We begin with a brief account of the life of Laurie J. Marks (the longer version follows that).
A Brief History of Laurie
When I was a kid in a 1950s California suburb, I discovered C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, and became determined to be a fantasy novelist. That determination explains everything about my life. All the woman writers I know make up our lives as we go along, flying by the seat of our pants, and when our pants wear out we continue bumping along on our bare butts, until we get too sick or crazy to keep it up anymore.
During my complicated college career, I moved nine times, lived in three countries, and rarely stayed in one place longer than three months: California, Mexico, England, Massachusetts, Washington State, Rhode Island. I traveled mostly by Greyhound bus, bringing with me everything I owned: a box of books, a trunk of clothes, a Smith-Corona typewriter, and a green ten-speed bicycle. At Brown University, from which I graduated in 1980, I discovered Marxism and feminism, and had a crush on the woman who lived across the hall, though at the time I just thought we were good friends.
I did not realize I was a lesbian until age 29, when two female characters in a novel blocked the plot, insisting that they had to make love with each other. Soon after that I met the love of my life, Deb Mensinger, and sold my first novel. It was a year of such cataclysmic changes that Deb and I dubbed it "The Year of Living Dangerously." In the next four years I published four more novels. After several more moves and job changes, we ended up in Massachusetts, where I earned a Master's degree and started teaching. We got married in 2004, five days after same-sex marriage became legal in that state. At the time we had been together 19 years, so we were pretty confident the marriage would work.
Water Logic, published in 2007, is my ninth published novel, and I'm working on two more. Meanwhile, I've remained in the same place and at the same job for over 10 years. But the seat of my pants hasn't worn out yet.
My Life and How I Came to Be Here
Sharecroppers and flower growers
My mother's parents' grandparents were German and lived in the town of Wolfshagen. As teenagers, they emigrated to the U.S. with their entire families in the 1880s, traveling on the same ship, and they all wound up in Chicago. According to my grandfather, they decided to emigrate as follows: In Germany (then Prussia), they were peasants, farming land they did not own. They read in the newspapers about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and were amazed to learn that an Irish woman, Mrs. O'Leary, owned her own cow. If the Irish could own a cow in America, they thought, so could they. They began saving all the money they earned from selling the feathers and down from their flock of geese, and eventually they had enough to pay for the passage of the entire family. Some of them did eventually own some cows, and I hope that made them happy.
My mother's parents, George and Harriet Berlin, grew up in Chicago and Wisconsin. They were married in Chicago and moved to Southern California during the Depression, where George, who had been a greenhouse man in Illinois, began selling flowers from a cart. Soon he had established a florist supply business and also became an orange grower. When his daughters were married, they were given orange groves as wedding gifts.
Missionaries and artists
My father's mother, Claire Sharpless, and her sister, Ada Mae, were born in Hawaii, where their parents were missionaries. Viola Sharpless used to plow the field with a Colt 45 stuck in the belt of her skirt to protect herself against bandits. (Viola was the daughter of pioneers. In 1889 her mother had participated in the Oklahoma Land Rush – by herself.) Viola also was an artist, and I own a lovely pottery vase she made. In 1925, Claire accompanied her sister, Ada Mae, when she went to France to study with Emile Antoine Bourdelle in the early 1920s – I have a couple of the pieces she made during that time. Ada Mae's sculpture “La Reina de Los Angeles” has been displayed in Echo Park, in Los Angeles, since 1935.
My father's father, Cecil Marks, used to go ice skating when he was a boy in Gas City, Kansas. Natural gas leaked from cracks in the earth, so when they got cold they would light the gas and stand around the flame to warm up. In Arizona, Cecil's father was the town sheriff, and their house was a canvas tent. Cecil was the first of his family to get a college degree. He won a Rhodes Scholarship but had to turn it down because it wasn't enough money and his family was too poor to make up the difference.
Move to California
Cecil J. Marks and Claire Sharpless were married in California. Throughout her life, Claire did fine art and made jewelry by hand. Cecil built the house they lived in for much of their life together, using an old railroad house that was moved to the site and adding to it a couple of rooms built of adobe bricks, some of which had chicken tracks in them. Their adobe garage had an art studio attached to it, for Claire's use.
My mother, Marjory (Gretchen), was the first of her line to get a college degree. She and my father were both involved in 4-H, met at a dance, and on one of their early dates he drove a car in a parade. They both went to the University of California Santa Barbara, and they married after graduation. When my mother was pregnant with me, the second of their four children, the wedding-gift orange grove was finally planted. Many of my childhood Saturdays were spent in that orange grove playing with my brother while my father did the farm work, and after I finished college I lived there for five years, with little more to eat than oranges and peanut butter sandwiches, while I wrote two novels that weren't published and two more that were. The orange grove was sold in 2000, and the house I now live in was purchased with the proceeds.
Becoming a fantasy novelist
I grew up in '50s suburbia, but my family was a little peculiar. Along with the expected station wagon, my father drove an Austin-Healey sports car, and then he bought a big old farm truck, the first of several. He could, and did, build and fix just about everything you can imagine. My mother taught me skills that soon became archaic: how to sew my own clothing, how to put up fruit for the winter. At the bottom of the street lived a girl I played with, whose mother, Patricia Beatty, wrote novels for children and young adults. By age 10 or 11, at around the time I discovered C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, I became determined to be a fantasy novelist.
That determination explains everything about my life, which must look random and incoherent unless this crucial fact is included. All the women writers I know make up their lives as they go along, because the pre-existing scripts just don't work. We fly by the seat of our pants, and when our pants wear out we continue bumping along on our bare butts, until we get too sick or crazy to keep it up any more.
I wrote my first novel at age 12, hauling it around with me in a 3-ring notebook all summer, by the end of which it was finished. I took typing in seventh grade so I could type my work. I took every writing class I could, and in college I majored in literature writing. However, I also loved art and did a lot of drawing and painting.
My college career was complicated. I enrolled in a small Christian college and almost immediately lost my faith, but I stuck it out for two years, which included a semester in England. I then transferred to Brown University – not because I wanted an Ivy League education but because I was in love with a Harvard man and Harvard didn't want me. Of course the relationship ended shortly before I matriculated. In two years I had lived in three countries and never stayed anywhere longer than three months: I moved from California to Tijuana, Mexico, back to California, to England, back to California, to Massachusetts, to Seattle, Washington, to Providence, RI, back to Seattle, and back to Providence. I traveled mostly by Greyhound bus, bringing with me a box of books, a trunk of clothes, a Smith-Corona typewriter, and a green ten-speed bicycle. I discovered Marxism and feminism, and had a crush on the woman who lived across the hall, though at the time I just thought we were good friends.
Love and publication
I did not know I was a lesbian until age 29, when two female characters in a novel blocked the plot, insisting that they had to make love with each other. I went ahead and wrote the scene, figuring I could just delete it later, but instead I realized that I had been keeping a huge secret from myself. Soon after that I met the love of my life, Deb Mensinger, and sold my first novel. It was a year of such huge changes that Deb and I dubbed it “The Year of Living Dangerously.” I worked for a domestic violence intervention program; Deb worked for a rape crisis program; we took care of the orange grove together; we grew a lot of our own food; I wrote another novel (rejected) and another (published).
We bought land in California together and moved everything to the property, including two goats, a dog, a half-dozen cats, a lot of plants, and the house we lived in. We were going to be organic farmers, and for a while we had the most amazing vegetable garden, where we grew many old varieties of potato, corn, and tomato. We both had jobs, and I continued to publish novels, but we couldn't make it work financially. Eventually we quit our jobs and took a meandering six-week camping tour of the northern U.S., finally winding up in Massachusetts, where I earned my Master's degree and started teaching. Then, Deb studied preservation carpentry and launched a business, but shortly after that she was disabled by a rare congenital disease.
I have been teaching writing at the University of Massachusetts, Boston for 10 years now. Before this I never held the same job for more than three years and never lived in the same place for more than five years. I guess I found a place I could belong.