It is always a thrill to find out you live practically next town over to an interesting, creative person. But imagine reading a book you love, then discovering its author is (a) basically your neighbor, and (b) is a writing maniac and a dreamer just like you.
Imagine then, getting together with the said author, to drink green tea on a terrace of a lovely local restaurant, and talk writing for two hours on a Wednesday evening.
It was almost as cool as a trip to the moon. 🙂
NAN MARINO, YOU SHOULD BE A WRITER!
When Nan Marino was a kid growing up in the 1960s in Massapequa Park, New York, she thought she might be an architect one day. Or a diplomat. A journalist. Or a writer. “I’m sure I was going to be a writer,” Nan told me. “But it was pretty much a career of the week.”
But, thinking back on it now, Nan had always been a writer. She was that shy girl in school. The one who spent her days dreaming, perfectly happy to be alone. “I spent a lot of time on garage roofs,” she says. She liked to climb trees, too, and stay there for hours. “Now you say that to a group of writers, and I can’t believe how many kids spent time on garage roofs!”
When Nan was in college, a summer job friend wrote to her in a good-bye note, “I think you should be a writer.” The note even listed the reasons why. “Because you look at things in a different way than other people do,” the note said. Nan was surprised. And pleased. Nobody had ever seriously suggested this to her before. Now she couldn’t get the note out of her mind.
After college, Nan became a librarian. She had immersed herself in the world of books that way. Then another friend asked her to write a story — about penguin nesting dolls! Nan did. It was her first picture book, which she tried to submit to publishers here and there. Now she laughs about it. “I don’t know why it didn’t get sold!” she says, dismissing her first effort with an easy smile. She brings the story to her school visits to share with kids now.
Even if the story didn’t quite take Nan places, the important thing was, Nan had discovered writing. And she was hooked. In the next fifteen years more manuscripts followed — and more rejections. Nan sometimes gave up hope. But she never gave up writing.
Last year, her middle-grade book “Neil Armstrong is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me” swept readers off their feet. Tamara Ann Simpson, the mean eleven-year-old heroine with a heartache somehow touched everyone, from kids to reviewers. The simple story of friendship and loss featuring a sweet, sensitive, but lying boy living in foster care, told from the point of view of the tough kickball-playing girl who hates him, is set in July of 1969 — the summer of the moonwalk.
Many things came together to inspire the story. Memories of a time long-gone and visions of new characters simmered for years until Nan was ready to pour it all out into a book. The actual writing/revising only took her a few months. One inspiration for the story was a real kid from her hometown who had once challenged the neighborhood to a game of kickball — much like Nan’s memorable character, the puny Muscle Man McGinty in “Neil Armstrong is My Uncle.”
“Was the kid as bad as McGinty?” I ask Nan.
“If you play against ten kids, you’re going to lose badly, so yeah,” she says. “But the thing about him that amazed me was that he kept playing. He just wouldn’t give up.”
THE TIME OF BIG DREAMS
“How does it all feel?” I ask her. “Celebrating your debut book’s first-year-anniversary?”
She flashes a smile at me. Her smiles are full of thought, generous and always a little dreamy. “It’s just been a year of dreams come true,” she says.
Writing the story — which is set in the small New York town where she grew up — Nan wanted to recreate the turbulent but also idealistic 1960s of her childhood. Many people think of the 1960s as the “duck-and-cover” times, the era of the Vietnam war and the cold war, the time of racial strife and great paranoia, and the idea that the world was about to end in a nuclear holocaust. But Nan has another perspective. She reminds us that the 60s was also the time of big dreams.
“Kids were told that soon there would be three-day work weeks!” Nan says. “Even though there was so much turmoil around us, we walked around believing that when we grow up our lives would be like that cartoon, the Jetsons — or like Star Trek. Kids now don’t get told that we have these amazing times ahead.”
Still, when Nan conducts school visits, she reminds the kids of today to dream, too.
“I give them the rocking chair test,” Nan says.
She asks the kids to close their eyes and pretend they are ninety years old, sitting in a rocking chair. Then she asks them to think about their dreams. Of course, in the best-case scenarios, they will be thinking of the things that had already happened, the wishes that came true. But if, for some reason, the dream did not materialize, Nan asks the kids this question: “When you are ninety years old, in your rocking chair, would you sit there and say, ‘well, at least I’ve done everything in my power to try and make it happen?’ Or would you rather sit there and wonder what would have happened if only you had tried just a little bit harder?”
Cheers to Nan Marino, to the big dreamers of the 1960s, and to the future generation of dreamers who might just surprise us all with the things they dream up!