Before the first official reading of my book, Little Green (Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts, 2010), at Annie Bloom’s Books in Multnomah Village, I was a little nervous. That evening in June on the final night of the NBA playoffs, I took the #44 bus to The Village, my old neighborhood.
In the early 90’s I’d left my abusive partner of fifteen years, filed a restraining order and moved to the maze-like warren that is Multnomah Village. I spent many evenings sitting in the wing-backed chair of Annie Bloom’s big front window browsing the books before choosing something, grateful that the people working there didn’t mind the nights I couldn’t take a book home.
I’d grown up in Hillsdale in the 60’s, and being in the neighborhood gave me a sense of home that had been missing from my life for years. Reading at Annie Bloom’s was a big deal for me. But I was nervous. My first novel isn’t a teen vampire story or a feline murder mystery or a story that’s easy to approach without sounding like an Oprah repeat. I have told certain people, including, and especially, my mother, not to read it. Not that she listened to me, but that’s a different essay.
I knew some friends would come out to support me and, though I’d emailed and Facebooked, I wasn’t sure how many people would show up. That week in the Sunday Oregonian, my book had been reviewed and I expected that maybe people who didn’t even know me might attend.
It wasn’t the reading aloud part that had me feeling nervy. I recently graduated from an MFA program and I’m used to public reading followed by a strong dose of criticism and occasional humiliation. No, what I was nervous about were the questions that I might be asked after I closed the book. Fact or fiction? How much of this story is my story?
Little Green is definitely not a memoir, but its feet are planted firmly in fact. It’s the story of Janie Marek, a young runaway in the 1970’s who falls in love with Paul Jesse, a drug dealer and addict. As Paul’s addiction escalates, Janie faces increasing violence at his hands. But it’s not a downer book. It’s a story of hope. The kind of hope you have to work out for yourself. There is a strong possibility that Janie will be okay, that she will change her life one book at a time. Kind of like me.
Just like Janie, I ran away young and met a man with a history of addiction and violence. I quit going to school at the start of 8th grade, dropped out officially about a year later and got my GED at 16. I didn’t go back to school until I was in my 30’s. Writing the book was a way to understand not only what happened to me personally but also to my former partner. To paraphrase Tom Spanbauer from his book, In the City of Shy Hunters, I wanted to write about how we came to be so lost.
I wrote Little Green from both characters’ perspectives—in alternating sections because I knew that Janie was just as strung out on Paul as he was on dope, and I wanted a reader who had never experienced addiction and violence to see it from the inside. Janie leaves Paul, after two hellish years, just after she turns 18. Compared to Janie, I was a slow learner. I stayed for 15 years, and if I had written a memoir it would be a thousand pages of nothing but evictions, banktrupcy, beatings, and despair in a series of shabby living rooms across the rural Pacific Northwest. But relax! This isn’t my story. It’s fiction and so I could give Janie a different set of circumstances.
That night at Annie Bloom’s, a group of people, including friends, neighbors and a few strangers, listened as I read (and sang) from my book. People did ask some questions that I expected, but they also shared with me their own stories of addiction, violence and how they recognized their own way. Every story is medicine. It’s in the sharing of our stories that hope can arise and healing can begin.
Loretta Stinson is the recipient of a 2008 Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship in Fiction. In 2007, she was a winner of the national Doug Fir Fiction prize. Her stories have appeared in The Bear Deluxe and Ooligan Press’ online literary magazine. Stinson teaches writing and currently advises for the English Department at Portland State University, where, as a student, she won several awards for her writing. She received her Master’s in Publishing from PSU in 2007 and received an MFA in Creative Writing in the fall of 2009. She is currently working on her second novel.
Stinson will read Wednesday, August 25 at Green Apple Books in San Francisco and Thursday, August 26 at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California.