Alyson Richman is a local girl. She grew up in the Setauket/St. James area, and basing her latest novel there, she says, “was a way for me to capture how I experienced my childhood.” “The Secret of Clouds” (Berkley, 357 pp., $26) tells the story of a Long Island teacher and student who change one another’s lives, and the details are homegrown. Maggie picks up a pumpkin at Wicks Nursery on Route 25A to cheer up her young charge, Yuri, and drives down “the leafy, serpentine roads” to visit her parents in Strongs Neck. Richman, a resident of Huntington Bay whose previous books include “The Lost Wife” and “The Velvet Hours," will discuss and sign copies of the book at Book Revue in Huntington on March 1. She spoke with Newsday by telephone; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired this project?
One summer day at a friend's house on Long Island, she offhandedly mentioned that every year she assigns students to write a letter to their 18-year-old selves, and she holds onto those letters until they graduate from high school. One [story] in particular struck me — about a child she’d tutored at home because they were too sick to attend school. [So] I invented a story of a child who’s too sick to go to school.
And I had a Ukrainian baby sitter for my son who had been a neonatal nurse in Kiev. She’d told me that when Chernobyl happened the population wasn't told immediately. For three days they had unseasonably warm weather — everyone was sunbathing and bathing in the river. Unbeknownst to them, they were soaking in invisible radiation, and years later children were born with all sorts of rare health conditions. I started to think, could I fuse that historical element into this novel, having a child who’s an immigrant from Ukraine, with a teacher who's called in to tutor him?
You call the book “a love letter” to teachers you’ve had. Why?
My first memory of really thinking about storytelling took place when I was six. Mrs. Goldberg, my first grade teacher at Saint James Elementary School, put a blob of paint on our pieces of paper. She told us to fold the paper, open it up, and write what we saw. I wrote a story that I saw a flying pickle, and I remember she wrote, “You have a gift with words.” Sixth through [eighth] grades I had the same English teacher at Harbor Country Day School, James Swink. I always credit him for being the most instrumental influence on my writing career. He never said, “If you're a writer, you're going to need to know how to do this.” He'd always say, “When you're a writer.” Teachers are the first people outside our homes that believe in us and make us believe in our potential.
Long Island is baked into this novel. What role did it play?
In the past [I’ve] always [had] to travel to different countries to do my research. What was so wonderful about this book was that I made all these connections within the Long Island community, whether it was a Romanian ballet dancer who teaches in Huntington or a young man named Sam Menzin, who now works for the Detroit Tigers. My daughter takes violin lessons at the Long Island Violin Shop in Huntington, and in the back they have in-house luthiers crafting and repairing violins. I liked this idea of creating this retired businessman, Maggie's father, who’s making violins in his basement. Their stories became threaded into the novel.
Can you talk about the origin of the title?
During the course of writing this book, my grandmother, who was 99, passed away. My son was extremely close with my grandmother and it was the first time I had to explain death to him. He kept saying, “But where does she go?” And I’d give him this very abstract answer like, "She loved lilacs, so when the lilacs bloom we have to think of her." He was nestled in my arms and looked up and said, “You know, mom, I just want to believe that when we die that every one of us has a family cloud we go to, and we're just waiting until the rest of our family members arrive.” I was so struck that he articulated something so hopeful and beautiful.
Alyson Richman discusses 'The Secret of Clouds'
WHEN | WHERE Friday, March 1 at 7 p.m., Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington
INFO Free; 631-271-1442, bookrevue.com