My mother had a cousin I’ll call Ann, and Ann was very odd. Many of my mother’s relatives were odd, in fact, and some of them were flat-out crazy; but since Ann’s principal peculiarity was that she was habitually silent and withdrawn, she was actually one of the easier family members to have around and as a child I saw quite a lot of her. In a time when successful day-to-day living required a certain amount of interaction with other human beings, Ann couldn’t live alone (today she’d probably do everything online and be just fine), but she knew how to sew and made a modest living doing alterations in a tailor shop, so she moved from house to house among her relatives, staying with each for as long as they could bear her brooding presence hovering at the edges of the family circle. Ann never, that I saw, actually looked directly at anyone; but if you happened to look at her, you could see that she hated you.
My mother said all the hate was because Ann had suffered a Life-Blighting Disappointment in her formative years. According to Mom, a spirit-crushing blow often caused a sensitive soul (Ann was a sensitive soul) to go straight around the bend.
I was afraid for years to find out what Ann’s disappointment had actually been. I thought that just hearing about it might crush my soul, too. But eventually I asked, and my mother gravely explained that as a very young girl, Ann had entered a magazine-sponsored story-writing contest—which she won. The judges were impressed with her work, and said nice things; and Ann and her mother took the train to Chicago to have her picture taken with them.
Unfortunately, when the judges saw how young Ann was, they refused to believe that she could really have written the story herself. They gave the prize to the runner-up story instead, and published it in their magazine.
A sad, sad tale—with a sequel.
The sequel is that years later, my mother showed me Ann’s story, found among her things when she died. I was impressed by Ann’s wonderful penmanship, which was like lace; but by the story—not so much. It concerned a wedding among the adorable little elfs in Elf-land (this was before Tolkien gave us the plural elves), and was sugary enough to cause tooth decay.
It was also not original, as I discovered ten years or so later when I was leafing through some turn-of-the-20th-century magazines. I came across a children’s story—charmingly illustrated—about a wedding among the adorable little fairies in Fairy-land.
Yep. Same story.
In what may have been the first game of Mad-Libs ever played, Ann had gone through “The Fairy’s Wedding” and changed fairies to elves, moonbeams to sunbeams, nouns to other nouns, and verbs to other verbs. If the fairies wore pink, the elves wore blue. If they frolicked, the elves skipped. If they ate fairy-cake and drank dew, Ann’s more adventurous elves ate ice-cream and drank hop-beer. The judges had presumably rescinded Ann’s prize not because of her age, but because somewhere between the announcement of the contest winner and Ann’s arrival in Chicago, they became aware that “The Elf’s Wedding” had been cribbed from a story published only three years before in a rival magazine.
After I finished laughing my ass off, the story of Ann’s Great Disappointment suggested to me—yes—a plot for a novel.
I’ve been thinking for years of writing about the struggles of another relative of mine—another distant cousin—during the Great Depression. I know a lot about the Great Depression. Both of my parents graduated from high school in 1929, and for the rest of their lives, they talked about the Great Depression all the time. As a kid, I got very sick of the topic (“Eat your vegetables. Why, in the 30s we couldn’t afford nice vegetables like that!”), but it provided me with a wealth of potential material.
And I always had an interest in this particular cousin anyway, because aside from the unfortunate Ann, she was the only member of the family besides me who ever wanted to be a writer. Actually, what Relative wanted was to be solvent. Writing articles for local publications helped with that.
Relative and her husband had a new baby and a new house when the Depression hit—a house they could no longer afford, but that Relative was determined not to lose. In 1931, when her husband left for parts unknown (so that, with no man in the house, Relative could qualify for what was known as “Relief”), she moved with the baby into the house’s unfinished attic and rented out the rooms below to boarders. She cooked and cleaned for them (and herself and the baby, of course), and the work was hard and not always safe (a drunken boarder once attempted to break through the attic door in the night), but she’d have done anything, my mother told me, to keep her house.
Would she have written—porn?
So here’s my plot: Armed with a volume of 1930s porn—left by a lodger, perhaps—Relative plays Ann’s Mad-lib game, churning out pornography full of exotic new euphemisms (1930s porn was all euphemisms) that titillate a jaded readership.
So far so good. But would she have told her husband, I wonder? Confided in her mother? Would she have been introduced through her work into strange—and perhaps, broadening—new social circles? How about my own mother’s brief, innocent brush with Al Capone? She had no idea who the “chubby Italian man” she’d been speaking to was until afterward. Can I use that?
Of course, then—as now—to play the Mad-Libs game with somebody else’s work was illegal, unethical, and a just plain rotten thing to do. But I’m guessing that a nice suburban lady who finds herself writing pornography at a time when pornography is not only illegal but deeply, deeply sinful would have things beyond the ethical niceties of the situation on her mind.
I can’t wait to see how the story turns out.