By Suzanne Chazin
Writers are always told to ‘write what you know.’ I’ve lived in Chappaqua for 15 years and I’m chagrined to admit that aside from one romantic scene set in a restaurant on King Street where Waka Asian Bistro now stands, my first three published novels contained nothing about Chappaqua.
When I returned to writing mystery novels after almost a decade away, I knew I wanted to set my new book in Chappaqua and the surrounding vicinity. But a book is such a tremendous investment of energy; I knew I could never sustain it unless I was writing about something I cared about deeply.
As it happened, I had started volunteering at Neighbor’s Link in Mount Kisco, helping immigrants use computers to study English. My Spanish is very limited, but thanks to another bilingual volunteer, I began to learn a little about the people who came to the center. I met a man who often went hungry the first winter he spent in Westchester. I met a woman who slept surrounded by stuffed animals to keep the memories of a brutal childhood at bay. I met smart, ambitious people who’d had to surrender their educations and their childhoods to put food on their families’ tables. I heard about harrowing journeys, tearful partings. In my more than two decades as a journalist, I’d never encountered so many dramatic and poignant stories in one place.
Suddenly, I found myself driving down familiar streets and seeing them as they might look through an immigrant’s eyes. At the Chappaqua train station, I thought about the man who’d spent two hours there trying to get back to Mount Kisco after his employer dropped him off. He didn’t speak enough English to figure out how to buy a ticket or which side of the track he needed to wait on. He was afraid to ask for help.
Driving through a stretch of wooded back roads, I thought about a homesick live-in nanny who found herself trapped in a big house in the middle of the woods each day, miles from town and unable to drive. At a local food store, I recalled the young woman whose immigrant mother worked there but had neither the health insurance nor the income to afford the arthritis medications she needed.
I saw boys leaving Greeley and thought about the young gardener who couldn’t go back to Guatemala to visit his dying mother. I picked up my daughter at Westorchard and thought about the housekeeper who only knew about her young children’s daily activities when they called long distance from Ecuador.
Some days it seemed, I was straddling between two entirely different worlds—spending my mornings talking to people who’d had to leave their families, sometimes for years, to provide for them. Then spending my afternoons fretting over some small inconvenience that ultimately didn’t merit the worry I’d invested. I gained such a deep appreciation for the little things I had previously taken for granted: family vacations, the flurry of college applications scattered across my son’s bedroom floor, the nightly rituals that accompanied tucking my daughter into bed. My own parents were both immigrants. And although they had never known the deprivations of the people I spoke to, they too had felt the dislocation that comes from being a stranger in a strange land. My father can still recall the moment his teacher made him get up in class to speak Russian when all he wanted was to be able to speak English like every other kid.
Here was a subject I felt passionate enough about to devote the 18 months or so it takes to draft a novel. I blended Chappaqua and Mount Kisco into a fictional ‘Lake Holly’ where wealth and want coexist in full view of one another like two sides of a pane of glass and Land of Careful Shadows was born.
For me, Chappaqua will always have the cozy blanket feel of a small town where children scatter like marbles across the soccer fields on weekends and neighbors meet up with one another at the library or the train station or over coffee at Susan Lawrence. But I know too, that there is an alternate world that exists right outside my door. And I try to open myself up to it as much as I can.
Suzanne Chazin has lived in Chappaqua for 15 years and in Mount Kisco for five before that. She is the author of three novels published by Putnam: The Fourth Angel, Flashover and Fireplay. She has volunteered with several immigrant organizations in Westchester County and has spent the past several years compiling the true stories of immigrants in conjunction with the Westchester Hispanic Coalition. She is currently shopping a novel based on her research called Land of Careful Shadows. Her website is: www.suzannechazin.com