In life, we make choices, and we have to live with them. But as Gwynne Garfinkle details in this Big Idea for Can’t Find My Way Home, maybe sometimes the choices we make have consequences even beyond that.
My novel Can’t Find My Way Home began as the story of a young actress haunted by her best friend who died protesting the Vietnam War. The haunting is a figurative as well as a literal one. The title of my first draft was Failing, because that was my conception of my protagonist, Joanna Bergman: someone consumed by how she’d failed her friend Cynthia Foster. In 1971 Jo and Cyn planned to firebomb a New York City draft board, but Jo backed out at the last minute. Cyn died in the explosion, and Jo was left guilt-ridden and emotionally isolated. In 1975, just as she’s falling for her married soap-opera costar and attempting to regain a sense of connection, Cyn’s angry ghost appears. The friendship between Jo and Cyn proves even more intense and complicated than it was when Cyn was alive, and Jo must figure out what her dead friend wants from her.
The novel drew on my fascination with certain radical factions that came out of the movement against the Vietnam War, including the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army. (When I was nine years old, I’d watched the SLA shootout on live TV with little comprehension of what was happening, though it took place just over twenty miles from my house.) Can’t Find My Way Home is also a love letter to the classic daytime dramas that used to be produced in New York. Two friends of mine who worked on such shows — Lara Parker, one of the stars of Dark Shadows, and Rory Metcalf, who was on the writing staff of Ryan’s Hope — helpfully fielded my questions.
I wrote a quick first draft of the novel and then embarked on a painstaking revision. When I completed the rather grim second draft, I realized the book still needed something, to put it mildly. (For one thing, it needed to be in first person rather than third, which really isn’t something you want to discover after the second draft, or even after the first draft!) Then I got the idea that Cyn’s ghost would force Jo to relive the night of the draft board bombing over and over, making different choices until she figures out how to get things right (if that’s even possible). I knew I had found the key to making this novel work, and I could hardly wait to write all of Jo’s roads-not-traveled.
In retrospect, I don’t think I could have gone straight into writing Jo’s alternate lives without the scaffolding of the second draft. With that framework firmly in place, I could go wild exploring all the personal and political pathways of Jo’s lives. Jo became more multi-dimensional, and the story of Jo and Cyn opened up in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I started writing the novel. It turned out to be one of the best writing experiences of my life. I hope some of that exhilaration comes through in the book.