Have you seen the documentary “Grey Gardens”? If not, you really should.
I don’t remember the first time I saw “Grey Gardens.” It was made in 1975, two years before I was born, so I definitely didn’t see it in a theater. It had to have been on TV. It seems like one of those things that I always knew about, faces and names that were lodged in my brain: Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. A mother and a daughter. Once wealthy, now confined to the ruins of their former lives, in a crumbling house on what is arguably the toniest street on Long Island. Their strangeness and resoluteness fascinated me and frightened me in equal measure, I think because they simply were who they were, no apologies.
Like many of us, from the time I was young, I was aware of a need to put on an act—to say the right things and wear the right things, in order to be accepted. I can remember being eight years old, in a department store dressing room with my mom. I was wearing a shirt I loved. A long patchwork of fabric sewn together. It reminded me of Grizabella, the raggedy cat in my favorite musical. I looked in the mirror and thought: I need this. I need this. My mom told me she’d get it for me, and excitement swelled inside me. Then I started to cry. “No, I can’t have it,” I told her. “The other kids won’t like it.”
It probably says something that more than thirty years later, I can still conjure the excitement and the dread I felt in that dressing room. But watching Little Edie on screen, marching in her turban and makeshift skirt, I suspect that if she wanted an oversized patchwork shirt, she would’ve gotten it, and she would’ve worn it proudly, no matter what the other kids may have said. That’s something I greatly admire.
But for all of my “Grey Gardens” love, if I’m being perfectly honest, then I need to admit that the “spark” of the Edgewater idea wasn’t even mine. It came from a dear friend, the writer Lauren Oliver. I remember the exact date, May 4, 2011, my godson’s fourth birthday. After the party, I met Lauren for dinner and a brainstorming session: What should I write next? At the time, I was deep into writing the Stella Batts books, my series for younger readers; and while I loved writing the Stella books, I knew I wanted another project, a bigger one, a more ambitious one, for older readers. Lauren said, “Almost everything you write is about sisters.”
“I want to write a teen book about sisters, too,” I told her.
In her inimitable way, Lauren thought about this for about five seconds, and came up with the solution. “I know what you should do—write a ‘Grey Gardens’ book, with sisters.”
From the instant I heard the idea, I was in love with it. So in love that it took me a while to start writing, because the idea was so perfect to me, I didn’t want to risk messing it up. As long as something is in your head and not yet written, it has the potential to be perfect. I was scared of imperfection; actually, I was scared of making a giant mess of it. (And I could write about a thousand blog posts on the fears of writing.)
Eventually, the fear of not writing it was greater than the one about messing it up, and so I began. I knew who the sisters would be: one sister who, like the Beales, leaned into her life in this crumbling house. And another sister who felt deeply ashamed at her life there, even as she fiercely loved her sister. I named the narrator Lorrie, after Lauren Oliver, and got to work.
Edgewater is not a perfect book, but I no longer need it to be. It is, simply, a book about which I am very proud. It means a lot to me. I hope you read it, and that it means something to you, too.