Your NewsMag first discovered Bellmore native and author Heather Siegel at the recent Indie Book Day sponsored by the Bellmore Memorial Library. Having attended several book forums and sat on panels, she was delighted at the interest and crowds at this event. A psychologist picked up her book, intrigued by the subject and title, asked questions and purchased it, for example.
She tells a compelling story of growing up in Bellmore in her new memoir Out From the Underground. It is a story of subterranean basement living in a family whose mother disappeared at a young age, of being in and out of foster care because of it, of an indifferent father and of developing a life engaged in rich imagination that would help her survive moments when she didn’t even know what day or what time it was.
What schools in Bellmore did you go to?
I went to Jerusalem Avenue Junior High, which is no longer called that, and to Mepham High School.
Where was the house with the basement you lived in?
The house I lived in was on Sawmill Road.
When did you discover you had a talent for writing?
I don’t know that I believe in talent as much as I do persistence and hard work. I was drawn to writing as a teenager. I can remember displaying a penchant for writing in high school creative writing class. I also kept a journal. I have a memory of scribbling down who-knows-what nonsense as I rode in the backseat of a taxi, late to school. I was always late to school. That was part of the problem of living in a basement. It was perpetual nighttime down there. My circadian rhythm had no shot of normalizing.
Before I gravitated toward writing, however, I was a reader. Needing to make sense of the absurdity around me, or maybe trying to escape it, I devoured books. I read anything I came across. Fluff and literature, fiction and nonfiction, it made no difference to me. With equal, rapt attention, I turned the pages of Wanderlust by Danielle Steele and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, walking away from both with the same message: There was a big, wide world out there. People were doing fantastic things, embarking on impressive lives, overcoming hurdles—and I wanted to be one of them, despite my circumstances.
What circumstances to you speak of?
Besides all that I describe in the book – my mother’s mysterious disappearance, foster care, subterranean living – there was a victim mentality that the adults around me shared: a tendency to blame others and shirk responsibility. There was also no guidance. No goals or aspirations. That’s why reading became so important for me – especially nonfiction stories. There were people who had it way worse, and they had overcome. Their stories lit a pathway for me. Literature, you could say, became my therapy. For my sister, earning money was her way out. For my brother, it was music. There came a point when the three of us, without every saying it out loud, understood, that the victim mentality would end with our generation. We would take responsibility and own our lives.
So, for you, memoir writing is really confessional writing?
Some memoir is confessional. But the genre is much wider than that. There are transformative memoirs, travel, trauma, inspirational, medical, professional, coming of age, experimental and so on. No matter the category, my interest is in the literary memoir.
What things and ideas occupied your time as a child?
Kids are resilient creatures. No matter what was going on around me, I found a way to be a kid: bike riding, Barbies, sports and, eventually, boys. The teen years are when things became a little rockier.
What do you do now?
I’m putting the finishing touches on two other books, and shopping them with a literary agent. I enjoy writing personal essays about pretty much anything, and mostly about nothing—so long as it needles my curiosity. The slime my daughter makes—why!? The bake sale I recently ran—good lord, why did I sign up for that? Parenting, beauty, marriage… At some point I hope to put them together in an essay collection. In the meantime, you can read some on my website www.heathersiegel.net All my links are on the site as well: Amazon, goodreads, facebook, twitter and other online sites.