My second guest today is Nicole Dieker, author of The Biographies of Ordinary People, a two-volume series telling the story of one family over three decades. You can find an extract from Volume 1 below along with a fascinating guest post from Nicole about her inspiration for the book.
About the Book
The Biographies of Ordinary People is the story of the Gruber family: Rosemary and Jack, and their daughters Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie. The two-volume series begins in July 1989, on Rosemary’s thirty-fifth birthday; it ends in November 2016, on Meredith’s thirty-fifth birthday. When the Grubers move to a small Midwestern town so Jack can teach music at a local college, each family member has an idea of who they might become. Jack wants to foster intellectual curiosity in his students. Rosemary wants to be “the most important person in her own life for the length of an afternoon.” Meredith wants to model herself after the girls she’s read about in books: Betsy Ray, Pauline Fossil, Jo March. Natalie wants to figure out how she’s different from her sisters—and Jackie, the youngest, wants to sing. Set against the past thirty years of social and cultural changes, this story of family, friendship, and artistic ambition takes us into intimately familiar experiences: putting on a play, falling out with a best friend, getting dial-up internet for the first time. Drinking sparkling wine out of a paper cup on December 31, 1999 and wondering what will happen next.
|Publication:||23rd May 2017||Genre:||Fiction|
Find The Biographies of Ordinary People on Goodreads
Guest Post: ‘Why I Wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People’ by Nicole Dieker
I don’t know about you, but I grew up reading novels that followed girls’ lives from childhood to adulthood: Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, Ballet Shoes, Betsy-Tacy, Little Women. Although I read voraciously, in all genres, I kept coming back to these stories of girls growing up – even after I had grown up myself.
I used these novels as guides: I studied Pauline Fossil’s audition experiences before trying out for plays and read about Betsy Ray’s first dance before attending mine. When I got my first full-time job, I went back to Little Town on the Prairie and comforted myself with the knowledge that Laura Ingalls had also felt as shocked as I was; the repetition, the querulous bosses, the outside world that was now only glimpsed in sunrise and twilight.
So I knew, for years, that I wanted to write a book like that—but I wanted to set it in a contemporary time period.
The Biographies of Ordinary People tells the story of three sisters—Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie Gruber—growing up at the turn of the millennium. The book is not autobiography, but it draws from many of my own experiences. I grew up in a small Midwestern town, my parents were both musicians, and my life was as ordinary as Meredith’s: I went to the library, I acted out imagined narratives with my sister and my friends, I wrote stories.
Like Meredith—and like Pauline, Betsy, Anne, and Jo—I was also ambitious. The first volume of The Biographies of Ordinary People is about childhood, family, and learning who you might want to become. The second volume is about working towards those ambitions. I include the first chapter of Volume Two at the end of Volume One because it sets the tone for what is coming next: Meredith, about to graduate from college, asking a professor why they’ve only studied the lives of famous artists.
“Everything we’ve studied—in theater, and in my English classes, and in art history and music history and everything else—has been about famous people.”
“Okay,” Gina said, smiling. Sometimes Meredith looked at her and saw the person she hoped she might become, smart and calm and patient in an office surrounded by bookshelves that reached up to the ceiling. Meredith expected she would have students someday—it was one of the better ways for artists and writers to make money—and she thought about what she would put in her own office. The students who came to visit her might see all the books, memorize the titles, and look them up later, just like she had done.
“And then when we go to the library it’s the same thing. There are all these biographies of famous people and how they lived their lives, but most of us aren’t going to be famous. It’s like we’ve gotten these models for life that aren’t applicable.” Meredith didn’t need to think about how to phrase her thoughts, because she had planned them out before she climbed the stairs. “We’ve learned about all of these well-known artists and how they did their work, but we don’t ever study how the rest of us do it. Where are the biographies of ordinary people?”
Gina didn’t answer right away, and when she did she said “I don’t know,” and Meredith could tell that it wasn’t a question she had ever really thought about before. “There’s Studs Terkel—”
“But that’s not what you mean. I’m not sure they exist. Maybe it’s something everyone has to figure out on their own.”
My series doesn’t offer all the answers. But I could see someone reading it the same way I read Betsy In Spite of Herself or Anne of Windy Poplars: to learn how another young woman figures it out, and to know that another person feels the same way they do.
Extract from The Biographies of Ordinary People, Vol 1 – Chapter 1
The last night before they left was Rosemary Gruber’s thirty-fifth birthday.
It had, of course, been her birthday since the morning, and the girls had duly remembered to call out “Happy birthday, mommy!” when they came out of the bedroom. Meredith did the bulk of the remembering, and had written it on her chart by the door, but after they were finished the chart came down and was thrown away, and Rosemary dug her nails gently at the bits of Scotch tape stuck to the hollow door’s wooden veneer, because they did not want to lose their security deposit. Jack had assumed they would lose it, with the three girls, but Rosemary knew better. Teach a child that food is only served at the table, and they’ll never try to eat it over the carpet. It hadn’t been like that in her house when she was a child, but she had made this home with her own words and will. (And now she was unmaking it and stacking it in boxes, and that chart was finally coming down.)
“Were you born on a Friday?” Meredith asked, as Rosemary brushed her hair.
“No,” Rosemary said. “I was born on a Saturday.” She was pretty sure of this. It sounded like it could be true. She was thinking about everything that still had to be finished before they left, and only partially thinking about Meredith’s hair, and it was a good thing the mirror had been packed away or her daughter would have noticed.
“Saturday’s child works hard for a living,” Meredith recited. That’s true enough, Rosemary thought, with the part of her mind that wasn’t worrying about packing and cleaning and whether it was worth it to bathe all three girls one more time before they left. “What day was I born on?” her daughter continued.
“Tuesday,” Rosemary said, and this she did remember, because she had been watching Laverne and Shirley in the hospital while she waited for her contractions to continue.
“Tuesday’s child is full of grace,” Meredith said, and smiled at herself, and at the idea of being graceful. It was a real smile, because Meredith was happy, not one of the posed ones she put on for pictures. Rosemary’s oldest daughter was not yet eight years old and she would tilt her head and widen her eyes whenever anyone pulled out a camera, imitating the child models she saw in Rosemary’s issues of Ladies’ Home Journal. Rosemary had thought about tossing the magazines out before Meredith could get to them, but her weirdo kid read everything that came into the house, often before Rosemary herself could read it. She’d be making dinner and the kids would have PBS on and Meredith wouldn’t be watching; she’d be squatting on the carpet in front of the sofa with one knee tucked under her chin, studying “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”
“What day was Natalie born on?” Meredith asked, and Rosemary said “Sunday,” because she remembered that day too—and then she suddenly remembered she was wrong about Meredith, that she had gone into the hospital on Tuesday but Meredith had been born at night, when it was Wednesday.
“Nat, hair,” Meredith called out, and Rosemary’s second daughter took her place in front of what would have been the mirror but was now just a blank wall, with a mom and her little girl cross-legged on the carpet and facing the empty space. Rosemary did not need to look in the mirror on her thirty-fifth birthday; she had not showered that day and probably wouldn’t until the evening, and she had stopped wearing makeup years ago, but she was still thin, and Jack smiled when he looked at her, and nobody else really looked at her besides her daughters.
“Sunday’s child—no, wait, the child that’s born on the Sabbath Day is blithe and bonny and good and gay,” Meredith sang, and Natalie echoed “blithe and bonny” the way she always imitated her sister, and Rosemary looked at her happy baby, the one who came home from preschool with stories about new friends and games, and thought again: true enough. Her middle daughter had Rosemary’s own golden-brown wavy hair, though the girls only knew that from photos because Rosemary had cut it all short right before Meredith was born. All three of her children had been born with hair that clustered in tiny dark sweatlocks, but Natalie’s hair was the only one to thicken and curl.
“Blithe and bonny,” Natalie continued to sing, turning the words into nonsense, and Rosemary could see Meredith stiffen slightly with frustration. The two of them were close, but Meredith very much wanted to be her own person. The nursery rhyme was something she had memorized.
“When was Jackie born?” Meredith asked, over Natalie’s song.
“I don’t remember,” Rosemary said, even though it would have been easy enough to count backwards; Jackie had just turned three a few weeks ago. On a Tuesday.
“We don’t know who you are yet,” Meredith said to Jackie, and Rosemary thought this was also true; she was pretty sure she knew who her two older daughters were, but Jackie was still toddling between babyhood and personality. Watching the two girls who had already gone ahead of her and figuring out how she was going to be similar to—and different from—them.
About the Author
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer, a senior editor at The Billfold, and a columnist at The Write Life. Her work has appeared in Boing Boing, Popular Science, Scratch, SparkLife, The Freelancer, The Toast, and numerous other publications. The Biographies of Ordinary People is her debut novel, if you don’t count the speculative fiction epic she wrote when she was in high school.
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