My interest in this kind of story could be defined as obsessive. What can be more obsessive than something you’ve lost or something you feel you never completely had? Novels about families and other groups fascinate me because my family never quite cohered and split apart pretty fast. So I read to replace it with a better family, though my secret wish is to see that all families or groups of closely connected people have the visceral conflicts and the unique quirks mine did — to see that whole panoply of psychological oddity that really is, in my view, the human condition. Perhaps growing up with my parents gave me that idea: a bipolar rocket scientist and painter for a father, and a mother whose idea of fun was to see what lay down any forsaken dirt road, especially if it led to a beach. And those were the pleasant qualities. The darker stuff was equally bizarre and led me to contemplate the labyrinth of light and dark we each are.
So when I began to write my time-travel novel, The Renaissance Club, knowing it would be set in northern Italy and involve an art history tour, I couldn’t resist populating it with quirky people. Is there really any other kind? I’ve been in search of a “normal” family life all my life, and have rarely observed one. When I did, it was so abnormal I suspected it for being a sham, as was the family of my best friend in junior high. All plaid, cheerleading perfection on the surface, roiling weirdness under the table manners.
After such a childhood, it’s no wonder I fell in love with naturalist Gerald Durrell’s marvelous My Family and Other Animals, as animals in menagerie quantity have played a part in my family life too. Or Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (read it!). There’s a quirky family embodied as Dorothy’s companions in The Wizard of Oz. That series became my childhood reading, writing, and collecting passion. I still have the cloth bound editions with John R. Neill’s wonderful illustrations.
After conferring with a college teacher about the politics within a community college, I decided to set as my quirky family group in Italy a bunch of college instructors. The dean is Dad, his wife the mom who really doesn’t take care of anybody, and the professors just so many siblings squashed into an uncomfortable though sometimes dazzling road trip. And having lived in a communal house or two in Berkeley in the 60s, I feel qualified to translate family and housemates (or work mates) back and forth, as different categories quirky family. One day I will write about those large cottage-like group living houses in Berkeley, and the odd birds who inhabited them, bringing their even odder friends to dinner, or to dinner for a week at a time.