In the first few days of January 2019, I was teaching at a residency on an island off the coast of Connecticut. My husband, our two kids and I had driven from Florida to New York on Christmas Day for me to make the gig. Both my husband’s and my families are from Florida, and until recently, my relationship to the holiday has always been beach and warmth and early morning swims. I was both relieved and very sad to be back up north after a week in Florida.
It was freezing on the island, and I was staying in a monastery with faulty heating, small rooms with lumpy beds, crosses on the walls and a shared bathroom down the hall. I went for long pre-dawn runs and taught most of the day. I love teaching but find it draining—the very necessary task of consistently showing up for students, trying to make the workshop space engaging and rigorous, nurturing and safe.
I had taught at this residency before, and I’d always needed long stretches alone in my room at night, so in November I’d bought myself Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel as a birthday gift. For those who haven’t read it (and you should, immediately), it’s the story of abstract expressionist painters Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, brilliant artists all, living and working in New York at a thrilling, complicated time (before, during and after World War II), being ground down by poverty during the Great Depression and then later, for some, achieving unfathomable wealth and fame.
I’d become obsessed with going to see visual art a few years prior, not least because I felt completely ill-equipped to understand it. I loved the feeling of walking through a museum and letting the art pull me toward it. Often, I’d go with a friend who also writes, and we’d walk a long time after, talking about what we’d just seen, about what and how it had acted on us.
Going home to Florida always leaves me sad and anxious for all the ways I have failed to love or show up for my family, for all the parts of that place that I love and hate and miss. Ninth Street Women was solace in the face of that—intimacy, much needed company. Gabriel refers to each woman by her first name, and their lives constantly intermingle and overlap. It felt gossipy and thrilling, the texture of competition, sex, money, art, ambition, class disparities and marital spats. I came to crave it, sitting at dinner with my colleagues and my students, FaceTiming with my kids and pretending the connection had gone out. I thought and dreamt about these women, was both inside of them and watching them—a voyeur, constantly shifting my investments and alliances, thrilled and angry and sad on their behalfs.
Once I left the island, I went back to New York in search of their work, and a new layer was added to this experience: I couldn’t find a good amount of it. I got angry, and so sad, thinking of all that work, which the various museums owned but mostly kept warehoused instead of on display.
That same trip, I’d been thinking about anger. I’d just finished writing Want, a novel shot through with the fury that had been building in me for a long time. But by the time I read about those women, I was beginning to see the limits to the power of my anger. At first, it had felt so much more active than the sadness I had felt before that, but actually, I realized, it had come to feel just as ineffectual.
It’s difficult to pinpoint how and where novels start, what we pull from our lives and pasts and interests as we build them. I had also, the past few years, been telling stories to my kids on our walks to and from their school. I often asked them to help me start the story, to carry the plot through when I lost steam. Their most consistent bit of advice: kill the mom, because it immediately makes the book more dangerous. (I tried not to take this personally.)
I’d been thinking about broken systems, too, not just the social safety net, our broken politics, but also the way I felt constantly, embarrassingly, like I was looking around for someone to tell me how to be, what to do to make things better, but there was no one there, no rituals or practices or authority figures that I believed in anymore. In this same vein, I’d been thinking about art and what it was worth, how often I was late for pickup or missed a work email because I was standing there, transfixed by a piece of art, for reasons I could never quite explain. How broke artists (and I) always were.
From all of this thinking and living emerged the main components of Flight: the holiday, the utility (or not) of art, talk of money, the search for another side to anger, a dead mom creating new pressures and a sense of no one knowing what to do. And from the women in Ninth Street Women, a sense of overlapping and conflicting wants and needs, a deep and desperate desire to do good, underpinned with the terror that you don’t know how.
Also from Ninth Street Women: I wanted to make a book that felt as it had to me that week on that freezing island, up all night in that lumpy bed: lush and immersive, gossipy and deeply felt. The way it gave me something good and solid felt like sustenance, pleasure, relief.