New York Times Notable Books author and Brooklyn resident Darin Strauss, who wrote parts of his sobering memoir “Half a Life” at the Bluffton Library, is finding that his words have the power to bring sense out of tragedy.
The highlight reel of author Darin Strauss’s life so far includes a few defining dates.
There was the exhilarating week in September 1998 when he sold his first book and met his wife, Susannah Meadows.
There was the miraculous day in October 2007 when Meadows gave birth to the couple’s identical twin sons, Shepherd and Beau.
And there was that spring day in 1988, a month before his high school graduation, when a teenage girl on a bike swerved into the car Strauss was driving and died.
It is a tragedy that happened more than 20 years ago but just recently surfaced via his penetratingly honest memoir, “Half a Life.” Though Strauss lives in Brooklyn, NY, he penned a substantial amount of the memoir at the Bluffton Library.
“I come down (to the Lowcountry) maybe two times a year for three to four weeks each,” says Strauss, whose ties to coastal South Carolina are through his in-laws, Bluffton residents Jane and Ronald Meadows.
While he’s here, the New York native uses the spacious library — specifically the comfortable chairs in the young adult section — as his office.
“I spent so much time there I’m sure maybe they thought I was some weirdo,” says Strauss, who would often put in a full work day camped on a chair with his laptop and iPod. “Luckily one of (the librarians) had read one of my last books.”
That was Francesca Denton, reference services manager for the Bluffton Library, who said the staff did notice him becoming a semi-permanent fixture there twice a year, but at first tried not to pry.
“We saw him quite a bit, but we tend to be more reserved and not ask questions,” she says. A couple years ago when a young staff worker finally got up the courage to ask Strauss what he was working on, Denton recognized the author’s name.
“I read his first book, ‘Chang and Eng,’ and really enjoyed it,” Denton says. “The last couple of years he was on our radar. I knew he was working on a new book, and I think his third book had just come out.”
That new book was “Half a Life,” which came out in hardcover last September and will be released in paperback in May. It is a painful story of the drawn-out, hushed tones of grief that echo for years after a tragedy, and how they are made even more hollow and consuming when the tragedy itself is kept secret. Strauss ran from his tragedy — first to college at Tufts University, then to the writer’s life in New York City — shoving the painful memory inside to simmer in repressed survivor’s guilt for another 18 years. All the while, the thought of this former classmate shadowed his every move.
His first writing job after college was as a reporter for a financial and technology newsletter that caused him such anguish he developed an ulcer.
“It was something I didn’t like or understand, but it was a job,” Strauss says. He remembers the crushing anxiety of not comprehending the very first assignment the editor gave him, instead relying on another reporter’s list of questions to ask his source. He says he didn’t understand the questions or the answers, but he cobbled together article after article each week.
“I did that for three years,” Strauss says. “I didn’t know what I was doing but I managed to keep the job and write a book.”
That book was “Chang and Eng,” a historical novel based on the life of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker. He sold it in September 1998; he was 28 years old, and the book deal gave him enough money to quit his job and focus on writing full-time.
Two days later, he met his wife. “It was a big week for me,” says Strauss of his face-to-face meeting with Meadows, a senior writer at Newsweek. His first contact with her had come some time before when she, then working as an assistant at GQ, sent him a rejection letter for a short story he’d submitted.
“She sent me a letter rejecting it but saying it was good,” he says. The joke of such an ironic introduction to an eventual life partner is not lost on the writer. “Somewhere I have that letter; I can pull that out and say, ‘You never supported me fully,’” he laughs.
Indeed Meadows did see potential in the aspiring author because she implored him to keep sending stories for review. The two kept in touch that way until they met by chance at an Elvis Costello concert, to which a friend had taken Strauss to celebrate his book deal.
They soon began dating, while “Chang and Eng” became a Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, one of Newsweek’s 10 Best Books of 2000, and was eventually optioned for a movie by Disney. (Strauss wrote the screenplay with Gary Oldman.) A second novel, “The Real McCoy” (2002), based on the life of the boxer Charles “Kid McCoy,” earned critical acclaim as well.
Strauss and Meadows were married at Oldfield in 2004, a lovely June day Strauss recalls for its breathtaking beauty and stifling humidity. “It was a great place for a wedding,” he says. The newly married author continued to write while teaching writing at New York University, and was a 2006 recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Then in early 2007 the couple learned they were expecting — oddly enough — identical twins.
“I thought my wife was playing a joke when she first told me (it was twins),” says Strauss, who for his first novel had carefully researched and knew every facet related to twins, except one: How it felt to be a father of twins.
He spent much of Meadows’ pregnancy finishing up his third novel, “More Than It Hurts You.” But something else was tugging at his thoughts.
“I was 36 and I started thinking about the accident again, about how it had happened half my life ago. And ... I don’t know, at 18 I wasn’t really up for serious contemplation I guess,” Strauss says.
But when you’re about to become a parent, you consider things you haven’t before. You have dark imaginings of a parent’s worst nightmare, among other things.
“I knew intellectually how awful it would be (to lose a child), but it’s hard to feel it in your gut until you have kids of your own,” he says. He decided it was time to start writing his story.
“Getting my thoughts down was cathartic in that a large part of that was figuring out how I thought about it,” he says. The act of turning something so deeply personal into a book also gave the author a small measure of distance between him and the penetrating emotions of the tragedy.
“But having it out there is interesting because I’m now talking about something that was a big secret for years in rooms full of strangers,” he says. And readers have responded to the story in ways that belie the category “strangers.” Strauss says he’s received “hundreds and hundreds of emails” filled with confessions of dark secrets people in some instances haven’t even told their spouses.
“Often it’s things people shouldn’t feel embarrassed about,” Strauss says. “I think when you make something a secret you give it a certain kind of power over you.”
In “Half a Life,” Strauss has managed to harness that power for good, giving himself an honest evaluation of the events of that day and every day since, while also giving people who’ve been through a trauma a helpful guide for how one man is making his way through it. Now the author is writing a young adult adventure series with friend and author David Lipsky, a side project that suggests all those hours spent in the teen section of the library doubled as subconscious inspiration.
Strauss and his family were back in the Lowcountry over the winter holiday. He says they frequent Sea Turtle Cinemas and a few favorite restaurants in the area, including Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q in Bluffton. The twins, who are 3, love the race car carts at Publix, something the smaller grocery stores in Brooklyn don’t have.
While here, he gave a talk and book signing for “Half a Life” at the Bluffton Library and says he hopes to do another one in May, just in time for the book’s paperback release. Though he’s happy living in New York, in the heart of the publishing world, he enjoys the time he spends down South and he and his wife have occasionally daydreamed about moving here someday.
“It’s nice there,” he says. “It’s very relaxing.”