I have been writing and thinking about a family saga for over a decade. That saga has become the Normal Family trilogy, a chronicle of the humor and pain among the Pendergast family, a well-to-do, eccentric New England family that comes unraveled over time. This work is semi-autobiographical and certainly cathartic, but most of the big events in the trilogy are the product of my imagination as I attempted to construct a satisfying saga that makes more sense than real life. As author Tom Clancy said: "the difference between fact and fiction is that fiction has to make sense." That is the writer's job.
The trilogy is arranged as follows: Normal Family is Youth; No One Ran to the Altar is Adulthood; and All the Lies We Live is Old Age. My goal with this trilogy was to create a large umbrella under which I could place many of my core observations of people I have known, or amalgams of the various types of people. The themes of alcoholism, the challenges in raising an Asperger's gifted child, parental neglect along with those sad consequences, and both emotional and physical abuse run throughout my work. Yet these books are funny! Go figure. Humor is clearly one of the best defense mechanisms we have in our arsenal of survival. My hope is that by shedding light on these undesirable behaviors more adults will work harder to be good people who love and nurture their children. It is never too late to change.
The first volume Normal Family is a coming-of-age novel written from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy, Henry Pendergast. When we first meet Henry he is overwhelmed by the chaos in his family, led by the double-teaming he receives at the hands of his brilliant brother Albert and thuggish sister Lucy. Normal Family is a novel about loss: loss of innocence, loss of loved ones, loss of personal identity, and loss of way of life. The events at the novel's conclusion were written to symbolize that end, as well as suggest a new beginning.
Many of the characters in Normal Family may not be likable upon first meeting but that has been done intentionally. I want to show how there is good and bad in everyone. Some of the characters step up in surprising ways while others disappoint us, just as in real life. Normal Family is written in the first person, in a frenetic style set over four successive family holidays. Events are always coming at the characters, ranging from the trivial to the tragic, in a steady storm that shows no sign of relenting. With the passage of each holiday across the year, Henry moves from the innocence of a child (e.g., how to get more holiday mints from his evil brother at Thanksgiving) to coming to grips with the dissolution of the family by Independence Day.
The beauty of this family is they can laugh through the pain. They are aware of their idiosyncrasies, they are all intelligent, interesting, flawed characters. By the end of Normal Family, the reader should be dizzy from the chaos that has rocked the family over the year.
Occasionally I am asked which scenes I most enjoyed writing. If I had to pick two scenes, the first would be Henry driving with his mother after the grandfather demolishes the Christmas tree in his drunken stupor. She is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, which quickly becomes apparent as Henry cowers in the back seat while she mows down a field of lane divider cones in downtown Providence. Onlookers gaze in bewilderment as the police arrive on the scene and discover pills (her uppers) in the glove box. Off to jail they go. The other scene is the stepmother tennis match with the country club cheats, in which Henry (one of two ballboys) gets physically tangled up with his wicked stepmother on the clay court.
The second volume, No One Ran to the Altar, is about betrayal. It was challenging to come up with a betrayal so tragic that Henry would finally be able to express anger at Ned, his father, which is the core unresolved issue from his therapy. I wrote this volume so it could be read on its own, even though reading Normal Family first will help provide useful background.
It was much more difficult to write Normal Family than the second volume, given it needed to be told entirely through the first person narrative of a precocious ten-year-old boy. Henry has to see everything for us, which means a great deal of dialogue is needed to round out the other characters. No One Ran to the Altar is told in the omniscient point of view, except for Henry's adult therapy session, which is told in the first person to highlight the distance between his assessment of what is normal and the truth the therapist and reader can see.
No One Ran to the Altar also plays with time, jumping around from past to present in an attempt to paint a fuller portrait. When I write, I think of two metaphors: the first is that of a new building, in which the foundation must be perfectly set or everything else will fail. The windows, the trim, all the finishings don't matter without a great foundation. The second is the metaphor of a drawing. The early pushes into the fog are rough sketches needing more meat on the bone later. I will continue circling back providing that meat but it's important to sketch freely and go where the sketch leads. Many sketching attempts will be tossed. But the goal is to arrive at a promising sketch that can be fully fleshed out in creating a finished watercolor.
Sometimes an actual scene out in life will strike me as perfect for the novel, with some minor changes tailored to fit the characters at hand. The scene where suicidal Albert is confronted by the innocent little girl at the Austin coffee shop came from a real-life scene I witnessed. What I brought to that was the juxtaposition of the girl with Albert, as Lucy watches unnoticed by her brother, making for a much larger scene than the one in real life. It added the poignancy I needed to wrap up that section.
When thinking about which scenes I enjoyed writing most in the second volume, certainly Eve in Newport when she assaults Kaylob, the trashy neighbor child, and her sex-talk interactions with Lucy over lobster rolls at the chic Le Forge restaurant in Newport. I especially liked the juxtaposition of one trashy family with another, as we later see Mrs. Astor hurrying away from the Pendergasts, appalled by their sex talk. "Clearly more than one neighborhood had gone to hell." I also liked the challenge of the fishing trip scene with Ned and Bunny, where I tried to capture the struggle of broken fathers and sons attempting to communicate following betrayals. To show that all fathers were once sons and that the generational cycles are difficult, if not impossible, to escape. I was happy to have the chance to write about nature in Maine, and hope I did a good job in capturing the beauty juxtaposed against the family tensions.
I have used that word juxtapose more than once in this write-up. This is because my education in studying great novels focused on the importance of dichotomies. It is life's dichotomies that make human life so fascinating. The gaps between what we say and what we do. Dichotomies like love and hate and how they are intertwined in tragic ways. Dichotomies like humor and pain, and how they live together. For me, humor is the great gift that makes life's pains bearable. This should be evident as you read along. Other dichotomies include the will to live and the desire to end one's life; belief in God versus atheism; unwillingness to compromise versus needing to compromise to survive.
The final volume is All the Lies We Live, and features several spunky octogenarians still chasing their dreams. This is a novel about redemption through love, how love is the only lasting truth in life and beyond. Friends and family are gathering on Vinalhaven Island in Maine to celebrate Henry Pendergast's 80th birthday. But will a hurricane ruin his celebration? Funny, sad, and full of hope, this is the conclusion I wanted in showing how all of life is cycles within cycles, true for the trilogy itself.
Thanks for reading and may you always manage to smile through your tears.
Author Thoughts on the Normal Family Trilogy
Don Trowden discusses his work in this interview with Bob Keyes of the Maine Sunday Telegram. Read here.