By Annettte Hinkle
Suzanne McNear and March Rivers have a lot in common.
Both were born in Wisconsin in the mid-1930s and both left the Midwest to pursue degrees on the East Coast. After graduating from Vassar, both set out to do what most young women with college degrees did in the 1950s.
And then came the 1960s, and all the rules changed — beginning with a manifesto by Betty Friedan entitled “The Feminine Mystique” (which, incidentally, just turned 50 this week). Divorces and confusion followed as the counter culture movement took hold and grew into the days of free love and women’s power.
That’s what happens when all the rules change in the middle of playing the game.
But when it comes to McNear and Rivers, there is an important difference between the two. While McNear is a real life author and editor living in Sag Harbor, March Rivers is an entirely fictional character, and the protagonist in “Knock Knock,” McNear’s debut novel which has just been published by The Permanent Press.
McNear, who for many years was the fiction editor at Playboy in Chicago, will be at Canio’s Books on March 1 to talk about the novel (which Martin Shepard of The Permanent Press has labeled a “fictional memoir”) and she notes that though there is a kernel of her own reality in many of March River’s experiences, this is by no means her story.
“I started writing it as a novel and I don’t think I could have written a memoir,” admits McNear. “Since I’m not a rock star or a recovering drug addict, I didn’t think I could do that. March Rivers, I thought, is completely fictional — though she was me in a way.”
“I started out telling a story I knew, of growing up in Wisconsin, and it became her story,” says McNear. “I thought those were my experiences, but it was comforting having her doing them. It’s not interesting enough to be about me.”
“By having March tell the story, it was funnier and more frightening at times,” she says. “If it’s too difficult, she makes up something and has a sense of humor. Which I like. It’s hard being ironic in the Midwest.”
Relying on a stream of consciousness style, the sense memories of March are revealed in vignettes throughout the book. The out-of-her-element Midwesterner attends an exclusive private college on the East Coast where she dabbles in Ivy League dating, without the success of her well-connected friends, and takes on her first lover in something more akin to a business transaction than romance.
For March, it’s a merger destined to fizzle long before the promise of marriage.
This could be difficult material to relive if it were, in fact, a memoir. But by removing herself from the equation and expanding on March’s own experiences, McNear was given the opportunity to go places she had never been before.
“It’s a personal novel about coming of age, marriage, divorce and children,” says McNear. “Many people got married out of college, divorced after children, or got jobs and did what everyone does today. But maybe you get married later today.”
It may be the normal course of action now, but for people like March (and McNear), settling into life as a conventional housewife while the rules are being completely rewritten doesn’t always go down easy — even when it’s all laid out for you by someone like Betty Freidan.
McNear admits that in real life, it took her a while to work through “The Feminine Mystique.”
Obviously, it was something I did believe in, but it was hard to get into it,” she says. “I realized all this stuff I’ve been doing is plain stupid. I think it was a catalyst for my divorce.”
Likewise in the book, when March moves back to the Midwest and gets divorced, she finds herself in a changing world. That’s when she has her first panic attack and calls the rescue squad.
“I think March goes through a period after she’s divorced where she’s extremely depressed and acting like a crazy person with children,” says McNear.
Though “Knock Knock” is just hitting the bookstands now, McNear actually wrote the first draft of the novel years ago when she was still working at Playboy.
“Then I put it aside — it was 500 pages at one point,” she admits. “I sent it to an agent. She liked it and she sent it out, but no one was interested in publishing it.”
The manuscript was returned to her with a note saying that it would have to be cut.
“This was in the ‘80s. So I put it aside and worked as a freelance writer and editor in New York.”
Then four or five years ago as she was assembling a collection of stories, McNear’s daughter, Alex, said, ‘Why not think about your novel that you started?”
McNear wasn’t so sure.
“I never thought of looking at it again, I think I saved it because it came back in a typing box. It was just sitting there,” she says. “I thought I don’t have anything in my mind I’m working on, some stories, but nothing else is coming up. I could at least look at it.”
“I was sure it was perfectly awful. So I started reading it and thought, ‘This isn’t so bad, it could work — maybe it’s salvageable.’”
For McNear, making it work involved a complete rewrite and a serious cutting. She accomplished all this by joining the Ashawagh Hall writers group in Springs.
“I liked some of the people there. They were smart and supportive,” says McNear. “I finished it three years later.”
As part of the reworking process, McNear read big chunks of the novel aloud to the group every few weeks. She found that the support of a few faithful participants was crucial to her success in finally getting it to where it needed to be.
“They were just splendid,” she says. “I think having that feedback made all the difference. I wanted to know if this was going to work. Is it me who just think it’s good and am I going in the right direction? They also noticed things I hadn’t thought of. I just got rid of hundreds of pages, and there were slight mentions that grew into something more.”
In the end, “Knock Knock” is a novel that offers readers a very personal glimpse into the changes and turmoil that affected that generation of women who dutifully toed the line of the 1950s, only to see the rules re-written once they had settled into what they thought was domestic bliss. It certainly turned out to be a difficult time for March Rivers.
“One thing that occurred to me, and has come across in a couple reviews, this person was so without direction,” says McNear of her main character. “That’s true, but I didn’t think of it that way. She certainly does strike me as being very directionless, but she’s struggling to survive.”
And it was not an easy time for young women. All they had come to accept as desirable was suddenly turned on its head. Betty Freidan and all that followed was a serious wake up call. Whether or not women were ready to heed it was another question altogether. This is certainly something that McNear has noticed about March Rivers.
“It surprises me sometimes still, and I think, ‘You poor dear, get moving.’”
Suzanne McNear reads from “Knock Knock” at Canio’s Books (290 Main Street, Sag Harbor) at 5 p.m. on Friday, March 1. For details, call 725-4926.