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A comic and passionate road novel, One Last Stop borrows a lot of particulars from Walden's life—narrator Loli is a mostly lesbian traveling arts teacher with a gift for inspiring recalcitrant teens—and takes the reader deep inside its narrator's head, where her dead mother's voice asserts itself freely.
After Walden's mother died, she stopped singing for years. Music was something they'd shared; her mother was "a great pianist, very musical." The family was prosperous. "We lived in Larchmont, very privileged. My father was a successful broker—an arbitrageur, very handsome. My mother was beautiful, talented. It looked like perfection." Walden's sister, five years older, remembers an idyllic childhood. But their mother slid into depression and drink during Walden's teen years. "When I grapple with my emotional issues—which I have—I go to yoga, meditation, herbal medicines, therapy. I put my foot on a different path early on," she says, gazing out at the snow that's beginning to fall. "I tried as hard as I could, but I couldn't save her. This notion of saving somebody, or being saved, it haunts you."
The dead and the haunted fill Walden's Afterworld, a wiggy Southern gothic narrated by four generations of a profligate Louisiana sugar-cane dynasty, along with some loquacious nonhuman entities—Swamp, Sugar, and the title character, a magisterial presence who orchestrates the transitions from life to death (and sometimes back) during one fateful hurricane season:
"As the blues come to roost in God's hallowed halls across the city, parishioners wail. They grieve for the sudden loss of loved ones. There will be no goodbyes. There will be sorrow for years to come. Once again, New Orleans will be a deeply wounded city."
Walden is about to deliver a revision of her third novel Beyond Expectation to editor Ann Patty, who also helped her shape Afterworld. It's about Daisy Wentworth, a "visual genius" with Asperger's, and her estranged father, an equally brilliant musician who left the family when she was young and who shares her condition. Like all Walden's work, it's written in first person, and when she reads the opening aloud, the change in her affect and vocal rhythms is startling. She writes like a character actor, disappearing into other voices and skins. "I'm a process person, so I can't detach. I feel their emotions in my body." This process is grueling, but richly rewarding. "I've tapped into my heart more than anything I've ever done, even writing songs," she says of Beyond Expectation. "I've gone into places I never wanted to go. But I did it, kicking and screaming."
Will there be more novels? Walden's not sure. "At the end of every project I think, now I'm going to be a plumber, or raise seedlings," she says. "Books take forever. I disappear from the world. I don't see friends. I don't see myself—I disappear into these characters." Meanwhile, she's working on two collaborative projects. The Buddhist-themed opera Mira: Great Sorcerer, written with Jean-Claude Van Itallie and composer Andrea Clearfield, will have its first workshop this winter. She's also writing High School Yearbook, a nonfiction book about teenagers with cancer, for the multiplatform organization of the same name.
Walden's been teaching teenagers for years, and loves tapping the deep emotions and vulnerability underlying an often-resistant facade. "Teaching is the true collaboration. Every time I get in front of a class, I think I'm going to throw up. Because it means so much, working with teens. I feel a real responsibility. I've watched the educational system in this country be destroyed," she asserts. "I believe that everyone is a writer and everyone has a story, just like everybody can sing—not necessarily sing well, but everyone has a voice."
Lois Walden's unique voice rises with passion. "We're meant to change. Everything in life is about learning—not learning, understanding. I've been trying to understand this world in its chaos for decades. Getting older is really challenging, especially when you're someone like me. Inside, I'm Peter Pan."