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Sister came out of a conversation I had with another writer while a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. Somehow, we got on the topic of cruelty, and he asked me, “What’s the cruelest thing you’ve ever done? Don’t think about it-just answer.” What flashed into my head was an image of myself at seven telling my four year old brother, who was about to turn five, that five simply wasn’t as good as four, but he shouldn’t worry about it because he was going to turn five and there was nothing he could do about it. “Will you love me as much when I’m five?” he asked tremulously, and I remember feeling absolutely powerful and glorious and cruel in the split-second before I told him, “No.” Of course, as soon as he’d burst into tears, I felt terrible and promised him I hadn’t meant it, and he recovered enough to threaten to tell our mother, which led to the usual extortions. But the kernel of that memory-the moment before I answered my brother’s question-hooked itself securely into my consciousness. The hook went so deep that, when I tugged on it years later, I managed to pull the whole memory up into the light.
I began to write a short story called Sister that night, and when I finished it, I wrote several other stories involving the same characters: Distance, Spies, Risk. By then, I suspected I was writing another novel, but at the time, I’d already finished another novel (Vinegar Hill) which, it seemed, nobody wanted, and I ‘ d also finished a story collection (Read This and Tell Me What It Says) which, it seemed, nobody wanted either, and the idea of embarking on another novel that would never get published depressed me. I called my (now well-published) friend Stewart O’Nan who, like me, had written a couple of books that nobody wanted, and I said, “If I could just get one book published.” He said, “What would you do?” I said, with great enthusiasm, “I’d write another novel!” And he said, “So what are you doing now?” It hit me then: publishing had nothing to do with writing. Writing was loving to write, and wanting to write. I had another book in me and I was going to write it because I couldn’t not write it, and that was what being a writer meant. I thanked Stewart for the psychiatric adjustment, hung up, and got to work. (The following year, Stewart’s story collection “In The Walled City” and my novel “Vinegar Hill” were accepted for publication within days of each other.)
Thematically, Sister reflects several concerns which I was facing in my own life. I had left the Catholic church and was trying to figure out what I truly believed as opposed to what I’d been taught to believe. Everything I’d once accepted as “fact” was suddenly called into question. Each choice I made that took me away from the teachings of the church also carried me a step away from my extended family, who I loved, and with whom I could no longer share common spiritual ground From as far back as I can remember, there had been huge gap between the way the world, and my life within that world, was described to me by the Catholic church, and the way I actually experienced it, the things I honestly sensed and experienced and believed. Contradictions loomed everywhere. I tried to embody one of those contradictions through the character of Gordon Schiller, who is modeled on the Catholic God of my childhood. Gordon, like God, is a total control freak. He will love you and reward you and call you His own if you do everything His way, but if you disobey, screw up, talk back-look out!
I should mention that I couldn’t leave Gordon as a God, untouchable and untouched; I had to make him human. By the end of the books, he falls victim to the same standards of masculinity he tries so hard to impose on Sam, the same fears he attempts to impress upon his daughter. He winds up a frightened and (I hope) somewhat sympathetic old man, devastated by the loss of his only son, alienated from his family.
Another theme in Sister is what I think of as the “politics of memory” within families, how each family has its own myth or myths-the anecdotes that get told again and again at family gatherings, when strangers are present, etc. The story of, say, that Fourth of July when Mom fell off the dock into the water. The story of when Sis brought her first boyfriend home and he wouldn’t eat a single thing on his plate. Such stories are told with great spirit, and without variation. Yet, if you pull each family member individually off into a corner and ask, “So what really happened?” you will hear a very different, far more complication version of what has occurred.