welcome to shirley

“I wrote much of this in a room in our small farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in rural Pennsylvania and I think that was necessary. I was in no shape for human interaction for much of it, and being in this landscape allowed me to go deep into those cracks and crevices, feel that pain again, and stay there a while.” -Kelly McMasters

I spend most of my days doing editorial work at the Commonwealth Club and desperately searching for ways to make money on the side.  But in my spare time, when I’m not doing things that normal young people like to do, I work for SMITH, an online magazine devoted to nonfiction, memoir, and collective story telling.  I caught SMITH at a weird, intense time – their first book, Not Quite What I Was Planning, was just hitting the New York Times bestseller list.  I was thinking about moving to New York and they were ready to toss me in with all the publicity and the readings and whatever they’re still doing over there.  And then I moved to San Francisco.

Don’t worry, I’m still involved.  3,000 miles makes things harder but I’ve got the proof right here: my first feature in memoirville, SMITH’s section for interviews with published authors.  I read Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town and interviewed the author, Kelly McMasters.  I enjoyed the book a lot.  Shirley’s a largely working class town on Long Island; a lot of its residents work blue-collar jobs in the Hamptons.  The town itself has had terrible luck – an unusually large number of accidents, high cancer rates, and a generally bad reputation.  A lot of McMasters’ writing is really beautiful and the story itself is pretty powerful.  I was weirdly drawn to all the intrigue surrounding the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory, a shadowy nuclear research facility. I like that she uses the town and the laboratory to tell a bigger story. 

“Now it has become clear that it resonates way beyond our town and even Long Island—most people come from small towns, and many small towns have a story like this one, where there is some big federal or corporate giant that is braided into the existence of the town, for better or for worse. Sadly, there are many examples of facilities like the one in our backyard that have a blue-collar dumping ground next to it. Shirley is ultimately a true microcosm, both environmentally and socially, of so much of America.”

Both of these quotes come from the interview.  The first was particularly striking because I imagine it must have taken a lot to write about the town’s long, sad history.  Certain stories stick with me – the toddler whose delayed speech turned out to be a tumor under her tongue, the fifteen-year-old girl who was stabbed more than a dozen times and left in the woods, Jerry – McMasters’ friendliest neighbor and a maintenance man at Brookhaven – and his agonizing battle with cancer.  It’s not the content, as gruesome as these episodes are; it’s the telling.  I imagine her sitting in this little wooden room, alone with her thoughts and all of these people.  I hope it was cathartic.  If I sat alone in a little wooden room and started to write I can’t even imagine what would come out.  

I really like interviewing writers and I’m trying to get better at it.  It’s hard to get beyond the standard stupid questions (where do you get your ideas?) and the overly technical stuff that belongs in the classroom (was that an allusion to Milton’s Areopagitica?).  SMITH is willing to give me more practice, so if you know of any memoirs coming out in the next month or so, please let me know. The best thing about this job?  Free books delivered to your door.

Read the full interview here or a few excerpts from the book here.

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