Mom and most everyone else is fictional, but her abusive Dad is the real article in “The Divorce Girl” by Lawrence resident and Poet Laureate of Kansas Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg.
Her first novel and 13th of her 14 books, “The Divorce Girl” was released earlier this month by Ice Cube Press. Advance reviews call it a humorous, painful and poignant coming-of-age story.
Mirriam-Goldberg based the book on her own experience growing up in a house where her parents were divorced but neither would agree to leave. Instead, they barricaded themselves into separate areas.
As a teen, Mirriam-Goldberg coped with the bizarre situation by writing down the details of her life in and out of the dysfunctional household. Even then she knew the experience would one day make a novel, though she didn’t begin the actual work until 1996.
Her protagonist, 15-year-old Deborah, also finds solace in photography — sometimes of her parents’ quarrels.
The novel’s first draft flew out, Mirriam-Goldberg says, though reliving those days of tension and conflict created an unusual writer’s routine.
“Each day I’d spend two to three hours a day writing at my grandfather’s big wooden desk in the basement. Then I’d get depressed, curl up and go to sleep,” she says. “When I woke, I’d feel elated and ready to do the same thing again the next day.”
Shortly before her father died in 2003, Mirriam-Goldberg told him she’d included episodes of his spiteful and violent behavior in the book, still under revision, and that his character didn’t look too good.
“One time my father poured Ivory soap into all the house plants to kill them to get back at my mother,” Mirriam-Goldberg recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘This will be an interesting scene in the novel.’”
She told her father she could modify the character if he wished. It wasn’t necessary.
“We had a great healing before his death,” Mirriam-Goldberg says. “He told me to write what I wanted.”
In her book, she substituted fictional characters for most of her other friends and relatives from those days. Even Deborah is “taller and smarter than I was,” the author says.
The real truth of the novel is in what Mirriam-Goldberg took away from the experience.
“We’ve all lived through horrendous things,” she says. “If you haven’t, you will. It’s part of life.
“What I’ve learned is that you can cope by making art out of these materials. You can make community. You can find your calling, what you are alive to do, and cultivate courage given obstacles.”
These are issues with which Mirriam-Goldberg has continuing experience. She’s also the author of “The Sky Begins at Your Feet,” her memoir about surviving breast cancer.
“The Divorce Girl” and “The Sky Begins at Your Feet” are both available from icecubepress.com, Amazon.com and The Raven Bookstore, 6 E. Seventh St., in Lawrence.