Darin Strauss: A Present Passed
A fatal accident in his teens would come to define Darin Strauss, until telling his story publicly provided some relief.
Darin Strauss is an award-winning novelist and memoirist. He won the 2010 National Books Critic Circle Award for autobiography/memoir for Half a Life.
Born in Roslyn Harbor, NY, and raised in suburban Long Island, Strauss studied at Tufts University and New York University. His master’s thesis at NYU formed the basis of his first novel, Chang & Eng (2000). The fictionalized story of the famous conjoined twins won multiple awards and was named a book of the year by Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, among others. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006, between the publication of his second and third novels, The Real McCoy (2002) and More Than It Hurts You (2008).
His memoir, Half a Life (2010), details Strauss’s two-decade struggle to come to terms with killing a 16-year-old girl in a car accident the week before his high school graduation. His 2020 work Queen of Tuesdays blended fiction, biography, and memoir in an invented story of a love affair between his grandfather and TV star Lucille Ball.
Strauss is a professor of creative writing at NYU.
When he was just a teenager, Darin Strauss accidentally killed a 16 year old girl called Celine. He was looking forward to college and starting life as an adult. The accident changed everything, and he would carry his guilt and a promise he made to her family for years.
Darin Strauss: Her parents said, “We know it’s not your fault. We’ll never blame you. We’ll never sue you, but you just have to live your life for two people.” And that was tough because, you know, I didn’t know what that meant, I was 18 years old, but I thought, okay, I’m gonna try to do it. She said, “You have to be twice as successful, twice as happy.”
Born in 1970 in the Long Island town of Roslyn Harbor in the shadow of Manhattan, Strauss grew up in a sort of suburban ho-humness. The Strauss men happily built skyscrapers, sold real estate. None of them were conventionally creative, except for one.
Strauss: My grandfather wanted to be a writer and couldn’t. I saw that as a tragic thing growing up. He fancied himself a poet, typical immigrant story—his father came here with nothing, built up this giant, successful business and made his son do it and his son said, I wanna be a poet.
Strauss’ great-grandfather Jacob, emigrated from Russia at age 13, with $12 in his pocket and no English. He went to work at a hat factory. Eight years later, he owned that factory. Soon, he started buying real estate in New York and building high-rises. He got rich.
Strauss: My great uncle’s wife called my grandmother and said, “My husband just died and I found his body and then I also found a huge suitcase of cash.” And that was the money he stole from the, he stole a bunch of money. He embezzled. So my grandfather thought he was really rich and wasn’t, and so lost, you know, lost the house and…
AJC: Didn’t get the suitcase?
Strauss: Didn’t get the suitcase.
His parents expected young Darin to join the professions. He wanted to be a writer.
Strauss: So I didn’t think about being a writer, but I obviously wanted to do it, I was telling stories all the time. So that was there and I think it was based on my grandfather. But then I had the accident.
The accident occurred on an unremarkable day in May 1988, days before Strauss was to graduate high school. He was driving some friends to a game of miniature golf, when up ahead he noticed a pair of cyclists off to the side. Suddenly one of them, a young girl, veered into his lane, just 10 feet ahead of him. For Strauss, the next moments would cast an ominous shadow on his young life.
(Excerpt from Darin Strauss’ Half a Life)
And how do they handle this? What I want to write is, I lay there until morning with tear-stained eyes, tear-stained pillow, a tear-stained life. What can one do with levels of gloom and guilt, fear and disbelief, of bewilderment above one’s capacity to register?
Strauss: I think that was sort of the final push. And really, maybe it was just knowing that life can throw this curve ball. So why, why play it safe anyway? So I went to college and I think really upset my parents when I said I’m going to try to be a writer.
And so, aged 18, Darin Strauss found himself with two big problems. How could he live the lives of two people? And as he had been instructed by Celine’s parents, be twice as happy? He now felt compelled to seek success as a writer. And thus also honor his grandfather’s unfulfilled dreams. But first he had to escape from the scene of the tragedy. Strauss describes college as a sort of witness protection program. He made sure no one would ever know his secret. And despite his lack of culpability, he shared with no one and could not talk himself out of his suffering. One month into his freshman year at Tufts, he was told that, despite their assurances, Celine’s parents were suing him for substantial compensation. They would eventually settle out of court for a trivial sum.
After Tufts Strauss headed to the graduate creative writing program at New York University. One particular teacher, the late great novelist E.L. Doctorow, encouraged him to pursue his thesis topic, the story of the famous co-joined twins, Chang and Eng. The first 60 pages weren’t very good, but the last 10 offered hope and would eventually form the basis of his first novel.
Strauss: And the entire class said, this is not going to work. You shouldn’t be writing this, it’s not you, you’re never to pull this off—except for the teacher. And he pulled me aside after class and said, “Ignore those people. It’s rough, but something is there.” So I was really discouraged. I was going to give up on that.
Chang and Eng was published in the year 2000 and was soon shortlisted for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award among others. His second book, 2002’s The Real McCoy, was based on the life of Charles “Kid” McCoy, who came to New York in the early 1900s and assumed a new identity. He became a championship boxer, but also a jewel thief, a womanizer and a con man.
Strauss: I came to New York, became a writer, felt like an imposter. And then the third book was about the secret that this family had.
That third book, More Than It Hurts You, published in 2008, told of a family impacted by Munchausen by proxy, a rarely diagnosed phenomenon where a caregiver, often a parent, intentionally harms their child. The family in the novel is forced to confront a reality that has become a nightmare. Despite presenting as works of fiction, Strauss came to realize that all of his early novels were at least in part autobiographical. He poured his grief, regret, and sense of the randomness of life into them, without being fully aware of it. After carrying the guilt of the accident for so long, he began to work on a memoir. With Half a Life he was finally ready to tackle that defining moment.
Strauss: All these things are me dealing with it without realizing it. And then I wrote my memoir and realized that. And so it kind of freed me up to write, I guess, whatever I wanted to write.
The act of writing Half a Life was cathartic, freeing. And from readers’ responses, he learned a surprising truth: that by the time we are adults, most of us carry some sort of guilt. In 2020’s The Queen of Tuesday Strauss honors his beloved grandfather Izzy, another life he had felt required to rectify vicariously. He builds a story around a speck of truth: his grandfather’s chance meeting with Lucille Ball at a Coney island demolition, hosted by the infamous real estate developer Fred Trump. Combining biography, fiction, and memoir, Strauss creates a make-believe story based on what might’ve been.
Strauss: My great-grandfather had the hustle, came here, built this thing, you know, and that’s when my grandfather knew Trump’s father, because my grandfather was for awhile in with all these big real estate people. And my grandfather was there for the birth of the American suburb. And that’s what I thought was interesting too, that he knew Lucille Ball, or at least met her at this party. So she built American culture in a way, for better or worse. And he built the American way of living. He was there for people who built the American way of living for better or worse.
Into the Izzy-Lucille saga, Strauss weaves his own real and imagined conversations with his grandfather towards the end of his life.
(Excerpt from Darin Strauss’ The Queen of Tuesday)
In my grandfather’s hospital room, at his request, I found myself pawing through a briefcase that sat under a Burberry coat on a chair across from the bed. “Found it?” he said. “I think this will be something you can use”. I pulled out a manila folder filled with papers. “No one knows that exists,” Papa Izzy said. “Did you ever hear I knew Lucille Ball?”
Darin Strauss imagines an intense but short-lived love affair that would claim his grandfather’s undying devotion. On his deathbed he replays his time with Lucille with the frequency of I Love Lucy reruns.
(Excerpt from Darin Strauss’ The Queen of Tuesday)
There is something holy about his feelings for Lucille. And we’re all sinners. His lascivious, his infidelitous, his righteous feelings. It sounds awful to call infidelity holy on the Sabbath morning, but there it is. How can you argue with the Bible? The Beverly Hills hotel to him revealed the almighty in the everyday, by showing the furthest possibilities for human joy. And yet more and more, guilt comes, tastes like regret.
Strauss: The affair was invented, but I knew with Lucille Ball, she’s so well known that it wouldn’t do to make stuff up whole cloth. I wanted her fans to be able to appreciate the book. And then with my grandfather, I felt I owed him just a respectful telling as well, just because he’s someone I loved.
Darin Strauss has spent much of his life keeping secrets and promises. In his books his characters struggle with destiny, with fate. They often live double lives as he was forced to do. His art has imitated his life, and it would seem that Darin Strauss is now okay with that.