By Andrea Cornell Sarvady
On Joining the Nonfiction Universe of Melissa Fay Greene
Don’t miss “Adoption, Light and Dark,” a review of Greene’s book in this issue.
When Melissa Fay Greene began work on her memoir No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, I was thrilled the world would soon get to know my friend better. Melissa is an accomplished journalist and author of many award-winning books, like Praying for Sheetrock (1991) and Last Man Out (2003).
But with No Biking, a far more personal tale of her own journey as an adoptive mother and parent to nine children, I hoped readers would see what a great mom she is, too. I looked forward to Melissa regaling a larger audience with all the terrific stories of family life she’d told me as we walked around our neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia.
The thing is, I didn’t see myself in any of those stories. So when she first told me, “You’re in the book, you know,” I felt more startled than excited.
It still feels strange, having the private me become public. My friend’s account in No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is nothing but flattering, yet the experience has made me think about how we writers portray those we’re close to in print. Melissa Fay Greene does it well, but I know just how hard she worked to get it right.
“Oh, No! It’s Nonfiction!”
When my husband Glen suggested we move to Atlanta from New York City in 1992, I was the sleep-deprived mother of an adorable toddler. A former teen counselor, I now spent my days at the park, sipping coffee and staring blankly at the swing set like a Tom Perotta character in Little Children. As I researched Atlanta on what was still called the “World Wide Web,” I had a single insight: There’s some sort of highway called the Perimeter, and my people live inside it.
Our real-estate agent Peggy acted nonchalant while sizing me up with unerring accuracy.
“By the way,” she confided breathily, as we drove up a steep driveway to look at yet another nondescript brick house, “we have an author across the street. She wrote a very good book: Praying for Sheetrock.”
I looked over at the attractive gray house with black shutters that featured an honest-to-god picket fence and dormer windows. Why isn’t that house for sale? I thought. Maybe I can get the author to trade.
But as soon as I saw the park-like backyard behind the brick house Peggy had directed me to—with skyscraper-high pine trees, moss-filled terraces, and hidden ponds—I was sold. Only much later, back in New York and waiting for the contract to go through, did I remember the author and her odd-sounding book.
“Oh no!” I wailed to my husband after picking up a copy of Praying for Sheetrock. “It’s nonfiction!”
Glen looked nonplussed. “What’s wrong with that?”
Nothing really, except I’d never read much of it. I was a fiction girl, a novel obsessive. Literary nonfiction had managed to escape my radar entirely until that afternoon.
I started reading Praying for Sheetrock just to honor my soon-to-be neighbor. In New York, you could get away with not reading a neighbor’s novel; in New York, following the artistic endeavors of others could be a full-time job. But when we moved to Atlanta, I haughtily assumed that Melissa Fay Greene might be the town’s only author now that Margaret Mitchell was dead.
What an idiot I was. Atlanta has a thriving literary community—and how lucky I was to land across the street from this particular author. Praying for Sheetrock, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, is a stunning account of life in 1970s McIntosh County, Georgia, as it slowly awakens to the civil rights movement long after the winds of change had blown through most of the South. It has amazing, unforgettable characters; humor and pathos; facts and poetry.
We bought the house. I tried to figure out the best way to meet this author once the moving vans had come and gone. I still thought in New York terms, where a new neighbor may or may not ever say hello. I wasn’t prepared for people on the street dropping by with balloons, fruit baskets, and plates of cookies.
According to Glen, who arrived the day before our daughter and I did, Melissa had come by moments after he set foot in the door. She’d told him she hoped that the new little girl, nearly the age of her youngest child at the time, might want an immediate playdate.
The playdate happened the day after I got there with our two-year-old. I followed Melissa to her house, stopping her before we entered to say, “It’s great that we can be friends. But first, I have to be a fan….”
I raved about how much I’d loved Praying for Sheetrock, how it had introduced me to a type of nonfiction I unexpectedly adored. I forget Melissa’s response, but I’m sure it was similar to the responses I’ve since watched her give many times to enthusiastic readers: warm, sincere, gracious.
Then we walked into her house and our friendship began.
“Is She Crazy?”
We have a strong bond, not based on our children, after all—although her then-youngest and my oldest were great preschool buddies—but for all the reasons two women become close, the chemistry that has baffled men for centuries because it’s based on talking instead of doing.
Yet, even as we shared confidences and our lives intertwined in myriad ways, I never thought I’d pop up in a Melissa Fay Greene book. She wrote about other people, other times. In The Temple Bombing (1996), she describes the Jewish community of Atlanta in the 1950s. In There Is No Me Without You (2006), she depicts the AIDS crisis in Ethiopia and the resulting steep rise in orphaned children there.
Her books, all nonfiction and told with a journalist’s eye for vivid detail and narrative, feature iconoclastic heroes with plenty of flaws to match their larger-than-life missions. In There Is No Me Without You, for example, she focuses on Haregewoin Teferra, a widow who took in many orphans and became something like the Mother Teresa of Ethiopia, both adored and denigrated before she died in 2009.
I’m no Haregewoin Teferra. While these important global stories were being written, I was busy across the street, having two more children. You could argue that Melissa was a little busier. She and her husband Don had four biological kids when I met them—and then proceeded to adopt five more, one from Bulgaria and four from Ethiopia.
Sometimes it seemed that our esteemed author was more famous in the ‘hood for all those kids than for the fine books she wrote. “Is she crazy?” people would ask me, half expecting I’d respond, “Totally nuts!”
I usually told them something like “it’s pretty delightful over there.” I’d describe the way Melissa applied her laser-like professional focus to the home front, how she ferreted out the best schools, pets, and activities for her growing brood.
But I was always aware of her public status in our town. Private stories of prominent citizens get passed around like particularly valuable Pokemon cards, while the rest of us can count on an embarrassing tale dying after two or three moves on the gossip chain. So when things fell through the cracks in Melissa’s household, as they do in families of any size, I rarely shared those glitches with other friends.
Keeping her confidences didn’t require a ton of effort, however; things were working out pretty well on the other side of the picket fence. Children grew up, moved off, had adventures; new children from other countries moved in, adding to the liveliness of this cheery family.
Eventually, Melissa realized her next big story could be found right there at home. She’d written a bit about the children for various magazines, usually light-hearted pieces about pets or the joys of summer. But once she wrote about the difficult transition following that first international adoption, I suspected her fears of putting her children in the limelight had been overcome by her instincts as a journalist.
“There’s just so many great stories here,” she’d say to me on our walks. I had to agree.
“I’m Kind of Freaking Out”
For several years, as No Biking in the House Without a Helmet started to take shape, I heard a lot about which stories would make the final cut. I didn’t expect to figure in the book beyond a brief mention; I didn’t know most of the children well and only really entered their lives on one dramatic afternoon. That story had made it into Melissa’s blog a year earlier, but I didn’t think it would go any farther.
However, the blog post became an entire chapter in the book called ”Fighting Words.” It recounts a situation in which Melissa was in tears as her four adopted teenage sons got into increasingly nasty fights with each other.
And there I am, Andy Sarvady, tough-love heroine. Melissa describes me as a “fast-talking” and “sarcastic woman who had lived in hip locales like San Francisco and Park Slope.” In the chapter, I run over to her house to offer advice when she needs it, appearing wise and helpful beyond measure—the way we all can be with somebody else’s problems.
Reading Melissa’s version, I was impressed by how well she recalled our hasty exchange. (I remembered the words, but I’d said them.) “Got it,” she has me responding, “the four younger boys are train wrecks.” I told her I’d meet with her unruly sons the next day and that she should just email me “a list of the issues”:
Andy laughed. ‘I’m not going anywhere near the touchy-feely stuff. I don’t care about their feelings! They don’t love each other—so what? They still have to behave.‘”
Yes, it felt a little weird to read “my” chapter, but not for the reasons you might think. I wasn’t afraid of looking bad. I was afraid of looking too good.
Melissa had already shared with me her struggle in finding the right narrative structure for this book. When the manuscript was completed, she gave me a copy to read. She explained that after the chapter where I come in and help out, the story moves in a more positive direction.
Misconnecting the dots, I walked back into my own house, panicked.
“Glen,” I said, “I’m kind of freaking out about Melissa’s book.”
He looked up from the paper he was reading. He studied the manuscript I clutched. “Why?”
I babbled that I was worried my one successful afternoon with her adoptees had turned into the defining moment that set this family on the right track. I was pretty sure nothing of the sort had actually happened.
Glen, a kind man, would never mock a delusional narcissist to her face.
“It was one afternoon,” he said. “I think you might have misunderstood her. Read the book.”
He was right. In No Biking, my story is where it should be. It’s one of many, many moments in which this family figures out how to live together and appreciate one another. It’s nonfiction, after all.
“Mary Jane Felt Overcome by an Uneasy Sensation”
In Wendy and the Lost Boys, her 2011 biography of the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, Julie Salamon makes clear that friends of authors require tough shells. She describes one old college friend of Wasserstein’s watching the late-’70s play Uncommon Women and Others and realizing it’s about her:
Mary Jane felt overcome by an uneasy sensation, not quite betrayal but something unpleasant, as she watched Wendy’s recapitulation of their communal life. It was as though her memories had been stolen and altered.”
I didn’t feel that way about seeing myself as a character in Melissa’s memoir. For one thing, I didn’t feel ambushed. Melissa gave me “veto power,” as she terms it in her acknowledgments for No Biking, just as she gave it to her husband and kids.
She fact-checked with me the events she planned to relay—no, it was more than fact-checking. The day Melissa handed me the manuscript that included my chapter, she said, “Here. Let me know anything you need to change.”
Such generosity demonstrated that she understood exactly how weird it might be to see myself in print, and that she wanted to make sure I felt it was accurate and fair.
I didn’t have any edits, but her husband and kids freely vetoed anything they didn’t like; her oldest (Molly) used her red pen liberally. “I had to make some changes,” Molly said to me one day with an impish smile. “Mom didn’t get the punk rock thing right at all.”
I can now report that Melissa’s kids love the book. She keeps two copies of all book reviews and profiles on hand, because fourteen-year-old Yosef likes to carry them around in his soccer bag.
Even her son Jesse, whose arrival from Bulgaria kicked off a post-adoption depression in Melissa, appreciates his portrayal. As Melissa told me she once explained to him, “You know how love stories start out with two people who don’t love each other? So this is a love story. This is about the beginning of getting to know you and becoming your mom.”
In the end, what makes this memoir feel genuine, for those who already know Melissa as well as those who meet her for the first time, is that she—the character of Melissa Fay Greene—appears far more vulnerable than anyone else.
“Can I Borrow A Cup of Kids?”
I guess this is a love story for me as well. I love that family, if I’m being honest—and being honest is what makes any account of close friends or neighbors or family members have meaning.
Just the other day, my car got trapped in a divot alongside my driveway. We tried everything, but one wheel was literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. I eventually called a tow truck team; even they were stymied. Then I remembered the kind and strong boys across the street.
Three minutes later, I had representatives from Bulgaria, Ethiopia, and Northeast Atlanta cheerfully trudging up my steep driveway. After conferring with each other for a few seconds, they huddled over one corner of the car and raised it out of the ditch as casually as you or I might pull a tissue out of its box.
No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is something I didn’t always value in a book, something I now thoroughly enjoy when it’s done right: nonfiction. When Praying for Sheetrock first sparked me, I saw nonfiction as a way to make “history” and “facts” more palatable. Now I see it as a compelling literary form, one that gets at life’s truths. It offers illumination of what may seem, in passing, to be the smallest quotidian details.
This story really happened, just the way Melissa Fay Greene says it did. It’s happening now, in the house across the street, in houses all over the country, in your house. It’s life—messy, marvelous, and true.
- No Biking in the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
- Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene, originally published in 1991 (De Capo, 2006)
- Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster by Melissa Fay Greene (Harcourt, 2003).
- The Temple Bombing by Melissa Faye Greene (De Capo, 2006).
- There Is No You Without Me: One Woman’s Odyssey to Rescue Her Country’s Children by Melissa Fay Greene (Bloomsbury, 2006).
- Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salamon (Penguin, 2011).
Andrea “Andy” Cornell Sarvady lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with a mere three children, one husband, and two dogs.
She has written pop-culture books and numerous articles in magazines, and is currently writing material for a human resource consulting firm.
Melissa Fay Greene approved the writing of this article, telling Andy: “Well, now I suppose it’s my turn to write about you again.”