No one will ever go hungry at Laura Shaine Cunningham’s table. The author’s summer suppers are the stuff of local legend: cocktails and appetizers by the pool (reclaimed from a 12-foot-deep cistern, its construction hilariously described in her second memoir, A Place in the Country) and entrees on the porch. We’ve been writers group colleagues for over a decade, and while most of us settle for putting out bagels and coffee, a meeting at Cunningham’s house is a three-course affair.
The preternaturally energetic novelist/memoirist/playwright/New York Times columnist divides her time between city and country homes. Her eponymous place in the country is a former inn, tucked away in a quiet corner of Ulster County. A child’s treehouse, a miniature of the original down to its cream-colored paint and black shutters, sits in a maple near the porch, where a black cat sunbathes by a windowbox spilling petunias.
Cunningham makes her entrance in a cloche hat, a white linen jacket and skirt, and jaunty pink sandals. She gives off the warmth of a six-burner cookstove, with an infectious smile and occasional bursts of wild laughter. She’s prepared sole almondine and a Mediterranean tart of feta, heirloom tomatoes, and herbs—an elegant menu from a woman whose childhood meals, detailed in her first memoir, Sleeping Arrangements, included popcorn for breakfast and kosher beef hotdogs kept warm in a thermos.
Sleeping Arrangements has been continuously in print for 19 years, with a host of devoted fans. Their numbers are sure to swell this November, when Cunningham’s memoir takes center stage as the 2008 One Book, One New Paltz reading selection. It’s the first time the One Book committee, which includes representatives from SUNY New Paltz and the community, has picked a book by a local author; previous honorees include Mark Haddon, Edwidge Danticat, and Rudolfo A. Anaya. Committee member Susan Avery, former owner of Ariel Booksellers, says, “I have literally recommended this book to hundreds of people—women, men, girls, boys. There isn’t anyone who can’t find something to relate to and to love.” Planned events reflect this diversity: From November 16 to 23, New Paltz readers will explore Jewish themes, nontraditional families, elders and children, literature, cuisine, theater, and film (see below for details).
Cunningham calls the selection “an honor and a compliment. When I wrote the book, it was ‘One Book, One Apartment,’ so this is bigger than I dreamed. The idea of a whole community reading your book is heady, it’s thrilling. I’d even move to New Paltz, but I like it here.”
The road to her sun-splashed Victorian porch was long and unlikely. Sleeping Arrangements chronicles a nomadic city childhood, made romantic by a loving single mother who could look at the underside of a relative’s dining table, where she and her daughter squeezed in for the night, and convert its dangling tablecloth into a canopy bed. Rosie had an equally fanciful touch with her personal history, giving young “Lily” (Laura’s childhood nickname) a war hero father with his own fighting dog, a boxer named Butch.
“It was a red-white-and-blue story, told to the accompaniment of bugles,” Cunningham writes. “There was only one flaw: While we waited for my hero father to return from battle, this country was not at war.”
Rosie’s fiction frayed quickly. Eventually, she and her daughter found an apartment in the Bronx, so close to Yankee Stadium that the walls were bathed with the glow of twi-night floodlights and shouts of “It’s a homer!” Lily ran wild with her streetwise playmates, and all was bliss until Rosie’s untimely death. But even in tragedy, family love triumphed. Into the breach came two wildly eccentric bachelor uncles: six-foot-six-inch private investigator Len, and Gabe, a dreamer who wrote Jewish gospel songs.
Sleeping Arrangements was a hit even before publication. The New Yorker published an excerpt, and bookjacket quotes arrived from Cunningham’s idols “like fairy dust”: Harper Lee, Anne Tyler, Chaim Potok, Muriel Spark. “It was incredible—people who were in my library, people who were mythical to me, wrote to me.” Cunningham beams.
But the book’s impact went deeper than praise. A magazine writer who’d already published two novels (Sweet Nothings and Third Parties), Cunningham finished most of her manuscript, then set it aside for nearly a decade because she couldn’t bear to write about her mother’s death. “Finally, I sort of dove at it, and wrote it very quickly. I felt the weight of the world lift off my shoulders,” she recounts. “I remember it was three in the morning, and I walked out onto this porch, feeling literally lighter. This is what memoir can accomplish: You can write your way out, you can write for your life.”