It's the summer after Katie Hanson's graduation from high school in Elephant Beach, Long Island, a place that has seen better days: "Nobody promenaded the boardwalk anymore because you could trip on a rotting board and break your leg during an after-dinner stroll. The wonderful old hotels were now crumbling castles, left to dust after the film stars and bootleggers discovered air travel. Elephant Beach may have been only fifty-two minutes from the city by car or rail, but if you could fly to Santa Barbara or Cuba or the French Riviera, why would you spend your summers here?"
"If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go," a novel-in-stories by Long Island native Judy Chicurel, is sufficient reason to spend at least a few months of 1972 in this fictional, yet familiar locale. In 18 stories, Chicurel explores the coming-of-age of a young woman growing up fast amid a very 1970s mix of booze and drugs, returning vets, working-class families, pregnant friends, racial and economic tensions.
"If I Knew" is now out in paperback (Berkley, $16), and we caught up with its author.
You are the same generation as your main character, which makes you a bit older than the average debut author. How did you come to write your first book in your 50s?
I've always been a writer -- a journalist, a freelancer, a grant writer, a playwright, also a teacher and a Tarot card reader. In 2011, I was a fellow in a writing program at CUNY; our final assignment was to write a 5,000-word story. I started the story that is now the last in the book, but right after I wrote the line, "If I knew you were going to be this beautiful I would never have let you go," I got stuck. I turned in something else for that assignment, but the idea had taken hold. The next thing I wrote was the first story, "Summer Wind."
That story unfolds largely through dialogue between Katie and Desi, the owner of the corner candy store. Whether it's an argument in a bar, an awkward parent-child conversation, or stoned non sequiturs on the boardwalk, dialogue carries the book. Does this come from your playwriting?
It's more the other way around -- I love plays because I love dialogue so much. To me, it's the ultimate way to reveal character.
Is Elephant Beach modeled on somewhere in particular?
I grew up in Long Beach and the setting borrows most from Long Beach, but the faded honky-tonk feel is characteristic of beach towns anywhere. In the '70s, before there was funding to shore up the coastlines and rebuild the wharves, all these places were crumbling. Since then, there's been so much gentrification, everything looks perfect.
What about the Starlight Hotel, where the tragedy at the end of the book occurs?
It's a cross between the old Arizona Hotel in Long Beach and a place in Martha's Vineyard called The Seaview. The Seaview is now a condo, the Arizona is a parking lot. . . . This book truly is fiction, though naturally it has roots in real life. Like Katie, I'm adopted. I had a job near a drug dealing spot known as "The Toilet" where people spoke their orders into a shaft -- it became "Lips in a Hole" in the book. Though I didn't hang out with vets as a teen myself, my father fought in World War II, and worked with traumatized soldiers. The thing Katie's dad says to her, "We act like going to war is a perfectly normal thing, as normal as leaving for work in the morning. But don't kid yourself. There's nothing normal about it" -- that's something my dad said to me.
Has there been movie interest? It seems like such a natural.
Everyone keeps talking about it, at least in the Amazon comments, but nothing has happened yet. I'd love it. I can imagine an HBO series . . .
Is it a spoiler to talk about what the title means?
I wouldn't have thought so, but it turns out it is. Several readers have said they assumed it was referring to the relationship between Katie and her crush, and then when they got to the moment at the end where the meaning becomes clear, they started to cry. So don't tell.