You might remember at Blogmas I did a post on the music of Charlie Rauh. Charlie comes from a very talented family. His sister Christina is a writer, who has published two books so far: Boss of the Bathroom – a children’s book and Ancora, a beautiful tale of Italian immigrants. Christina’s book Ancora is compulsive reading. The imagery is so intense that it almost reads like the narration in a film script. The prose is powerful and emotional . I started to read the first few pages and soon found that I could not put it down. I envy her ability to write creatively so much. It really is a must-read.
Christina is a fellow Brontë lover and she has written stories and pretended to live in stories since she was a small child. She perfected her craft with an MFA from the University of Alabama in Fiction Writing. She is married with three children, and as an army wife, she currently lives in England. She always looks spectacularly glamorous and claims that one of her greatest achievements in life has been finding her signature red lipstick and I can concur that it is the perfect fit! I asked Christina to write her answers instead of speaking to me, since I love how she writes, and I think that her personality comes across much better in this way.
Can you tell me about your background? Where you grew up?
I was born in Stoneham, Massachusetts – which I cannot spell without autocorrect! My father was a minister and we moved frequently while I was very young, with the longest and most memorable stretches in Fairfax, Virginia and Huntsville, Alabama. I was ten when we left Virginia, and I vividly remember the drive down to Alabama and the epic imaginary journey it was in my head. I was filled with prepubescent rage (regular irritation at inconvenience) and heartbreak, at the separation of my good self from my best friend. To be fair, I only had one…so that part might have been justifiable. I had my two brothers and my parents though, and as dramatic as the change in state was, I knew everything would be ok. I lived in Alabama though middle school, high school, college, and graduate school. And though I currently live here in the UK, I still cannot tell you what the equivalents in education are… But Alabama is where I grew up in all the important ways a person does. Until they are an adult and realize they’ll never actually be a grown up for sure.
What are your very earliest memories of writing?
I must have been 6 or 7. I was sitting at our little play table in the kitchen and my mom had stapled some drawing paper together. My masterpiece at the time was a story about a horse (very accurately portrayed) named Christopher (my younger brother) who had a baby (science was never my jam). My elementary school (PRIMARY SCHOOL! I know that one!) had a glorious librarian who would type out your little stories for you on the typewriter (yes, kids, my middle name is Methuselah) on the bottom half of a small page, leaving the top of the page for illustrations, and then bind them up in a black plastic spiral. I don’t remember her name. Which makes me sad. I remember standing next to her at her desk while she typed my Horse Named Christopher story. It was not the last time I stood in that spot watching her type my stories.
What led you to write Ancora? Is it semi-autobiographical at all?
My grandparents were Italian, and their marriage was arranged. My grandmother came through Ellis Island on May 25, 1938 on the steamship Conte di Savoia. Their marriage was not awesome, but they had 7 children; my mother is the 6th. Their lives were very difficult, but I didn’t really understand that until I was older—the stories my mom told us were so funny and fascinating. As a 7-year-old, “paranoid schizophrenic” didn’t mean much. But “sneaking out of bed to play and put on secret performances” was fantastic. “Hungry” and “Abandoned” were very abstract to an 8-year-old living in comfort and much love, but “invisible dogs, skipping school, and dolls named Malaria who ate bread” were inspiring. In middle school, age 11-13, I started writing them down. I worked on them through High School and went more in depth in college at the University of Alabama. I went on to graduate school there as well for (Surprise!) Fiction Writing. Most of Ancora was my thesis. Six years later I was a stay at home mom with toddler and an infant, living here in England after three years in Germany, and feeling a bit lost. So, I took Ancora out and added some old personal essays. After an embarrassing and painful failed first attempt at self-publishing, I scrapped all the essays and added the metaphorical story now layered throughout. I then did absolutely nothing with it for a few more years. Back in the States, I self-published it through McNally Jackson’s Book Machine. So now Ancora is back, but as a third or fourth version of itself. But who isn’t?
Boss of the Bathroom—is that based on your relationship with your brother?
Yes, both brothers. I had an assignment in school to illustrate a book jacket and write a synopsis on the back. I was 8 and mad at my brother (the one after whom I named the horse.) I unleashed my artistic fury—and couldn’t stop at a synopsis. That assignment was to become a part of my life, and dare I say it: identity, for the next 31 years. It began with my frustration at my little brother but, let’s be real, he was hilarious, and I was a big fat yawn without him, so I started recording thinly veiled true stories. I kept it in the shadows for years as my “safety”—if I failed at all things at least I had one complete story that I loved. But then I decided that was stupid, I was stupid, and I would remain stupid unless I let it go and was forced to keep coming up with new things. It’s a book for kids but the story has grown up with me so that this final version has a narrative voice that any parent will appreciate.
When did your love of the Brontë family begin?
Watching the 1983 miniseries Jane Eyre with my mom. I must have been at least 10 or 11 the first time I saw it, but it was like crack. Or what I imagine crack is like… I never tired of it. How could I? A quiet, shy, small, nondescript girl off to live in a huge creepy mansion with hot smart Alek, Timothy Dalton, broody countryside, and a crazy woman upstairs to prove the existence of unexpected depth and courage? What’s not to love?! It was always Jane for me. I read up on Charlotte once or twice in whatever my school anthologies had to say about her and Emily, but once the internet was a thing (#Methuselah) I found out a lot more. I knew there were 3 sisters and a brother, and their father was a minister; I knew they had intense imaginary worlds; I knew they were all a bit reclusive. I knew I would have liked them. But I didn’t really obsess over them until almost two years ago. My brother (the other one, not the horse one) was getting a lot of inspiration from Anne’s and Emily’s poetry and, like, wouldn’t shut up about it. So, I revisited them. And I haven’t left.
How do you find time to write with three small children?
I’m laughing because I’ve JUST gone to retrieve my youngest from school where he apparently lost control of all the grossest bodily functions.
The short answer is there is no time. There never will be. Even now that (Praise God) my youngest is fully toilet trained (except for today) when I’m home in my fortress of beloved solitude I must still do laundry, pick up prescriptions, buy more Weetabix, and schedule car repairs. The choosing to make time is tricky. I am sitting here on the couch with my laptop feeling a bit guilty because my son (perfectly happy now that Spiderman: Into the Spider verse is on) is lying beside me and I’m not stroking his hair (which he hates) or getting him some water (which he won’t drink).
The long answer is: I write when I can, which could be before I eat lunch, while the kids are watching a movie, after the kids go to bed, on the back of someone’s lost homework page (dammit) left in the car, or leaning over the counter stirring ramen with one hand and trying to describe 19th century chimneysweep techniques in a way that anyone would care about.
Maybe it isn’t that long…
What is your philosophy about writing and how do you write?
I’m about to sound SUPER pretentious so I want to get ahead of that judgment and acknowledge I do indeed sound like a tool…
Writing is like taking a deep breath. After being without air, or before taking a big risk, or to gear up for another belly laugh. If I don’t do it for too long, I get weird (er). And mean (er). I figured it out around 7 years ago. I’ve kept a journal since I was a child (obviously) but after my second miscarriage, after moving to a place I didn’t want to go, and after having a SUPER dark thought and writing it down I realized that I was only writing when I couldn’t take it anymore. That’s when I began blogging. I have no idea what a “widget” is. To this day. But writing What I Can’t Take in a public way makes me turn it into something either funny or encouraging, and that helps me breathe better. I tend to collect things for a while, thoughts about my kids, memories, frustrations, etc. and then I try to make them mean the same thing. I don’t know why I do that, but that seems to be what I do. I’m doing it with my novel now as well. And I probably don’t need to tell you: I’m very confused. 100% of the time.
I’m really intrigued by the lovely little books you produced for your brother’s album. Please tell me more about it.
Charles (I feel like a poser calling him Charlie. He is equally incapable of calling me “Christina” without cringing. My nickname is Nini and my family only ever addresses me as such) wrote a beautiful album while at the Rauschenberg Residency in Captiva, Florida in 2018. He sends us snippets of what he’s working on all the time and I follow his progress on Facebook of course. I am consistently “Top Fan.” While at the residency he bought a little music box figure of a couple dancing. The woman’s leg was broken off. They were dressed in 1920’s attire. I immediately knew their backstory—it was one of the strangest most wonderful experiences of my life. I was living in Kansas at the time, had just returned from grocery shopping, bags were all over the kitchen, I was eating potato chips (CRISPS!) out of the bag while scrolling Facebook, and I knew these little people. Charles had named them Norma and Wallace. I wrote a prose poem/flash fiction thing standing there, eating chips, and suddenly not in Kansas anymore. I emailed it to Charles, half as a joke.
He loved it and said instead of CDs, we should find a way to make copies of the story to distribute with a digital version of the music. I was on board.
A couple of months later I found out we were being posted back in England. There is more to that but essentially, I felt a little distraught and heartbroken and lost again. In the 16 years I’ve been married we’ve only lived in the continental United States 5 years and 9 months. I have been a foreigner for over 10 years. Charles’s album is called Hiraeth which is the Welsh word for a longing to return to a place you can never go or that possibly never existed. That is precisely how I was feeling.
I was later sitting in my empty house for a month waiting to move overseas again and reading Juliet Barker’s The Brontës. Which is fantastic. I was fully immersed in the Brontës’ lives at this point and, honestly, escaping into them. As a little project I decided to make a Little Book out of an old take-out (Take AWAY!) bag and used a cheap little mending kit to sew it together. I wrote “Norma and Wallace” in it. I took a picture of it in the palm of my hand and sent it to Charles in a text as he was at a party in New York and we were chatting about wine. As one does.
There was no response.
I shrugged it off as he probably thought it was adorable but was at a party. In New York City. And is much cooler than me and has much cooler things to do.
Five or six minutes later he blew up my phone with messages. He’d showed the picture of the Little Book to his album producer and they were going a bit nuts. Could I make say, 30 more of these? As individual as possible?
Sitting in my folding chair, eating a salad, surrounded by nothing I said, “Yup.”
The rest of the story is on our Instagram page @normaandwallaceproject where you can see each of the Little Books and of what/where they were made. It was a project that truly healed and strengthened me as I left my country (again) and returned to a place I’d lived before but was now totally different. Because I was totally different.
How long have you been living in England and how do you find it? Do you think there are many differences in the language and culture?
We lived here, in the same county, from 2008-2011 and arrived back this past June. It is very strange to be back! I love England. America has nothing to compare. Not really. We have old, sure, but we keep it very marked and “slap you if you touch it” precious. Old is relative here. Old is functional. The art of the past is still relevant and incorporated into everyday life. It’s like being in a movie. (That is the very highest of Rauh Compliments.)
Your tea is better. Your accents are better. I miss central heating— “real” central heat, not radiators. Your greeting, “Can I help?” feels more accurate than “Can I help you?” I miss straight roads. I love Millionaire Shortbread. I miss things being open every Monday. I love carved village signs. I get embarrassed being told not to bring my dishes to the counter at Costa. I get stressed out parking my minivan. Everywhere.
I speak the language, yes. Sort of. I still concentrate hard on not referring to my jeans as “pants.” I feel silly saying “jumper” instead of sweater. A cart is a “trolley.” Chips are “crisps”; Fries are “chips.” There’s a fine line between assimilating and just being an obsequious wannabe Brit. Should I say “nappy” instead of “diaper” to my American friend? Do I say that meeting for coffee would be “brilliant!” or “great!” to my British friend? Which one will think I’m a fake?
As a military family it is an unexpected pleasure to live in a place that holds actual memories from 10 years before. You lost your blankie over there. You were born in that hospital. That was our best friend’s house. This is where you learned to say “motorcycle.” We went to a playgroup in that building, now you meet there for Girl Scouts. I had always wondered what it was like inside this school; now I know because you are old enough to go. I always wondered where this road went—now we live at the end of it.
That road led to our future. There’s no way I could have known that.
Finally—I love your gorgeous red lipstick, which one do you use?
This is perhaps the most important question you’ve asked me. My all-time favorite is M.A.C’s “M.A.C Red.” It’s so smooth and lasts well without feathering out into my Methuselah lip lines. I’m not a huge fan of matte finish, which goes against every fibre of my retro-loving nature, but crème is the best of both worlds: not too dry looking and not so glossy that a light wind leaves red hair trail streaks across your face like you’ve just been attacked by an angry badger. When I’m feeling a fine steady hand, I go for Lip Sense’s “Fly Girl” but that’s a huge commitment. And I tend to switch gears fast.
You can follow Christina on instagram
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Many thanks to Christina for sharing her work and life with me. It has been such a lovely experience.