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Flava of the Month

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Back in the states, when I recount my visit with Misha, I think I see something of the predator in Margaret, too. In the cruel intelligence of her gaze, her long silky mane. I ask her: Can Native Americans talk to wolves, or is that buffalo? At any rate, I think I can see that half of her heritage expressing itself as she listens. “Misha loves her wolves,” she tells me. “But fighting over squirrel carcass with her pack made her competitive, for reals. You write a memoir these days, and someone’s always trying to outdo you. It’s an arms race. Just when you outrun the tsunami, cradling a baby under each arm, you look back and some joker is surfing on that mother, with a whole bandolier of babies across her chest, and she’s juggling flaming torches and a chainsaw to boot. It’s mad crazy on these streets.”

Mad crazy on these streets. I think about this as I drive back to the Chateau Marmont and observe the sad characters haunting the corners, the alleys, the gravelly shoulders of the 405. I feel so guilty! So many people out there, living, dying. Some escape, like Margaret. Most don’t. Either way, they have a story to tell. I try to think like a memoirist. Good material is all around you—you just have to open your eyes.

While the early response to Love and Consequences has been enthusiastic among critics and retailers, the book has a lot of competition. Does Margaret have what it takes? I ask Geoff Nichols, the Stephen King of self-lit, as he’s sometimes called. He’s written 23 memoirs, most recently the best-selling Mr. Chuckles: My Life With the Best Hamster Who Ever Lived and Son of Mr. Chuckles: My Life With the Son of the Best Hamster Who Ever Lived. He and Maggie play poker together. “Queen of the bluffers,” Nichols informs me one evening over mojitos.

We’re at an elegant lounge a few doors down from his magnificent Tribeca apartment. The drinks are strong and the lighting dim, according to the current chic. You have been in this lounge before, and yet you haven’t. “What I admire about [the book],” Nichols declares, “is Margaret’s consistency. She doesn’t get tripped up by the facts. Does Hamilton Street cross Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, or are they parallel? You gotta look at a map, for Christ’s sake. Why attend the ‘Hardy Knox Elementary School’ when there’s a Benjamin Franklin in the same neighborhood, one that burned down ten years ago? Use your local library or Hall of Records.

“Maggie’s not afraid of that kind of legwork,” Nichols continues, “and that’s why she’s a rising star in the self-lit biz.” A thin smile plays across his lips, twists into a playful grin. “Here’s a story: I had never been out of the country before when I was writing my memoir A Sandy Place: How an Agoraphobic With Chronic Dehydration Disorder Found Love and Laughter in the Kalahari Desert. I was under a two-memoir contract with a major publisher and had already blown the advance thanks to a gambling addiction, which I didn’t actually have but that I was rehearsing for a memoir I wanted to write later on. I was halfway through the book and I couldn’t afford to travel there. I didn’t even know what country the Kalahari Desert was in. So I went to the library. Turns out it’s in Africa. Who knew?”

Dateline: early spring. A time of renewal. My last visit with Margaret takes place at her loft in downtown L.A. It looks like a Design Within Reach catalogue exploded and someone garnished it with a year’s worth of Dwell. Her advance was modest, she assures me, but she scraped up a down payment by selling some Pan Am stock she’d inherited. It seems she’s really escaped her circumstances, been granted the dream of half-white, half-Cherokee kids who are adopted by black families everywhere: She is truly movin’ on up, and I ask her if she’s a little scared about how normal things have become. We’re a long way from the ghetto, after all.

“Actually, it’s only a five-minute drive, but to answer your question, no. There’s the book, and there’s my life. Two separate things. In the book, I had to keep it going, or as I put it, ‘Double it.’ When I came up with a showstopping set piece, I had to top myself every chapter. I think that’s true for everyone, no matter what kind of memoir you’re writing. That’s two shipwrecks, two killer grizzlies, two penknife amputations. Double it! If you’re writing about how your plane crashed in the Andes and you had to eat all the other passengers to survive, what if when you get rescued, your rescuers’ plane crashes and then you have to eat all of them, too? Double it! Without sacrificing psychological complexity, of course.” She blows on her cappuccino. “But in real life, there’s just living.”

It’s getting dark, and I’ve grown tiresome with all my questions. She reaches over and wipes a smear of foam from my mustache. It’s a surprisingly tender gesture, and I can’t help thinking of all the people she’s killed. “A lifetime ago,” she says, reading my mind. There is no more Pebbles. Only Margaret.

Before I leave, I ask if she has any tips for memoirists out there who, inspired by her story, need to share their own. She pauses for a moment and says, “It’s important to keep in mind as you write, What would I have done if this had actually happened to me? How would it have felt if I had actually felt this feeling? What would I have said if this conversation had actually taken place, and what would the other person have said if they actually existed?” She smiles. An enigma to the end. “It’s easy to lose track sometimes of why you got into the writing game in the first place: to tell a story.”


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