Fellow writers honor Heather Lewis with a reading of her posthumously published novel, Notice.
Thu Sep 9 2004
Somehow I feel that the suppression of female darkness is what killed Heather," Eileen Myles says of her friend and fellow writer, Heather Lewis, who committed suicide two years ago at the age of 40. "If you can't sing your blues, what the fuck are you going to do with them?" To make sure that those blues will be heard, Myles has organized a memorial reading of Lewis's final novel, Notice, with participants including Gary Indiana, A.M. Homes, Sapphire, Dale Peck and Allan Gurganus.
Notice, published in August, is the beautiful, graphic and deeply disturbing tale of a masochistic young woman who lives with her parents and turns tricks outside a local bar. She's striving for connection, but all she winds up with is a dangerous position in an abusive three-way relationship with a married couple, followed by her arrest and then a twisted affair with her female therapist. Though it is Lewis's final piece of writing to be published—following the cult hit House Rules (1994) and Second Suspect (1998)—it was not the last book she wrote. Friends say she penned it right after House Rules, but that publishers were afraid to touch it.
"Notice is a dark book with difficult subject matter, which makes it hard to market to a mainstream audience," says Amy Scholder, the manuscript's editor at Serpent's Tail. Myles adds, "[Lewis] suffered, like a lot of writers, with a second-book problem. They treated Notice as the end of her mainstream writing career."
Author Allan Gurganus, who wrote the afterword to Notice, says the book was ahead of its time. "My hope is that Heather is about to find the larger audience she deserves. Maybe the world is ready at last," he says. "She was a lyrical writer, even as she told the truth with a fearlessness that could seem the opposite of poetic. Even the bravest reader can sometimes feel afraid."
Lewis showed early promise as a writer, according to Gurganus, who was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College when she was a student there (though she was never in his class). He met the Westchester teen at a freshman orientation in 1980, and when he first saw her from behind, he recalls, he mistook her confident, square-shouldered stance for that of a boy. Lewis was wearing equestrian boots—a holdover from her days as a show-jumping prodigy—and Gurganus says he was drawn to her. The professor soon "adopted" the young writer, providing feedback on her work, which often dealt with the sexual abuse she had suffered as a child.
After college, Lewis moved to NYC and fell in with various downtown writers, including Myles. "She was always around, but not entirely part of a community," Myles says. "She networked, but she didn't hang out. She was grandiose, very sweet, deep, openhearted, nonjudgmental, paranoid." She remembers a fun time when a group of pals went to a lesbian sex-auction party at the Vault. "People were playing with fire, and that's where she went," Myles says. "She set her back on fire. It was amazing."
Lewis taught at the Writer's Voice at the West Side YMCA, where at least one student, Catherine Ritzinger, signed up for her class after being intrigued by House Rules. She found herself enthralled with Lewis's teaching style. "What struck me at the time was how lively she seemed—not as dark as I'd expected, based on her book," she recalls. "She was a wonderful teacher, perhaps the only one I've had whose words I believed, and who made me want to write on." Lewis encouraged her students to write every single day, if only for 15 minutes, and to stick to it. Daily writing time was the method Lewis herself used for House Rules, which took her seven years to finish, Ritzinger recalls.
Perseverance sometimes eluded Lewis, who had an on-again-, off-again struggle with drugs, according to those who knew her. Within the final year of her life, she gave in to an OxyContin addiction and left New York, jobless, to live a few miles from the Mexico border, where she could easily buy the drug. She was swiftly losing her grip on reality, and when she returned to New York, holing herself up in her East Village apartment, it didn't take her long to go over the edge. "Heather saw what was—she didn't see anything in a sugarcoated kind of way," recalls writer A.M. Homes, "and that means that you see a lot and feel a lot." In 2002, Lewis hanged herself in her bedroom.
"I felt responsible," Myles laments, "knowing so many people could've known so much and not done anything." Friends and colleagues hope to at least honor her memory with this week's reading. If Lewis could be there, "I think she'd want to be on a balcony, having a cigar," Myles says, " just listening."
Notice (Serpent's Tail, $14) is out now.