My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Jen Michalski, author of the novel The Tide King (winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize), the short story collections From Here and Close Encounters, and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now which is coming from Dzanc Books next month. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings and the biannual Lit Show, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a "Best of Baltimore" in 2010. Follow her on Twitter here.
The First Spy I Loved
When I was younger, bands like REM, The Pixies, and Siouxsie and the Banshees crowded my mix tapes, and Salinger, Bukowski, and Kerouac lined my bookshelves. I thought I was queen shit. It wasn’t until I was older when I realized that the bands I listened to uncritically as a child, like Fleetwood Mac, with their perfect pop, emotional masterpiece Rumors and new-wave forerunner Tusk, influenced my music pedigree way more than the cool kids from Sire and Matador Records. And it wasn’t until I was way, way older when I realized the book that influenced me most as a reader and writer was not some Faulknerian or Russian masterpiece, anything written by Gertrude Stein, or even some stream-of-conscious beat paperback but a children’s book—about a girl who wants to be a spy.
My aunt bought me Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh when I was ten. She had gone to Virginia Beach for vacation and, awesomely, returned with books for my brother and me that she’d gotten at a beach bookstore. Because my aunt looked—and still looks—young for her age, the shop clerk assumed the books were for her and thought she might like The Secret Garden, Bunnicula, and Harriet the Spy.
If I were a different kind of girl, this essay would probably be about The Secret Garden (Bunnicula, about a vampire bunny, was more my brother’s expertise). But I was a voracious reader and tomboy, and Harriet the Spy appealed to both of those traits. Harriet M. Welsch, an 11-year-old girl who lives on the Upper East Side in the 1950s, wants to be a spy. After school, she dons a disguise (a sweatshirt, jeans, and an old pair of father’s glasses), and with a pocket notebook and homemade utility belt, she spies on different families in her neighborhood. She also writes about her friends Sport and Janie, her classmates at a private day school, her parents (a television executive and socialite), and her nanny (a mannish but insightful woman that Harriet calls Ole Golly). When her friends find and read her notebook, full of honest but sometimes hurtful assessments about them, she is shunned and tormented and must learn the power of humility and asking for forgiveness.
Harriet the Spy was a mind-blower to a shy but curious girl like me who read all 56 hardcover Nancy Drew novels the summer before, courtesy of the Baltimore County Public Library. And the similarities were uncanny: Like Nancy, Harriet was cared for by a somewhat-matronly woman who was not her mother. Like Nancy, Harriet was allowed freedoms of which I could only dream. Unlike Nancy, however, Harriet did not act like a lady. She was loud and impulsive and sometimes petty. She did not go to homecoming with a special male friend, Ned Nickerson. She liked routine (evidenced by her daily spy route and insistence on tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches for lunch and cake and milk after school). Her friends were a boy, Sport, who lived with his father and assumed all the household duties, including clipping coupons and shopping, and a girl, Janie, who wanted to blow up the world instead of taking dance lessons.
Unlike the industrious Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie and the thoughtful Browns in Encyclopedia Brown, Harriet’s parents were absent and somewhat shallow, more interested in the entertainment industry, cocktails, and gossip than their inquisitive, high-strung young daughter. They were, in some ways, like my parents. They had scary fights and were preoccupied and dismissive at times. They smoked and drank and were oblivious to the teasing I got from being overweight by the mean, oversexed boys in the fifth grade who listened to AC/DC and showed the prettier girls their penises. In other words, they were real people, imperfect and possibly stunted but hopefully always evolving.
But Fitzhugh’s realism didn’t stop there. When Harriet’s notebook is discovered and she is punished by her peers, it is not because of a dichotomous, black-and-white transgression so often presented in those After-School specials on TV. It’s because she’s curious about her world and, most unforgivable of all, honest. She doesn’t write about her friends and neighbors in her notebook to slander them; she writes to make sense of the same pettiness, selfishness, and uncertainly that plague them all. The world, unlike stories, doesn’t wrap up neatly forever ever after. Not only may Harriet lose her friends for good, more importantly, to avoid such catastrophes in the future, her nanny Old Golly warns, “[S]ometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”
I don’t know if I could have been friends with Harriet. I would’ve been drawn to her fearlessness, her feminist-approved career goals and friends (I haven’t really touched on the gay subtexts of Fitzhugh’s stories, but suffice to say, they were of great interest to me as well), and she may have gotten less abrasive as she grew older but, let’s face it—she was spoiled and a bully. I probably would have spent more time running home, vowing we would never be friends again, rather than accompanying her on her routes. Not that she would have wanted me, anyway. Harriet was a spy; she worked alone.
So do writers. Like Harriet, I write to make sense of my world, my emotions, my relationships, and my desires. Like Harriet, I have kept a diary, then a journal, since I learned to write and began writing novels back in the fifth grade, when I laboriously wrote with thin magic markers on the back of office memos my mother brought home from work for my brother and me to use as drawing paper. Ten pages of the story would be written in green, then five in blue, then several more in red as the markers dried out but the stories continued. Although I did not spy on others, I meticulously detailed my interactions with people in everyday settings and important events, punctuating each entry with “I will never forget this day.”
Inevitably, those diaries are gone, those days, ironically, forgotten. But even then, like Harriet, I understood on some level the need to preserve and dissect my experiences, to cull the threads and insights from them. I learned that truth is stranger than fiction, and what makes a good story is not the plot but the sense, no matter how flawed they are, that the characters are true to themselves. And that the worlds I create should always immerse me (and the reader) the same way Fitzhugh’s Upper East side enchanted me, with its the corner delis, palatial brownstones like Harriet’s (with her own bathroom), drug stores with egg creams. Where the rules of games and life were toughed out on the grounds of Carl Schurz Park, worlds in which alliances are tenuous and ever-changing, where children are tender and brutal. Where there are no winners or losers but draws and uneasy stalemates. It is the childhood I remember, albeit not the one I remember reading in children’s books. Except in Harriet the Spy. Louise Fitzhugh, in keeping it real, gave me the green light to do the same.