A Sanctuary Made of Books: Stephen McCauley’s Love Letter to Writing in Libraries
The Author of “You Only Call When You're in Trouble” on Growing Up in a Non-Reading Family, Publishing Deadlines, and More
I was given at birth one of the greatest gifts a writer could ask for: Being born into a family in which no one reads for pleasure.
I’m exaggerating a bit. There was one book that was passed from family member to family member and that everyone—aunts, grandmother, both my parents—eventually read. Naturally, that was Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann, a book considered scandalous in the late 1960s but that now comes across as so tame (and wordy) I’m not even aware of efforts to have it banned.
I still read chapters of that novel from time to time. It evokes in me the same nostalgia for childhood that Harry Potter seems to evoke in the college students I teach.
The advantage, as I see it, in coming from a family in which reading was considered unhealthily sedentary and suspiciously effeminate for boys is that as an adult, I’ve been able to write whatever I want about or based on my family with no fear of recrimination or lawsuits. I am confident none of them will read it. Most importantly, as a result of the attitude toward books at home, I took refuge in the public libraries early and began a life-long love affair with them, one which has sustained me ever since.
The town I grew up in—a suburb of Boston—had many unlovely things. Pig farms and leather tanneries, to name two. The latter, in those unregulated decades, resulted in poisoned wells and multiple cancer clusters. (See A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr.)
In contrast, the town has a remarkably beautiful Romanesque Revival public library that opened in 1879 and was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1987. It was designed by H. H. Richardson and was the first of his many public libraries. It’s a true cathedral to books, built along a basilical plan and featuring many flourishes that would become the architect’s signature moves—vaulted ceilings, clerestory windows, an ornate exterior with a High Victorian tower, a tiled roof, and a fanciful skin of multi-colored stone.Most importantly, as a result of the attitude toward books at home, I took refuge in the public libraries early and began a life-long love affair with them, one which has sustained me ever since.
As a child, I found it impossible to walk into the building without feeling embraced by the architecture and falling into a state of hushed reverence for books. I often went there two or three times a week, back in a period when children were allowed to walk places on their own. I went for the books, naturally enough, but also for the feeling of entering a different world, one in which there was unqualified approval of literary pursuits.
The love of that building carried over to a feeling of happiness upon entering almost any library, no matter how grand and imposing or small and unassuming. In the grand category, I’m thinking of the Widener Library at Harvard, built as a monument to a beloved son who died on the Titanic. In the unassuming, the public library in Woodstock, New York, a low-ceilinged wooden building with inadequate shelf space for the literarily-inclined population of that town and a strong smell of mold upon entering. I love them all.
Despite my attraction to these sanctuaries, it wasn’t until almost fifteen years ago that my writing life and my love of libraries became inextricably connected.
In 2009, after completing my sixth novel, I was given an opportunity to write (on commission) a series of novels set at a yoga studio in Los Angeles. Think Sex and the City but with namastes. The editor who proposed the project was someone I’d worked with previously. We had a shared love of yoga and had gone to classes together when I was in New York or she was in Boston. The commission came with two conditions: the books were to be published under a pseudonym, and they had to be written quickly.
Both conditions were fine with me, although the second was a bit worrying. Since my first book was published in 1987, it’s taken between five and eight years to produce each of my relatively short novels. In publishing, that’s a lifetime.
Literally so, apparently. In the late 1990’s, a friend sent me a clipping from a Chicago gay newspaper which stated that the reason I hadn’t released a new book in years was because I’d died. I was delighted to read the news. I immediately forwarded it to my then editor as an iron-clad excuse for demanding yet another extension on delivering a novel.
I assumed that I could drag my feet on the yoga novels as I had on the others. Surely “Rain Mitchell,” the nom de plume of my gender-neutral alter ego, could be as forgivably non-prolific as I was.
On that point, I was wrong.
Six weeks before the novel was due, I went to New York to have lunch with my editor and ask for an extension. I made the latter request over coffee. In response, the editor smiled faintly, folded her hands politely on the table, reminded me that I’d signed a contract and had accepted half of an advance. “If I don’t have a manuscript on my desk in six weeks,” she said, “the publisher will go after you.”
I told her I was surprised by the Tony-Soprano tone the conversation had taken. As a consolation prize, she touched my arm and said, “Don’t forget, it’s not you that’s writing the novel; it’s Rain Mitchell.”
On the train back to Boston, I calculated the number of pages I’d have to write daily (weekends included) to deliver a manuscript. The number was so daunting, it approached comedy.
I spent the next morning at my desk, attempting to conjure Rain Mitchell and begin composing this grand six-week soap opera. The effort proved pointless. I was surrounded by bills to pay, a bathtub that needed another scrubbing, food that demanded to be eaten, sweaters and fitted sheets that need to refolded for a fifth time. I was, in other words, way too present at my own desk.
In early afternoon, I sought a safe refuge. I went to the Cambridge Public Library, also a stone Romanesque building, although not designed by Richardson. As soon as I entered, I felt once again the acceptance for my pursuits that I’d felt as a child. In this place, books were books, even ones in which divorces, miscarriages, cat hoarding and lots and lots of savasanas take place.
I sat down at a desk and entered a kind of trance, one in which I left myself behind and fully embodied Rain. I found it effortless to write, and by closing time, I had produced ten pages of the novel.
I returned to the library every day for the next six weeks. I delivered the novel on time, and it was published with few editorial changes. It didn’t do as well as the publisher had hoped, but it was reprinted in fourteen countries, and I still receive royalty checks now and again, usually in the mid two-figures.
The experience of writing the novel introduced me to a side of myself as a writer I didn’t know, up until then, existed. Not necessarily a better writer—depending on how you feel about characters who tour with Beyonce and make love on deserted gondolas at a ski area in the Sierra—but at very least, a bolder, more prolific, less self-censoring side of myself. A side of myself I’m comfortable saying I would not have been able to access, had it not been for the refuge of the Cambridge Public Library.
When it was time to return to my own work, I made a resolution to abandon my desk at home and only write in libraries. And leaving aside a brief, pandemicky period, that is what I have done since.I’ve never been more grateful for libraries and librarians than I am now, when many are under fire for making “controversial” books available to a wide range of readers.
Favorites among the libraries I’ve worked at are the converted 1860 Methodist Episcopal church in Provincetown, Massachusetts. This glorious space has views from the third floor of the harbor on three sides and a steady stream of tourists passing through to see the three-quarter-size model of a sailing ship in its center.
There’s also the ornate Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts (another Richardsonian Romanesque building, this one designed by William Brocklesby) and the Athenaeum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, built in 1871 in French Second Empire style that doubles as an art museum with an impressive collection of Hudson Valley school paintings. Even that unimpressive, moldy library in Woodstock, New York.
There’s something about each of these very different sanctuaries—with their noisy tourists, rambunctious schoolchildren, snoring visitors escaping the cold or heat, elderly jigsaw-puzzle aficionados—that allows me to leave behind the distractions of the world and my own self-doubts and believe that what I’m doing has some value.
Another way of saying it: whenever I go into a library with the intention of writing, I look around and inevitably spot—at a small desk in dark nook or large table with a view of the Atlantic—Rain Mitchell, my bold, prolific, library-loving alter ego, patiently sitting there, waiting for me. She hasn’t stood me up once.
I’ve never been more grateful for libraries and librarians than I am now, when many are under fire for making “controversial” books available to a wide range of readers. I know they’re helping book-loving kids all over the country. Kids who, like me, might never make it out of the valley of the dolls, except for the sanctuaries of their local libraries.
You Only Call Me When You’re in Trouble by Stephen McCauley is available via Holt.