THE STORY BEHIND THE REVERSE COMMUTE

I thought if I wrote the story readers would understand and empathize with the struggle of the American middle class.

Five years later, Trump was elected and so many people were shocked.

“I didn’t see this coming. How could this have happened?” they asked.

I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Sophie?

Sophie is one of the main characters in my first novel, The Reverse Commute. Her husband is a blue collar worker. She wears a pink collar. They live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to keep their heads above water. Sophie would have seen Trump coming years ago, back when Ronald Reagan was President and busted the air traffic controllers’ union, among other things.

Sophie would not have voted for Trump. She would be a Bernie supporter who then reluctantly voted for Hillary.

How do I know this?

I am Sophie.

I wrote The Reverse Commute for myself. It was an act of self-preservation. I, like Sophie, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Truthfully, I was standing before the abyss.

I lived in an old house built in 1728 along the Squamscott River just outside of Exeter, New Hampshire. Three squirrels frolicked along the rafters of my unfinished addition. The boiler blew up, the septic system crapped out, a tree fell on my van, and a year later another tree hit Rich’s truck. I had been laid off twice in my career. Rich’s work declined after the housing bubble burst. There was never enough money.

I drove a dented Hyundai with bumper stickers: New Hampshire for Obama and the Dave Matthews headless fire dancer. And yes, I did drive that car over a beach chair in the garage. My nephew saw this as a perfect metaphor for Sophie’s crushed dreams.

It is possible my entire life could be a metaphor.

I do wish on stars and I did have an erotic dream after watching the movie Blue Valentine starring Ryan Gosling.

My husband, Rich, is an easily distracted self-employed house painter and I worked as an Accounts Payable Royalty Specialist in a cubicle in a large old mill building in Ipswich, Massachusetts, forty-five minutes from my home in New Hampshire. I found the job after fourteen months of unemployment and $1200 a month Cobra payments.

Have I piqued your interest? Are you thinking about buying the book? Or do you need more?

I was friendly with the young man who sat in the cubicle next to me. His mother read The Reverse Commute and emailed to say, “The character Dan reminds me of my son.” Well yes, he should. When I moved to Florida she and I became good friends. We met at happy hours and Tuesday Trivia nights.

My books have continued to lead me to good friends.

My Dad did drive himself to a walk-in clinic while having a heart attack because he thought it was the flu. He told the ambulance driver to take him to Miriam Hospital instead of Rhode Island because they don’t charge for parking.

My friends and I did have weekly wine emergencies.

My dearest friend and cousin, Kathy, died of breast cancer at the age of fifty-one. We were roommates in Boston, we backpacked through Europe, and then the both of us ended up in the same small town of Stratham, New Hampshire.

John Irving once wrote about Stratham in Trying to Save Piggy Sneed:

“He (Piggy) lived in Stratham – on a road out of our town that ran to the ocean, about eight miles away….Now there was a town, Stratham! In small-town life is there anything more provincial than the tendency to sneer at smaller towns? Stratham was not Exeter (not that Exeter was much).”

John Irving also wrote:

“This is a memoir, but please understand that (to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false. A fiction writer’s memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than the one we can remember. The correct detail is rarely, exactly, what happened; the most truthful detail is what could have happened, or what should have. Half my life is an act of revision; more than half the act is performed with small changes. Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truths you haven’t had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary, strict toiling with the language…”

The Reverse Commute is not a memoir. It is a roman à clef, which is French for a novel with a key. A novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction. The fictitious names in the novel represent real people, and the “key” is the relationship between the nonfiction and the fiction. This serves to keep the author from incurring potentially expensive libel charges.

Some famous roman à clefs are: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tender Is The Night, Heart of Darkness, The Sun Also Rises, and The Devil Wears Prada.

I also gave the young girl in the novel some of my stories.

When I lived in Boston, my roommates and I hosted a Dead Celebrities Halloween party.

In another apartment I lived in on Commonwealth Avenue, one of the guys downstairs played the oboe in the Boston Symphony. He and his partner did convert their living room into a Japanese tearoom and invited us to formal tea ceremonies.

I spent a summer during college working on an assembly line at a Bic pen factory. I also called the labor board from a pay phone in the employee cafeteria. It was my Norma Rae moment.

There was some confusion, among some readers, about the alternating chapters. The book begins with a nameless girl on a train. She meets a handsome young man who is referred to as the Best Boy. He is an electrician and has ambitions of moving to Hollywood and working on movies.

The second chapter introduces the reader to Sophie and Ray, a middle aged couple struggling with middle class life during the Great Recession.

After four chapters or so, most readers quickly picked up on the fact that the following chapter would be back to the young girl’s story, then the next chapter would belong to Sophie, and so on.

I don’t know what to say about this other than I have changed the synopsis on Amazon and now introduce the book as two stories in one with alternating chapters. I didn’t want to change the concept of the nameless young girl and the Best Boy.  By the end of the novel, a majority of readers understood why I wrote it that way, and they didn’t have a problem following the story once they adapted to the rhythm of it.

The tricky thing with editing after the fact is that once you’ve seen the bad reviews you tend to overcompensate.

A few reviewers wrote that the ending was too perfect. The last chapter is titled Happily Ever After? The ending is meant to be ambivalent. I contemplated changing the chapter to Happily Ever After?????  Maybe some readers missed the question mark??? But the fact of the matter is, by the end of the book the reader knows what’s going on here, or should know after reading the chapter titled A Day Just Like Today. So the two endings – the young girl’s and Sophie’s with a question mark – again I don’t know what to say.

Maybe the book is meant for dreamers and magical thinkers. Read the book and then you tell me what you think about happy endings.

There were reviews that left me feeling sucker punched and ambushed.

“Throughout the story the liberal viewpoint is continually espoused. It sends the mistaken message that if only the government would take more action in the lives of the citizens, then everyone could live happily ever after. I kept waiting for the plot to show how their political ideology would actually help them attain their goals but never saw it.”

Of course, this woman also wrote:

“I guess one could say the book had happy endings but it seemed almost contrived.”

She was apparently another one who missed the question mark. I think she also missed the true spirit of the young girl’s story.

She wasn’t the only one to say the ending was contrived and I believe these reviewers were referring to a tragic event that takes place at a company picnic. Unfortunately, the company picnic that is a turning point for both women in the story was not contrived. It was real and if you link to this news article you will see yellow police tape in the photo. I was picnicking just beyond that cordoned off area when the accident happened. Like Sophie and the young girl, it was a turning point in my life, too.

I’ve thought a lot about why I wrote The Reverse Commute. I was after verisimilitude. The life I was living, and still am living in so many ways, is similar to a majority of unheralded American lives. Much of the dialogue and many of the scenes are based on real events. In all my novels I am writing about the world as I experience it in real time.

Flash forward five years. Trump is president. And here we are rolling back financial  regulations again. 57% of divorced couples cite money problems as the primary reason for the demise of their marriage. Do I really have to come right out and say a society that doesn’t take actions to improve people’s lives has dire consequences on said lives? Can’t the day to day struggle of the characters speak for itself? If the reader doesn’t understand the effect a nation’s politics has on its citizens’ lives, is it my fault?

I believe it is the job of the novelist to not just entertain but to observe the world and share the truth. The truth was always there in The Reverse Commute. After many blogs, pieces for the Huffington Post, and three more novels I felt I could do better by this little book. The love story with a message.

Over the past two months I have gone back to the original manuscript and the journals I kept that were also filled with sticky notes on which I scribbled things down in my cubicle. I wrote and I edited. The sentences are brighter and cleaner. The politics are back. The story is the same but closer to my original intent before the first edit I made after the nasty reviews. At that time I corrected the typos and removed some of the politics. I hate to admit it but I was intimidated by the bad reviews and the personal attacks. I am a much more confident writer now and I see this story for what it was, a middle class American shouting, “Hey, I’m out here struggling. Pay attention.

I learned to write in public, on my own. It’s not easy to speak up in a very divided nation. As one reviewer noted, “The other reviews were like republicans and democrats voting on a bill, “love it”, “hate it”. Wow, I had to see if this book sucks or is great. It’s great.”

I have no publisher to defend me, to prop me up when I get shit kicked. I don’t have a New York Times book reviewer to interpret and explain my positions. All I have is a passion, a drive, and a belief that for the reader there is a lot to be learned by imagining how another person lives when walking in their shoes for 300 pages.

I wanted to write a story about a woman who was trying to hold onto her marriage during difficult financial and political times, because that is what I was trying to do and I knew I wasn’t alone.

Let me be clear on something. This is not a book about politics. It is a real life love story with characters who have opinions and sometimes express those opinions.

I have reconciled myself with the fact that I may not sell a lot of books in my lifetime. I have never really understood the zeitgeist of the times I live in. I’ve always felt like an outsider standing in the snow looking through a window into a well-lit McMansion in the suburbs.

My younger sister and I discussed this. I told her I would leave the books to my daughters and maybe decades from now they could find a wider audience of receptive readers.

She replied, “In a different environment they will be found.”

I will admit it was not easy when I finally let the new edition go to the formatter. I must have read it twenty times then hesitated and checked it for the twenty-first time.

After I hit Send, I read an article in the New York Times that reminded me of a scene in The Reverse Commute. It’s in the chapter titled Tilting At Windmills. The young girl has just returned to work after being on vacation. Her co-worker tells her a sixty year old woman named Joan, who has worked at the company for sixteen years, has been let go.

For the record, I worked with this woman during my time in the cubicle. Joan’s story is truth. Months later she read my book. She is one of the readers who got it. She is also not the only ’employee at will’ who lost their job during my time in the cubicle.

“What? How can he do that?”

“He just can. It’s called an employee at will. She called Mandy at home later that night and told her all about it. She went in his office and one of the women from HR was there. That’s never a good sign. He had a list of his complaints against her, a review of her work so to speak. They went over COBRA and unemployment, which apparently she will be able to collect. At least he gave her that. Called it a layoff instead of a firing.”

“Oh, gee, that’s nice of him. She’s been here sixteen years. Suddenly she’s too slow?”

“When they were done dropping the bomb, Lou and the HR lady walked Joan to her desk. They gave her a box and watched her pack her belongings, the pictures of the grandkids and other personal items like those bobbing dashboard ornaments she collects. Then they had her hand over her door pass and escorted her out of the building….
Needless to say, morale is low right now and everyone’s scared. No one knows who’s next. We better get back to our desks, our fifteen minute break is almost up.”

When she got back to her cubicle she wasn’t scared, she was angry. She googled employee at will and discovered that it was a part of American law that stated either party could break the relationship for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all, as long as the company had not recognized a collective bargaining group or union.

Five years after writing that scene, the article I read in the New York Times addressed this very issue:

Bosses hold all the power in the at-will employment system that most American workers are subject to, under which they can be fired for “good cause, bad cause or no cause.” Employees who speak up risk everything — their jobs, their reputations, their livelihoods — while facing the unfair legal burden of having to prove their boss’s intentions. Until workers have the freedom from unfair firing, too many workplace rights will remain unfulfilled.

The alternative to at-will employment is “just cause,” which is the principle that an employee can be fired only for a legitimate, serious, work-performance reason.

The “just cause” system is typically part of union contracts. However, today only about 6 percent of private-sector employees are covered by a union contract. And there is a concerted effort to strip public-sector employees of many of their traditional rights and protections.

Similarly, workers may have a right to organize a union and collectively bargain, but in reality workers are often fired for organizing, and the laws against such practices — like all protections against unfair terminations — place the burden on employees to prove illegitimate intent.”

It took the election of Trump and the #metoo movement to get the Times to write this article.

I actually had another Amazon reviewer write this: “Don’t get her started on at-will employment.

I’d like to reply: “Oh no, please do get me started. I’d love to educate you.”

My oldest daughter called last night to tell me she road her bike ten miles to work at a country club where she waitresses. It was a slow night and after an hour they sent her home. I googled the minimum show up law in Colorado and discovered they don’t have one in the Rocky Mountain state.

Workers’ rights aren’t on the agenda in most places; only eight blue states have minimum show up laws.

My daughter biked the ten miles back to Fort Collins on a cold, snowy January night after making $9.30, the minimum wage in Colorado. If you want to know what this real life story’s connection is to The Reverse Commute,  Buy the Book. It’s in the chapter titled, A Backyard Wedding, that includes my story of the assembly line and the phone call to the Labor Board.

As one character in The Reverse Commute says, Let’s not forget, politics do affect our everyday lives.”

Or as Sophie wonders, “Was there a word for the way news events collide with your personal life? When she watched the news, it all seemed so removed. But she knew it wasn’t. The next day you could lose your job, your health insurance, your house, or all of the above. Your local school budget could be cut, bridges might collapse, your drinking water could be contaminated. Why do so many people say they don’t care about politics? Don’t they know they have to care? For their own good?”

All of my books are slice of life stories that contain characters with opinions. They are middle class Americans who have been affected by the politics of America since Ronald Reagan began to dismantle the New Deal. My entire adult life I have been a witness to this era of American history.

My writing is my small contribution at getting people to sit up, pay attention, and to care about politics and the lives of their fellow Americans. There is a new notebook. My daughter’s snowy bike ride has been recorded. Young people from Boston to San Francisco are struggling with college loans, exorbitant rents, and stagnant wages.

I’m here. I’m paying attention. I’m writing it all down. Stay tuned.

 

***The newly edited version of The Reverse Commute is available now on Amazon. Please buy it and if you enjoy it PLEASE write a review.  This little book needs some TLC.***

NEW Cover TRC

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2 thoughts on “THE STORY BEHIND THE REVERSE COMMUTE

  1. Sheila, you know how I loved “The Reverse Commute.” I don’t understand those who were confused by the structure. It is quite clear, unless one reads it while half asleep.
    I look forward to reading your revision.
    This is an important post. I shared it to my f/b page. Good luck, my friend.

    Like

    • Thank you, Connie. You are a dear friend and a wonderful editor. Working with you on Under The Same Sun was a joy and a pleasure. I learned so much and your guiding hand was there as I edited The Reverse Commute. Some day, some time in the future, I hope Americans wake up and pay attention.

      Like

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