That was the hum

What follows is the text of the first speech I ever gave in my life: a talk at the American Library Association Winter Conference, before the publication of my first book, The Swimming Pool.

I came across it the other day as I was writing a letter to Kemie Nix, one of the teachers I thank in the acknowledgments for The Half Brother. It’s quite possible I wouldn’t be a writer now without Mrs. Nix. She was the one who made me feel like I wasn’t an oddball for being a voracious reader, but instead special. She affirmed my obsession, and thus gave me the strength to let my nerd flag fly.

As you’ll see, my speech was largely about her. It turned out that many people in the room that day knew her, which is no surprise, as she is a children’s literature legend. 

I was, of course, quite conscious that I was talking to a roomful of librarians. But every word I say here is true.


Hi. Thank you so much for having me here today, and thank you for braving this weather—I am originally from Atlanta, so I feel your pain. [note: It was January, in Boston.] I’ve been here 20 years and I’m just starting to get used to it. Thank you also for including me in this wonderful group of writers. It is a real privilege.

This is my first official gig in honor of The Swimming Pool, and I am so glad it’s here with you today, and that I get to talk about libraries. I grew up in libraries.

Although I should mention here—full disclosure—that I also grew up, quite literally, in a bookstore, my father’s bookstore, Oxford Books in Atlanta, which in its day was a wonderful store. It’s no longer there. I worked there in the summers and I hung out the rest of the year and filched as much as I could get away with. You might think that as the daughter of a bookstore owner I wouldn’t have much use for libraries, but my book needs were vast, and if I had taken everything I wanted from my dad he wouldn’t have had a children’s section left. I believe that’s called shrinkage. I was not allowed to shrink the bookstore. So I ended up, of course, at the library.

 Every book contained its own world, and the library contained hundreds, thousands, of books, and that was a kind of infinity. That was the hum.

Some of my earliest and best memories are of my elementary school library. It was one of the places in my life where I have felt the safest—not that I have felt unsafe, thank God, in other places. But I walked into that library and felt cocooned. I felt surrounded by a hum, of stories, of knowledge, and surrounded by the caring of both the people I knew, the teachers and librarians, and of those I didn’t: the writers, the mysterious, omnipotent writers, who wanted to share those stories with me. Maybe I’d have to give the books back. But if you were me, you would also check them out again and again and again.

In my memory, I am alone in this library a lot. In reality, I’m sure I wasn’t allowed to roam the halls of my school alone, or to go wherever I pleased whenever I pleased, but even if it’s not true this picture of me alone in the library is part of its appeal, because I like being alone. That’s one of the requirements of being a writer, of course. And I think especially as a child, being alone meant freedom—it meant no one telling me what to do, no one distracting me. It meant that I was free to explore whatever I wanted. In other words, all those books. The one person I really remember in the library, other than myself, was Mrs. Nix, the Children’s Literature teacher. Some of you, actually, might know Mrs. Kemie Nix, of Atlanta. She’s still teaching. More on her in a minute.

So you walked in the library and there’s the librarian’s desk and there is the stamp pad and the stamper, and the place where you write your name on the card. There are shelves all around, and in the middle of the room are some round tables—but I am headed to the other end of the room: to the fiction. The fiction stacks were in lines, like this. In my memory, I am surrounded by these stacks, and they seem enormous, enfolding—but I can also just reach the top shelf.

 I’d take this big teetering pile of books to the checkout desk and surely, surely I am transgressing, but no, they let me take them all.

So over here, the alphabet starts—we’ve got Lloyd Alexander. We’ve got E. Nesbit—but she’s filed here under Bland, which she certainly was not, in the Bs. I found out that’s what they did, it was this little secret: there on the spine she’s E. Nesbit, but inside on the copyright page, in that librarian handwriting–what’s up with that?–it says she’s Mrs. Edith Bland. So I felt privy to this little secret, to the rest of her name. Then there’s Susan Cooper; then Edward Eager; jump over one, C.S. Lewis—you are probably detecting a pattern here. I was definitely a little Anglophile fantasy nut. But also Burnett, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and John Fitzgerald, of the Great Brain, and way over here Laura Ingalls Wilder–and many, many more, some of whose names I unfortunately don’t remember.

But the point is that I am in these stacks and I am surrounded by things I already love, or things I am going to love. The sense of possibility there was intoxicating. Every book contained its own world, and the library contained hundreds, thousands, of books, and that was a kind of infinity. That was the hum.

As I got older the hum continued, and changed a bit—in my high school library, the hum got louder, and the tone changed, with all the hormones zinging around–and in my college library things were getting serious, and the hum was definitely louder still, and different again, not better or worse, just different. Because all that nonfiction was definitely changing the tone.

When I moved to Boston, I took a couple of classes at Harvard, and I got library privileges. And let me tell you, at Widener, there’s not a hum, there’s a roar. Practically deafening.

So, I have always been well-served by my school libraries.

The summer was the time when I went to my public library. I got a few books from my dad but I had a lot of time on my hands, and, as I said, my needs were large, and at the public library there was no limit. I would wander their stacks, which were much bigger, and just pick and choose at will, get obscure things, things I’d never heard of, and I’d take this big teetering pile of books to the checkout desk and surely, surely I am transgressing, but no, they let me take them all. And then I’d go home and curl up in the corner of the sofa, inside, in the air conditioning, away from the Atlanta heat–because I was not really an outdoorsy kind of kid, as you might imagine–and I read for hours and hours, days and days. You read until your mom calls you to dinner and you look up and you’re dazed and you’re not really sure where you are, or maybe even who you are.

 For a kid who didn’t have any ribbons or trophies from track meets, or swim meets, or   horse shows, those medals confirmed that maybe, in fact, I didn’t need to get my nose out of the book.

And I wrote all the titles of all these books down, because I had done all the required summer reading by now and I was way out off the grid, and in the fall I carried my list to school and very proudly gave it to Mrs. Nix, the children’s lit teacher.

Now. I loved Mrs. Nix, and I think she loved me. I imagine I was pretty easy for Children’s Lit teacher to love—I’m not sure anyone else literally jumped up and down when it was time to go to the library or when the Scholastic book order came in. Mrs. Nix wore doubleknit pantsuits (this was the 70s) and she had a round face and round sort of hair, which she wore in a big round bun, every day, with a velvet bow. Reepicheep was her favorite character; you’d get extra credit if you knew that. Starting in 2nd grade, she came to our classroom several times a week and we talked about books. We kept a reading journal, and we had to read every night and write down what we read.

At the end of the year, there was a reading banquet, where Mrs. Nix gave out medals. There was a bronze medal, for second most books read (this was for every grade); there was a silver medal, for most books read; and there was a gold medal, for the best books read. One year I won the bronze, and the next year the silver, and the next the gold. And for a kid who didn’t have any ribbons or trophies from track meets, or swim meets, or horse shows, those medals confirmed that I was, in fact, doing something important, during all those hours lost in other worlds. Those medals confirmed that maybe I didn’t need to get my nose out of the book.

So I had this list of all the books I had read, starting when I was seven or eight, in the back of my reading journal, and the list grew and grew.

I went to a school that was K through 12, and elementary school lasted then through 6th grade. When we were getting ready to graduate, and go across campus to the scary junior high, Mrs. Nix said to us, “Give me your lists. Give me your list of books and I will keep it safe, I will put it in my files, and someday when you graduate”—which was of course impossible to imagine—“when you graduate, come back and I will give you your list. But make sure to give it to me, don’t keep it yourself, because you’ll lose it.” So I gave her my list.

And I didn’t forget about it. I was probably the only one who thought about that list for the next six years. And I wanted the list—especially as I got older and my memory got fuzzier of what books were actually on it—but I thought, no no, Mrs. Nix has the list. The list is safe.

 That’s what libraries do: they keep those worlds alive, and available, like so many magic wardrobes, all lined up.


And then one day, miraculously, I was a senior in high school, and I was eighteen years old, and I made the trek across campus back to the elementary school, where everything was very, very small. The chairs were little bitty and the toilets were little bitty and the stacks in the library were to about here.   And I went and found Mrs. Nix in her office, which I think was literally the size of a broom closet, and I said, “I’m here! I’m here for my list. I want my list.” And she said, “You came back! Of course you did! Let me get the list.”

And she looked for it.

And she couldn’t find it.

She had lost my list.

Now, I know for a fact that Mrs. Nix felt much worse than I did. She probably still loses sleep over it. I remember she wrote me when I graduated from college and said, “That was probably the stupidest thing I ever did, saying I would keep those lists! I am so, so sorry!” And she sent me the old reading lists from when I was in elementary school, because maybe those would be a substitute. And they did jog my memory, but it wasn’t the same. Because I had found the stuff that wasn’t official. I had found the stuff on the dusty shelves. I had found the stuff that people hadn’t checked out in years, and I had sunk into the sofa and into those worlds, which were still alive, even after all that time–because the world of a book is around as long as the book is. Because that’s what libraries do: they keep those worlds alive, and available, like so many magic wardrobes, all lined up.

I won’t sugarcoat it. I wish I had that list. In a way, that list would be the real story of my childhood—at least as much as the things that actually happened to me, and in some cases more so. Those worlds formed me. Those characters are in me. Watching them wrestle with their problems and make their decisions, watching them be impossibly creative and impossibly brave, watching them realize that the solution to their problems and perhaps their very survival came down to them—for what is the world of a children’s book if not a place where the adults are ancillary, and where the children, out of utter necessity, finally have power?—taught me, as well, that I could be independent, that I could be strong, that I had power.

Later on, that faith in myself helped me to believe that, just possibly, I too could become one of those magical creatures: not a faun or a fairy, but a writer.

In the end, those titles that I no longer have are the details. If I knew them, they would be like the ticket stubs in the scrapbook, the pictures that are fading a little bit, where everyone has bad hair and you can’t believe you really wore gouchos. All those titles would make me say, “Oh! Of course!” But what they would make me see would be the threads that are already tightly, inextricably woven into the fabric that is myself.

So I did become a writer, a desire which once seemed to me the height of hubris. But somehow I’ve done it. My book, The Swimming Pool, is a book for adults. It has no fairies or fauns or phoenixes, and I suppose it is only fantasy insofar as in it an older woman has an affair with a younger man. (And I would like to mention that I began writing it several years before the term cougar really entered the zeitgeist. So I suppose I was just prescient.)

 In a way, that list would be the real story of my childhood.

It is set on Cape Cod, and it’s the story of a young man, Jed McClatchey, who has lost both his parents. He is grieving, emotionally frozen, but then he falls in love with Marcella, the older woman—who he then discovers had been his father’s mistress. She is grieving too, but together they begin to inch forward—but then he, and we, begin to wonder if she knows anything about the death of Jed’s mother, whose murderer has never been found.

The Swimming Pool is definitely a story about passion, about the love between lovers, but also between sibings, between long-married spouses, and especially between parents and children. It’s a story about the connections, sometimes surprising, that bind us together, and about the ripple effects of our actions, sometimes generations later.

As a writer, of course, I hope that my book is always checked out of your libraries. I hope it’s never actually there on the shelf—I hope there’s a waiting list for it. I hope it never gathers dust. But still, I would be very happy if someday someone stumbles upon The Swimming Pool when they weren’t looking for it. My fondest hope is that readers take it home and sink into their sofas, or into their lounge chairs, or into the sand on the beach, and get lost in a world I have created, and let my characters become a part of them. And perhaps let my characters change them, as I was changed, by those hundreds–nay, thousands–of books I read, and am still reading.

Thank you.