Author Bill Clegg—Storytelling Sprinkled in Fairy Dust
Updated: Dec 20, 2020
Bill Clegg - photo by Mackenzie Stroh.
In Bill Clegg’s debut novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, Rick, a minor character, has the task of telling his perspective about the fictional Wells’ town in the real Litchfield County, Connecticut, and about the townspeople. Rick, a first-person narrator, opens his eponymous chapter saying, “My mom made Lolly Reid’s wedding cake” (47). Rick describes the kind of cake that his mother made, from where she got the ingredients, and what kind of cakes she made from scratch for Rick’s weddings and for his sister Amy. Rick says that he is a caterer and owned a small food business in Wells. He wouldn’t charge June Reid after the tragedy of her house burnt to ashes on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, when she lost her daughter, her daughter's groom, her ex-husband, and Luke Morey, her much younger and biracial boyfriend who was Rick’s friend and schoolmate. Through Rick’s eyes, the reader takes a closer look at the dynamic of Wells’ inhabitants, the assumptions they make, the corrosive gossip, the shuffling of truths that different people behold about others while interacting over the same geography of the mythical small city inspired in Sharon, CT, Clegg’s birthplace.
Through Rick’s perspective, we learn about Luke, and the Moreys, vital to connect the dots amongst the sections in the novel and perhaps aiding us to anticipate a third world, which reportedly, will center in the Morey’s family, and which working title is The Ballad of Angel Morey. Clegg’s superb structure of Did You Ever Have a Family employs multiple narrators, in the first and third person, and multiple POV’s. The assembly is original—instead of chapters, sections are compartmentalized by the names of first and secondary characters’ perspectives, which grants that their voices are always heard. Another unconventional author’s decision is that the novel counts on three protagonists, June Reid, Lydia Morey, and Silas Moore, who set on an internal quest to grapple with grief, guilt, and regret in the face of the unthinkable loss of an entire family. They all seek forgiveness, possibly self-forgiveness, and to regain a shred of hope. Though Rick is a minor character, Clegg’s vision has given him a more significant mission in his brief passage of about fifteen pages. Rick introduces his mom at the end of his chapter, and thus, Clegg foreshadows the beginning of The End of the Day, his second novel, while introducing one of its three protagonists (60):
“I sat in my childhood driveway and watched my mother turn on the porch light, something she always does before opening the front door, since I was a kid and even in broad daylight. I watched her shut the door behind her and pull her thin housecoat tight around her bony shoulders and button the top two buttons. I thought of her squeezing all those damned oranges and cracking all those coconuts for the last two days, sprinkling the little silver balls that the Moreys were now crunching in their tobacco-stained teeth down at the firehouse. […] Tears and snot were everywhere, and here was my mother, making her way from the stoop to the driveway, shuffling her slippers, old. She’d left the glasses in the house and I could see her squinting to see me more clearly […] This was my mother: both hands on the roof of the car, leaning into the window, half-blind, worried. […] I don’t think I’d ever see my mother as clearly as I did that day: sixty-six, widowed at fifty, a secretary at the elementary school for over thirty-five years, a single mom who raised two kids, who took care of her granddaughter while my divorced sister went to nursing school in Hartford; a breast-cancer survivor who let her grown son move in back with his nineteen-year-old wife and one year-old-boy.”
Enter Jackie, who, when she was a girl fell in the arms of one Floyd Howland and was aloft for the lapse of just a few seconds before her feet returned to the floor, and regret invaded her, “like eating the last spoonful of the perfect ice cream sundae, when the exact sensation of its magic was gone” (170). And so Jackie fell in love with the future father of her children. But now at the age of sixty-eight, she “winces at the memory of her youngest self believing that closeness to something great could protect her family, magically fortify them just by being near” (25).
Did You Ever Have a Family was published in 2015 by Scout Press, and Clegg’s The End of The Day also by Scout Press, was released on September 29, 2020 amidst a triple national crisis, and the novel Corona Virus pandemic. People have faced unsurmountable odds and have endured forced isolation, unemployment, grief, loss, and hopelessness. Both Clegg’s books revolve around a happenstance which changes the lives of those involved and determine new pathways—their destiny, their doom. These kinds of stories in fictional or nonfictional human experiences make us think about what is at stake, what is the truth, what we could lose. Indeed, these characters’ driven stories and plot-driven themes question and engage the semantics of family, friendship, forgiveness, hope, fate and agency, and above all, love and mortality.
Employing the same stylistic assembly, we meet Jackie, in the second eponymous chapter of The End of the Day, two years after the sweep of a life that Clegg presented via Rick’s perspective when he looks at his mom in his childhood’s driveway. The view is now from her bedroom, and we hear the sound of a “vinyl shade,” slapping the window near the foot of Jackie’s bed and see her rubbing her feet together, circling the pillow with both arms, and burrowing into its familiar softness. We hear robins and finches, the crows foreshadowing the surprises of the morning, and even the ticking and banging of the propane furnace coming from the basement, which immediately resonates with the ticking of the stove in June’s house in Did You Ever Have a Family. Although Jackie is in the liminal space between awake and asleep, her home, bed, and aged body inside her nightgown are vivid, thanks to Clegg’s fluid descriptions wrought with impeccable equilibrium, thus, awakening the reader’s all senses of perception and full suspension of disbelief. Rick’s vision of the driveway returns through Jackie’s eyes. Jackie sees Dana, a “diabolical ghost” from the past, arriving in a limousine. Jackie bolts the door and watches Dana from behind the window shades. Dana leaves a briefcase and a note by the modest house’s stoop for a reluctant Jackie who refuses to open the door to her estranged best friend, who she has not seen for almost fifty years.
Dana Isabel Goss inherited her great-grandparents George and Olivia Willing’s estate and her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, and so she knows her memory will soon be gone. Her mind oscillates like a pendulum, from the present instances of disorientation to the fifty-year-old past, however, so lucidly recalled. The omniscient narrator tells about Dana’s associative musings with precision, with fluid prose via Clegg’s sophisticated language and sensual word-choice. Dana’s thoughts dribble from her present time as a sixty-eight-year-old woman treated with contempt by “the help” that speaks to her as if asking a child to eat her vegetables, to Dana’s digressions into the past as far in time as to when she was nine years old. Dana recalls her first impressions of Jackie at the horses’ stable in Edgeweather, her weekend mansion. She muses on numerous occasions of bonding friendship while growing up during the decade that lasted their relationship, which was severed abruptly at the end of the fourth of July of 1969 picnic in the Well’s field of Hatch Pond. Trying to find the end of the thread amidst lapses from present blankness to past gaudiness, Dana knows that she must reveal her secrets before her memory is altogether gone. But her motive is redemption and absolution from the decisions that she made at the age of nineteen that impacted her best friend’s life and the life of Lupita, the Mexican daughter of Joe Lopez, the Edgeweather’s caretaker. Dana’s hands clutch onto a briefcase with her initials DIG, which contents trigger her realization. So, Dana embarks on the quest to excavate the truth and right all the wrongs her deceptions inflicted upon Jackie and Lupita, sealing three fates upon her own. Dana’s subsequent recollections and reminiscences move as a succession of events that she calls exhibits of good intentions, guilt, the notion of family, the yearning for a reunion, the fear of a lifetime’s oblivion, and the exhibit of the person whose life she’s doomed the most, Lupita.
Named after the Virgin of Guadalupe and her ángeles, Lupita comes as an apparition in Clegg’s mind. Still, she manifests in the novel multi-dimensionally, embodying the clashes of two cultures at once, so palpably that she, nevertheless, can’t ever belong except in the liminality of a world within where she retreats to survive. She is cognizant of her identity and of her experience. Always at odds in her being-in-place, Lupita’s mind is fully bilingual, and her perception of reality, although grounding, renders her presence intangible and unreachable to others. Whether she is inside a yellow car, a taxi van, in a parking lot, running away from bullies, praying inside a church, tiptoeing on the pristine lawn, searching for gems in a river, surrendering to an island’s ocean, Lupita is always in motion, though unable to follow a North Star. People see her black hair and her brown skin, but see first the stigma, and yet, something magical about her renders no clue of her enigma. Clegg’s expositions of Lupita’s emotional experience are relayed in the poetification of the ecosystems she inhabits at any given moment. Lupita’s relationship to place is so exceptional that Clegg’s redeems the curses and dooms of her existence with unbound kindness and surprising empathy as though he fully comprehended otherness. Lupita’s beauty bewitches Floyd, paradoxically, because she transports him to a place far away from the monotonous town and the prospects of a dull life like if she was a character in a movie (195-6):
"The girl was pushing a grocery cart outside of Trotta’s grocery in Millerton. She seemed roughly his age and had a long black hair tied in a thick, loose ponytail. It was the end of the day and the waning light cast dim sparks from the chrome on the cars in the parking lot. The purple and red sky marbled in the windshields […] and it felt as if had been transported to a beach town […] The loose strands of her gathered hair fell across her face, caught the last rays of sun, and wriggled in the wind like lit, electric fibers. […] He couldn’t stop staring."
Indeed, Lupita is ethereal, but she has trained herself to let go and survive because she is resilient. Even now, in Kauai, apparently restored, fully self-reliant and modestly thriving, sudden news wreak havoc in her mind, bringing back traumatic experiences from her life in Wells that she’s banished. Lupita’s secret, the darkest version of a truth, haunts her. It shows up like gravity pushing her into the bottom of an ocean and as though the sky above oppressed her with inevitable, unescapable grief. And yet, Lupita finds the way to feel “light as a paper” (306).
This triangularity of Dana, Jackie, and Lupita’s lives, their three versions of the truth meet however in the axis where power dynamics of class, race, and gender collide, determining chance, dooming choice. The axis is also Hap, and Hap is also tension. Clegg’s narrational tension never ceases to enthrall the reader’s attention as experience is a keystone in the apocryphal Wells, a town that becomes real as is securely nested in Litchfield County, Connecticut, and with characters resembling the next townspeople and references to life in Bethlehem, Boston, New York City, and Kauai. Clegg’s genius in Wells’ architecture lies in the magical elements embedded in the narrative but not abiding by the genre conventions of Magical Realism, for Clegg’s magic springs from his ecology of poetics.
No doubt, a life unfolds after the explosions of fire in the sky and ends blending someone’s toes into the sand and surrendering to the lightness of ocean water and rebellious waves. Clegg delves into long expositions of settings where the wind rushes through the branches of a surviving Elm, the reactions of its leaves, their importance, reminding us that greater forces surround us, ubiquitously. His descriptions of place capture nature’s cycles—the weather, the land, water bodies, trees, and birds are intertwined organically with the characters’ emotions through captivating, concrete, coherent language, and compelling diction. But there’s more to Wells’ blueprint that brings to these somber and sorrowful novels the manifestation of hope and endurance even in their most transient states. Clegg accomplishes the materialization of hope and resilience via consistently, painstakingly chosen motifs, directly connecting the fictional works with his two memoirs, ultimately fire-branding his authorial seal, carving his signature on a stone.
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recovery, published by Back Bay Books, 2010, and 2013 respectively, generate a paradox of place and reality essentially in the first person and present tense narration. While the apocryphal Wells becomes realistic underpinned by Clegg’s narrational precision, in Portrait, his perception of New York city is blurred, eerie and ungrounded through the eyes of a delusional, drugged and drunk chronicler, and it is seen under new eyes in Ninety Days, as if first discovered, because NYC’s every “inch carries a memory of his life before” (27).
Sharon, Clegg’s birthplace shows in Portrait, but described from the POV of a child scrambling to make sense of his curses and dooms— his first skewed sense of identity, his yearning to belong, his doubted worthiness and merit. But some places aren’t a solace or a haven like Moclips is for June in Did You Ever Have a Family, or Kauai is for Lupita in The End of the Day. And thus, the frontiers between the perception of reality and experience are disjointed, “Am I anywhere? I wonder. Do I even exist anymore? I’ve lost all sense of direction and feel as if the rain is about to blast me into a billion microscopic particles” (Ninety Days 34).
In The End of the Day, there are two fourth of July events, two years apart. The cover of The End of the Day depicts fireworks in green, yellow, and white bursting on a night-blue sky. The happenings set in motion the plot while the fireworks exploding in the sky emulate the ripple effect of Dana’s subterfuges on the people in the story. The fourth of July is recurrent in both the author’s memoirs. Clegg’s descriptions of the fireworks bursting in the sky in his nonfictional works echo his second fictional work. In Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, Clegg kisses someone on the fourth of July, to which occasion he alludes once again in Ninety Days, reminiscing about kissing Elliot with no regret. The kiss between Lupita and Floyd resonates with his memories with the same backdrop of fireworks blasting the sky of Wells and New York, but this kiss sets in motion the beginnings of the end (which is also the title of a chapter in Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man). Here Clegg reminisces in third person narration about his youngest self and the origins of his addiction, switching point of view and employing narrational strategies recognizable in both, his fiction and nonfiction writing. But in The End of the Day, Floyd and Lupita’s kiss signal the beginning of Hap’s life who, at forty-nine questions the relationship with his father, as much as Clegg does in Ninety Days.
Silas, too, seems to be inspired in Clegg’s adolescent self, when he was a gardener and a pothead, riding his bike in Sharon. The guilt that he carries in Did You Ever Have a Family reverberates back to Clegg’s guilt in both his memoirs, and both young men feel the same despair, the terror, the angst. June’s house burnt down to ashes is inspired in the house where Bill Clegg’s family lived as depicted in Portrait.
Moreover, the last words in Portrait, “his senses await him, he leans, then leaps, into a wind, away,” are evocations of himself as a young child foreshadowing the epigraph in TEOTD by W.S. Merwin’s “Fulfillment,” where there’s no chance “to stop a wind with no home.” Concomitantly, the end of DYEHAF tells that “the waves will sound to them as they did to us the first time, we heard them,” told in Cissy’s voice, (another secondary but important character), foreshadows the end of TEOTD echoing the vision of the ocean, and the themes of memory and forgetfulness, the cycles of life and death, genealogy, heritage. Flashbacks.
In Hollow, Portrait’s last chapter, a boy is carried by the wind in bliss, as a semblance of the sensation Clegg felt on the first time that he smoked crack. Ninety Days towards the end finishes with Clegg praying by the ocean, as if wishing to drift away like Lupita, and so their vision of the view is shared. DYEHAF’s end prefigures the new story, the setting for the second piece of TEOTD’s mansion in the end of a dead-end that is the fictional Under mountain Road. Debatably, it is, however possible to state that in Portrait, Clegg is suicidal, setting his allegorical house, his body, caught in a proverbial fire, while his journey to recovery mimics June’s journey to the west coast (where Clegg underwent rehab), filled with regret, trying to recover hope, and yearning for forgiveness from all the ones he had (and June) wounded. Similarly, The End of the Day and Ninety Days delve into the destructive power of secrets, the maleficence of lies and deceptions, and the consequences that they exert upon friends and beloved ones, the family we are all born into, the ones we choose to make, the ones that are bestowed upon us, serendipitously.
The prevalent motifs in both the novels and both the memoirs allude to magical creatures, like dragons, ocean monsters, mermaids, and fairies inhabiting the woods or bodies of water, shimmering like “stars stitch[ed in] the sky” and glittering where the “world’s magic sneaks up on you in secret, [and] settles next to you when you have your head turned” (ND 177 and DYEHAF 246). The metaphor of fairy dust is repeated so many times across Clegg’s books that the author succeeds at introducing magic as if “sneaking light in a situation that has none,” as Hap says in The End of the Day (81). No doubt, in Portrait, Clegg’s principal leitmotif appears as he wonders “[why] do certain things shimmer on the horizon with fairy dust and others don’t?” (173). And in his first memoir, when his father asks him to fly in his Cessna from Connecticut to Maine, Clegg says, “We take off in a field that is also a runway. We shudder along in the way little airplanes do and then, in the split second that always feels as if fairy dust has been sprinkled, we leave the earth, lift quickly, higher and higher…” (218). Lupita dreams of a sea creature and a bird plucking her, and like Silas, she finds meaning, an omen, in the vision of a dragon (TEOTD 77, 240, DYEHAF 201).
Kelly, a secondary character in Did You Ever Have a Family, co-owner of the Moonstone Hotel in Moclips where June stays, walks by the Pacific Ocean and muses over a tale which variations include a sea witch casting a spell, a falling star crashing into the ocean, a falling star that caused a terrible fire (137):
"I walked toward the water to make out the shape of the waves in the pitch-black night. The wind was rough, and I pulled my turtleneck up above my face just below my eyes. I stood a few feet from the surf and imagined the chain-smoking actresses as real-life mermaids, gorgeous and fierce, their scales shining. Who wouldn’t want to be protected by such creatures?"
In The End of the Day, there’s a group of characters entering in Part II of the novel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Alice, Hap’s adoptive mom, and Christopher Foster, among others. Alice make sense of Hap’s adoptive father who “gave Hap a sense of being connected to something special, in his boyhood especially, a fairy dust magic that got sprinkled once a year” (142). Hap too alludes to the same metaphor, looking in hindsight to his father’s visits when he was a boy observing his father arriving once a year as if “on clouds of fairy dust” (99).
The original cover of The End of the Day though, (now the United Kingdom’s edition), shows two girls by a river, and a third girl, perhaps slightly younger, with long-dark hair hiding behind a tree, watching the tall one with a blondish ponytail throwing a rock into the river, and another girl with seemingly brown and wavy long hair crouching, her hand touching the water. The woods on the other side of the shore resemble an enchanting forest. Everything exists in shades of blue and indigo but ethereally, ephemerally. The scene is illuminated by sparkling fireflies refracting light like jewels glittering in the air and on the river’s surface. Jackie, Dana, and Lupita have vivid memories of this scene from their different perspectives, but their recollections transpire equally magical. Dana recalls how she and “Jackie spent so many evenings [by the river] obsessively curating collections of river stones, sorting them by color and shape, pretending they were rare jewels from a fairy’s treasure” (TEOTD 47).
In The End of the Day, Alice and Mo, Hap’s Syrian stepfather, differ in their ideas of chance and destiny. Mo says, “There are no accidents, no chance encounters. Only one plan, unfolding as it was always meant to be” (87). For Alice, everything “has been determined by happenstance and accident,” and she would not accept the notion of predetermined destiny. But Bill Clegg proves that it is people’s arrivals and exits into each other’s lives, what might determine the bliss and dooms of fortune and fate. At the end of the day, we yearn for and fear the same. Ultimately, we are all a “fluke of elements” interacting in worlds within worlds, that create our very own stories and their supervening allegories. May we be sprinkled with fairy dust falling softly over our lives and the places where we stand upon.
In the spring of 2019, I came across Bill Clegg's Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, which had been sourced from by a first-year English Composition student at Santa Monica College where I teach. The student submitted a final portfolio with a personal narrative on his addiction and path to recovery, and a research paper centered on rehabilitation’s psychological underlining. I purchased this book and its sequel, Ninety Days, and soon I found Clegg’s first novel, Did You Ever Have a Family. The reading of these three books aided me tremendously in learning about craft as I was entering my final year at Antioch University, pursuing a double Master of Arts degree in Urban Sustainability and Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Last January 26th, I wrote an essay about reading while observing the craft of the works written by four authors, Clegg, Hudson, McCartney and Novey, entitled Sky-Diving Into Seas of Ink: Full Immersion in the Reading Experience.
Surprisingly, and deeply flattering, Clegg asked my feedback for the final revision of The End of the Day, specifically about Lupita’s experience as an immigrant, Latina, and fully bilingual. Bill's concern exposed his vulnerability as a writer, seeking ethos to rendering Lupita’s pathos genuinely and respectfully. I focused on syntactic and semantic accuracy, especially in names and cultural identities. Clegg rushed to send the final transmission including my name on the Acknowledgements page. Ironically, the copy editor mistyped my last name for the first hard cover edition—it was a poetic paradox.
Last Spring, I taught two literature courses via remote teaching. I chose Did You Ever Have a Family as the final reading for my students. Without exception, my students were delighted for this choice—it was the ideal book in the face of the uncertainty and grief brought by the Corona Virus 19 pandemic and the urgent civil unrest. June and Lydia taught my students that we should never relinquish hope, learn to forgive, and always cherish and love our family. At the end of the day, I’ve evolved as a teacher, and as a writer. I am grateful for all Mr. Clegg.