds revived decaying wharves and waterfronts along the east coast and turned them into tourist attractions. I can still remember taking solitary walks on various beaches and boardwalks, watching the rim of gold against a grey horizon, thinking, ‘I want to write about this,’ without knowing exactly what ‘this’ was going to be, or that the motivation would come from the more memorable physical spaces of my past.

The Starlight Hotel, for example, where much of the action in If I Knew… takes place, is a combination of the old Arizona bar and neighbouring Americana Hotel (now a parking lot and condo, respectively) in Long Beach and the former Seaview Hotel in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, which I believe has also been converted into condos. The beach is, of course, omnipresent throughout the book; you can hear the ocean even when you can’t see it. I’m fortunate enough to live in a part of Brooklyn where several beaches are in walking/bike riding distance and are more secluded than the public beaches. These urban beaches have a gritty kind of serenity, if you can imagine such a thing, that really served as inspiration while writing this book; you’re walking along the shoreline and there among the sea grass is an abandoned boat with chipped blue paint that nobody’s come to claim and further ahead, graffiti on the walls below the Belt Parkway – so 70s! And in the distance, the Marine Park Bridge (from Plum Beach) and the Verrazano (Coney Island Creek) – symbols of more infinite worlds and connections. That’s what I wanted to bring across in If I Knew…; that sense of comforting insularity in a close-knit community and the lives lived there, which can remain comfortable or become claustrophobic over time, leading people to bridges, either concrete or metaphoric, that will carry them away. Yet, I really wanted to demonstrate how that sense of connection binds people together across distances, particularly when set against the larger themes of economic decline, war, and the literal crumbling of the past that can actually be witnessed, and the ways in which people cope, afterwards.

Actually, time and place, for me, became intertwined during the writing of If I Knew… Whenever I visualised certain places, beaches, street scenes, etc. I could close my eyes and get a very specific sense of the time of year and the year itself. It’s funny because I’ve almost always heard the 1970s described as a dark era, which it was in many ways, given the social conditions of those times, but at the time, I wouldn’t have said so. Some of that was youthful oblivion to be sure, but despite all the very real evidence to the contrary, I remember feeling safe and protected and having a sense of togetherness and belonging. What I ultimately want readers to take away from If I Knew… is that despite all the darkness, people do what they can to find the light, no matter how feeble. And sometimes they do, and when they don’t, we can’t judge them for the ways in which they seek solace.

Judy Chicurel is the author of If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go. Out now in hardback and ebook.


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