When I was nine someone gave me a blank diary. I don’t remember who. It was pure white and had a small golden lock that opened with a small golden key that was also meant to re-secure the lock, but never did. I loved that diary. I remember very distinctly knowing it was the best gift I’d ever received. I filled it with stories about princesses and kings, about horses ridden by girls whose fathers drove around in fancy cars. I wrote about things that were nothing about me.
When I was eleven a poet came to my school to teach a class for several days. She was called a poet-in-the-school, a special guest, a rare occurrence. Every minute she spoke it was like someone was holding a lit match to the most flammable, secret parts of me. One day the poet-in-the-school explained what metaphors were and then asked us to write a whole poem composed of them. I was a lion. I was an icicle. I was a kaleidoscope. I was a torn-up page. I was glass that other people took to be stone. Another day she told us we could write poems about our memories. She asked us to close our eyes and think for a while about when we were younger and then open our eyes and write. I wrote about running down the sidewalk in what I called “beautiful, filthy Pittsburgh” in my paint-speckled sneakers when I was five.
A week later the principal summoned me to his office. When I arrived he explained from behind his big desk that the poet-in-the-school had showed him my poem. “You’re a good writer!” he exclaimed. His name was Mr. Menzel. He was the first person to ever say this to me. He handed me a copy of my poem and asked if I would read it out loud to him and I did, mortified but also happy. After I was done reading he said it was surprising that I’d described Pittsburgh as being beautiful and filthy because most people would think it could not be both things at once. “Keep writing, Cheryl,” he said.
I kept writing.
I didn’t know that by doing so I was becoming a writer. I knew people wrote books, but it didn’t occur to me that I could be one of them until I was twenty and a junior at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, enrolled in an introductory poetry class taught by Michael Dennis Browne. I learned a lot in that class. I came to understand language in a way I’d never understood it. I wrote my first serious (though lousy) poems. But most important, I got to be in a room a few times a week with a writer who’d written not just one book, but many, and it was only then that it dawned on me that even though the gap between who he was and who I was seemed enormous, maybe—just maybe—I could bridge that gap and someday be a person who wrote a book too.
I’ve often been asked how long it took me to write Torch. There are three answers to this question and they are all true: four years, seven years, and thirty-four years. But the last answer is the truest. Torch is born of the little white diary with the lock that wouldn’t work, the poet-in-the-school who taught me what a metaphor was, the principal who said keep writing, the writer whose existence showed me the way. They are not in the acknowledgments of this book, but they are in its blood. Torch is the story I had broiling in my bones for the first thirty-four years of my life. It’s the story I felt I could not live without telling. The one that made me think I could die when I finished writing it (though I can’t and don’t want to). Perhaps every writer has this relationship to his or her first book. I worked my tail off when I wrote my other books, Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, but Torch is the book that taught me how to write a book and because of that it was the one that demanded the deepest faith, the greatest leap, the furthest reach.
Torch is a novel about a family in rural northern Minnesota during a time of great loss. Because I grew up in a place not unlike the place depicted in the novel and because my family experienced a great loss not unlike that of the Wood/Gunther family in the book, many people read Torch as if it’s nonfiction, but it is not. Like a lot of novelists, I drew on my life experiences while writing Torch—those who’ve read my other books will undoubtedly recognize some details about my mother and her death and the general landscape and culture of rural Aitkin County, Minnesota, where I came of age—but the autobiographical elements were only the seeds from which I created a fictional world.
Though it’s true my family and I listened to radio shows of the sort Teresa Wood hosts in Torch on the very real community station KAXE, my mother wasn’t a radio show host and I can’t imagine she’d have wanted to be, given the opportunity. My brother didn’t go to jail for dealing methamphetamines like Joshua Wood does. My stepfather wasn’t an only child who obsessively listened to the music of Kenny G in his grief like Bruce Gunther does. I didn’t have an affair while my mother lay dying in a hospital in Duluth like Claire Wood does.
In writing Torch, I wanted to tell a story that had no obligation to what actually happened and yet what happened had everything to do with my need to write Torch. One of the great paradoxes of writing fiction is that it’s often only through imagination that a writer can reveal the greatest truth. I certainly felt that way as I wrote Torch. I don’t know precisely what it meant for my stepfather to lose his wife or for my siblings to lose their mother, but in Torch I tried very hard to know. Fic- tion gave me license to seek. It allowed me to tell the only story I could at the time, one that exceeded the bounds of my own particular grief—a grief that was so enormous I couldn’t hold it alone. I needed to cast it into other bodies, other minds, and also to pay those other people their due. They had lost my mother too. I put the story of my family’s sorrow on a larger, mostly make-believe stage so I could make sense of how any of us had managed to come out the other side. In doing so, my allegiance wasn’t accuracy. It was emotional truth.
That’s what I mean when I tell you that Torch was broiling in my bones. It was the story of my life and yet I made everything up. I created characters, even as I felt the people I knew and loved in every word I wrote. I set the story in a place that both was and was not home. I named the town in Torch Midden—the medieval word for a communal garbage heap—not because I wanted to imply my beloved hometown of McGregor was a dump, but because a midden is the most valuable find when archeologists do their excavations. It’s the place where we recover the hidden treasures, both grand and mundane. In middens, the story of a people and a place can be found, but only if we dig.
Torch is the result of my first sustained effort at digging. When I scratched beneath the surface as I wrote it, I came to understand I didn’t know what I was going to find as each layer revealed itself. It was only after I’d finished that I could see what I’d done: written a novel not only about grief and loss, but also about love in its many forms, about how we find light in the midst of the most profound darkness, about how we survive what we think we will not. And it’s only from this vantage point—years after Torch was first published—that I can see all of my books are about that. How things can be both beautiful and filthy at once.
She ached. As if her spine were a zipper and someone had come up behind her and unzipped it and pushed his hands into her organs and squeezed, as if they were butter or dough, or grapes to be smashed for wine. At other times it was something sharp like diamonds or shards of glass engraving her bones. Teresa explained these sensations to the doctor—the zipper, the grapes, the diamonds, and the glass— while he sat on his little stool with wheels and wrote in a note- book. He continued to write after she’d stopped speaking, his head cocked and still like a dog listening to a sound that was distinct, but far off. It was late afternoon, the end of a long day of tests, and he was the final doctor, the real doctor, the one who would tell her at last what was wrong.
Teresa held her earrings in the palm of one hand—dried violets pressed between tiny panes of glass—and put them on, still getting dressed after hours of going from one room to the next in a hospital gown. She examined her shirt for lint and cat hair, errant pieces of thread, and primly picked them off. She looked at Bruce, who looked out the window at a ship in the harbor, which cut elegantly, tranquilly along the surface of the lake, as if it weren’t January, as if it weren’t Minnesota, as if it weren’t ice.
At the moment she wasn’t in pain and she told the doctor this while he wrote. “There are long stretches of time that I feel perfectly fine,” she said, and laughed the way she did with strangers. She confessed that she wouldn’t be surprised if she were going mad or perhaps this was the beginning of menopause or maybe she had walking pneumonia. Walking pneumonia had been her latest theory, the one she liked best. The one that explained the cough, the ache. The one that could have made her spine into a zipper.
“I’d like to have one more glance,” the doctor said, looking up at her as if he had risen from a trance. He was young. Younger. Was he thirty? she wondered. He instructed her to take her clothes off again and gave her a fresh gown to wear and then left the room.
She undressed slowly, tentatively at first, and then quickly, crouching, as if Bruce had never seen her naked. The sun shone into the room and made everything lilac.
“The light—it’s so pretty,” she said, and stepped up to sit on the examining table. A rosy slice of her abdomen peeped out from a gap in the gown, and she mended it shut with her hands. She was thirsty but not allowed a drop of water. Hungry, from having not eaten since the night before. “I’m starving.”
“That’s good,” said Bruce. “Appetite means that you’re healthy.” His face was red and dry and cracked-looking, as if he’d just come in from plowing the driveway, though he’d been with her all day, going from one section of the hospital to the next, reading what he could find in the waiting rooms. Reading Reader’s Digest and Newsweek and Self against his will but reading hungrily, avidly, from cover to cover. Throughout the day, in the small spaces of time in which she too had had to wait, he’d told her the stories. About an old woman who’d been bludgeoned to death by a boy she’d hired to build a dog- house. About a movie star who’d been forced by divorce to sell his boat. About a man in Kentucky who’d run a marathon in spite of the fact that he had only one foot, the other made of metal, a complicated, sturdy coil fitted into a shoe.
The doctor knocked, then burst in without waiting for an answer. He washed his hands and brought his little black instrument out, the one with the tiny light, and peered into her eyes, her ears, her mouth. She could smell the cinnamon gum he chewed and also the soap he’d used before he touched her. She kept herself from blinking while staring directly into the bullet of light, and then, when he asked, followed his pen expertly around the room using only her eyes.
“I’m not a sickly woman,” she declared.
Nobody agreed. Nobody disagreed. But Bruce came to stand behind her and rub her back.
His hands made a scraping sound against the fabric of the gown, so rough and thick they were, like tree bark. At night he cut the calluses off with a jackknife.
The doctor didn’t say cancer—at least she didn’t hear him say it. She heard him say oranges and peas and radishes and ovaries and lungs and liver. He said tumors were growing like wildfire along her spine.
“What about my brain?” she asked, dry-eyed.
He told her he’d opted not to check her brain because her ovaries and lungs and liver made her brain irrelevant. “Your breasts are fine,” he said, leaning against the sink.
She blushed to hear that. Your breasts are fine.
“Thank you,” she said, and leant forward a bit in her chair. Once, she’d walked six miles through the streets of Duluth in honor of women whose breasts weren’t fine and in return she’d received a pink T-shirt and a spaghetti dinner.
“What does this mean exactly?” Her voice was reasonable beyond reason. She became acutely aware of each muscle in her face. Some were paralyzed, others twitched. She pressed her cold hands against her cheeks.
“I don’t want to alarm you,” the doctor said, and then, very calmly, he stated that she could not expect to be alive in one year. He talked for a long time in simple terms, but she could not make out what he was saying. When she’d first met Bruce, she’d asked him to explain to her how, precisely, the engine of a car worked. She did this because she loved him and she wanted to demonstrate her love by taking an interest in his knowledge. He’d sketched the parts of an engine on a napkin and told her what fit together and what parts made other parts move and he also took several detours to explain what was likely to be happening when certain things went wrong and the whole while she had smiled and held her face in an expression of simulated intelligence and understanding, though by the end she’d learned absolutely nothing. This was like that.
She didn’t look at Bruce, couldn’t bring herself to. She heard a hiccup of a cry from his direction and then a long horrible cough.
“Thank you,” she said when the doctor was done talking. “I mean, for doing everything you can do.” And then she added weakly, “But. There’s one thing—are you sure? Because... actually... I don’t feel that sick.” She felt she’d know it if she had oranges growing in her; she’d known immediately both times that she’d been pregnant.
“That will come. I would expect extremely soon,” said the doctor. He had a dimpled chin, a baby face. “This is a rare situation—to find it so late in the game. Actually, the fact that we found it so late speaks to your overall good health. Other than this, you’re in excellent shape.”
He hoisted himself up to sit on the counter, his legs dangling and swinging.
“Thank you,” she said again, reaching for her coat.