Backstory of Small Acts of Sex and Electricity
Small Acts of Sex and Electricity began with the voice of my narrator, Mattie. Eventually I would realize that Mattie was an appraiser of fine arts and antiques, single, mid-thirties, collected neon signs, lived in a converted loft space in Chicago, felt a little clumsy in the physical world, sometimes experienced intuitive moments that overtook her like migraines. I would understand that she came to Southern California once a year to see her oldest friend Jane and stayed at Jane’s grandmother’s house on Miramar Beach. Between Jane’s influence and Mattie’s way of magnifying and enlarging upon people and events, Mattie would fall into her friend’s life as a firefighter slips into gear to put down a fire. What she didn’t expect, what I couldn’t see, was that Jane would drive off one morning at 4 a.m., and tell Mattie she was leaving her with her husband, Mike, their two young daughters, and her grandmother’s estate. Mattie would return to the house, find Mike asleep in the master bed, crawl under the sheets next to him and drop off. This is where Small Acts of Sex and Electricity would begin—with Mattie looking at Mike passed out on the bed as she tried to sum up the courage to tell him that his wife, her closest friend, had just left him.
When I opened the first Small Acts of Sex and Electricity file on the computer, I didn’t know any of these things. I’m one of those writers who work without the safety net of plot or an understanding of the propulsions of my characters when I begin. I just had that jumpiness and concern I get with a new novel, because I don’t know if I’m going to miss a rope, a trapeze, the whole works. No one wants to fall. No one wants to forget how to fly, midair. All I had, really, was Mattie’s smooth, small voice, her way of intense observation. She was telling me about someone named Jane. They were at Miramar Beach. Mattie and Jane were eight years old. Mattie sat on the steps to her parents’ rental, touching the peeling black paint of the railing. Jane worked her feet into the sand and talked about the ghost she wanted Mattie to meet in her grandmother’s walk-in closet. She pointed to the house. Miramar is one of those places too beautiful to nail entirely, but as I followed Mattie’s line of site, I saw the islands, the way the houses are lined up close to the water, the dogs, the joggers, the shore birds. I thought about coastal access and I felt the envy Mattie felt, that her family didn’t own one of those houses on the beach. Against this backdrop Jane told both of us that her father had shot himself in the head and that his head rolled down a stairway and landed at her feet. She said that when he became a ghost, he was stitched back together and that she talked with him in her grandmother’s closet. She wanted Mattie, whose hands were now covered in chips of black paint, to go down to the house with her and meet her father.
At this point I felt the story would open up. And that’s the thing I’m most concerned with: will the characters and sense of place drive me to spend the long labor required to write a novel? Will the language push me forward with necessity? I wrote the first few chapters indoors, at a desk made from a door, in the house where I lived in Santa Barbara. I walked Miramar Beach, took photos of the Miramar Hotel as it was being torn down. I didn’t know when I started Small Acts of Sex and Electricity that I would be moving across country to Boston a year later, that I would then have the task of reconstructing a place I lived in for 25 years, exchanging emails with friends left behind, asking them if they’d drive over to the beach and see what the church was like, the old tennis courts, reminding me of the way the waves break, how far the raft from the hotel was anchored offshore. Because these are all things that Mattie would know.
I found Mike passed out on the master bed, curled on his side, the covers down around the floor. Maybe he had kicked them off. Sometimes he and Jane slept that way. There was a tiny pool of moisture where the tip of his penis touched the bedding, a dimple at the base of his spine. He had a very long back. Spider veins just below his ankles. Mike was losing hair in a small circle at the back of his head, in the same spot where a man of God shaves his skull.
To get to him, I had inched down the hall, past the clock room where their daughters, Livvy and Mona, slept. Locking the door behind me in case they got up, I stood by the blue dust ruffle. I was supposed to wake Mike and tell him that Jane, his wife, my oldest friend, had just left him. She had driven off in Franny’s Jaguar.