Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What does the D word mean?

Welcoming, Robin Antalek, the very talented and successful author of The Summer We Fell Apart.

When I wrote The Summer We Fell Apart I was not thinking about family dysfunction. I was not thinking about the D word at all. I wrote about this big messy family of artists and writers living in a large broken down house and all that longing that comes with the headspace of creative people living together. I saw the four children of Richard and Marilyn Haas as the very real end-product of a pair of dreamers, their lives and love and needs at cross purposes with the reality of raising a big family. I didn’t see these characters, which sprung fully formed from the writing gods, as victims or saviors. I just knew that I wanted to tell the story of what it was like to grow up in a large group, of how siblings often split off into smaller factions. Specifically I wanted to tell the story of the bond between the youngest Haas child Amy and her brother George, and it wasn’t until I started talking to readers that I realized I had written so much more.

What does it say about me that I didn’t identify what happened in the Haas family as dysfunction? The first early review, a rave from Publishers Weekly no less, said (among other very nice things) that The Summer We Fell Apart was… “A testament to the resilience of the human spirit” and “an easy-to-relate to dysfunctional family drama.”

What dysfunction?

My agent and editor and publishing house were thrilled at the positive buzz. Soon, more

reviews came in and most all of them used that word. Target picked up the book for nationwide distribution as a “break-out” pick. Book groups started calling and I spoke with some really lovely people, over seventy groups in all, and all of whom wanted to know if I too had grown up with this level of dysfunction.

What dysfunction?

Naturally, not wanting to sound as if I needed immediate counseling by denial, I danced around the “D” word. Since the novel spanned fifteen years in the family, I stammered through

explanations about different parenting styles, less hands-on, less hovering. Readers dissected the flawed lives of the characters as evidence of their dysfunctional upbringing. They quoted passages, referred to episodes in their own lives, and shared stories of heartbreak and disappointments and triumphs.

Very soon I realized that what I described in the book was not so easy to explain away. The father was manipulative and often cruel, disappointed by the failure of his own dreams he drank and had affairs and did nothing to shield his wife or family from the drama. His wife, reacting to the failure of her marriage retreated to her room and allowed her children to do what they wished. They floundered amid the chaos with moments of tremendous stupidity and grace. Just like we do in real life.

Finally, I ventured to ask my parents if they thought what I had created in the book was the ultimate dysfunctional family. My father, at 81, looked amused by my question. He touched the cover. “This is life,” he said. “Just life.” He paused. His own mother had died when he was three. His father, a jazz musician, unsure of what to do with a small child and his own grief, passed off my father to his dead wife’s six sisters, all, it is safe to say, at vastly different stages of their lives, all of them unprepared for a small

mother-less boy. My father’s upbringing was a patchwork of homes based upon adult availability; often he slept head-to-toe with cousins, my great-grandfather popping in from time to time between gigs. My father never felt he had a place to call his own until he bought his first house, and even then, we knew, it was hard for him to shake the shadows of the past.

“What is the urge to label everything?” My father asked. We do what we have to do to survive, we have faith, and in the midst of it all we have each other.”

And that, I realized, is all any of us can do, in life or in fiction.


ROBIN ANTALEK is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins 2010) chosen as a Target Breakout Book and soon to be published in Turkey by Artemis Yayinlari. A frequent contributor to The Nervous Breakdown (, her short fiction has appeared in 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review and Literary Mama among others. You can visit her site @ or if brave enough, publicly admit to liking her on Facebook

1 comment:

  1. I love this astute analysis of dysfunction. I can't comprehend what "normal" is. It certainly didn't exist in my upbringing! Thanks for blogging, Robin. I loved The Summer We Fell Apart. XO