“I thought I would never talk about it,” the Brooklyn writer told a small gathering in Northwest Washington. “But at 36, I realized I’d lived half my life with this.” Since then he’s been talking about it, quietly and humbly, everywhere he goes.
That tragedy is at the center of a slim memoir he published in 2010 called “Half a Life,” which won a National Book Critics Circle award last year. It describes the accident that took place when he was a senior in high school, driving his friends to play miniature golf on Long Island. Sixteen-year-old Celine Zilke suddenly swerved her bicycle in front of his car in what may have been a deliberate act. “She was using me as the instrument of her death,” Strauss said.
At the girl’s funeral, her mother told Strauss, “Whatever you do with your life, you have to do it twice as well because you’re doing it for two people.”
Strauss, the author of four books, was in town to help raise money for 826DC, a local branch of the nonprofit organization founded by Dave Eggers in San Francisco that offers tutoring to children and teens. Strauss teaches at New York University, but he was initially flummoxed by his experience as a volunteer at 826NYC in Brooklyn. “Ten-year-olds are different,” he said, “in that grad students don’t often get up and smack each other in the face.”
Contributors to 826DC, members of the PEN/Faulkner board and local MFA students stood in Susan Shreve’s book-lined dining room and listened to Strauss describe the process of publishing a memoir about an experience he’d kept secret for years.
“I wanted to write the book for my 18-year-old self. But I was pretty scared. I have a lot of friends who are fiction writers, and they all told me that writing a memoir is different — and hard.”
Before the book appeared, he sent a copy of it to Celine Zilke’s parents so they wouldn’t hear about it first in the media. They have never contacted him.
The response from readers has surprised him, though. “I knew I’d hear from people who’d been in car accidents, but it’s had a more universal appeal. By the time you’re an adult, we all have something we feel guilty about. I feel like one out of every two people who read the book has written to me. It’s been a very cathartic and fulfilling thing, even more than fiction writing.”
He’s considering compiling a book from the thousands of letters he’s received, but getting all the rights and permissions is a daunting challenge.
He offered a simple rule to the MFA students in the room: “If you’re writing a memoir, don’t say, ‘I.’ Say ‘she.’ You’ll have a much clearer sense of the character. When you say ‘I,’ you’re defensive. When you say ‘she,’ you’re more objective. The problem with too many memoirs is that you can feel the author trying to forgive himself in every paragraph.”
Strauss can suddenly seem much older than he is.
“I think I’m the best driver I know,” he says quietly. “Because of this.”