A fatal accident in his teens would come to define life for Darin Strauss. Also, from champion skier to acclaimed composer, Steven Mackey has never lost his rhythm.
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.
Steven Mackey is an innovative composer and musician known for incorporating electric guitar into classical compositions.
Born to American parents in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1956, Mackey was raised in northern California. A keen guitarist and competitive skier in high school, he entered the University of California, Davis, intending to complete a degree in physics. Mackey switched his major to music composition his junior year, going on to further studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Brandeis. By age 30, he was a professor of music at Princeton University, where he still teaches.
At Princeton, Mackey picked up the electric guitar again after putting it aside for years. It became a signature presence in his music, featuring in “Physical Property” (1992) for guitar and string quartet and “Tuck and Roll” (2000) for guitar and orchestra. Pushing stylistic boundaries and sonic conventions, his musical adventurousness and rock influence extends far beyond instrumentation.
His accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Stoeger Prize for Chamber Music, and one of Princeton’s first-ever President’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the inner lives of some remarkable thinkers. And on this episode, “Taking Time.” A fatal accident in his teens would come to define life for Darin Strauss. Finally telling his story publicly provided some relief.
Darin Strauss: We all go through life feeling bad about stuff that maybe we couldn’t change but it just hangs over you.
And from championship skier to acclaimed composer, Steven Mackey has never lost his rhythm.
Steven Mackey: There’s a real kind of musical connection, having been a mogul skier, there is a certain rhythm, and that kind of like the physicality of that rhythm is in my music.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
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.
Steven Mackey was just 19 when an injury forced him to give up professional skiing, a path he had been pursuing for much of his life. He didn’t step on the slopes again for 25 years. But when he did, the same drive that had propelled his early training took over.
Steven Mackey: I start skiing and I see this gate, you know, it says caution, experts only, three black diamonds, warning. I don’t know what possessed me. So I just went over, made two turns, fell, my skis come off. I tumbled down, you know, 500 feet, you know, “Who are you Stephen? You gotta reign it in here.”
It was a foolish moment of hubris, but only a temporary setback. After a while his muscle memory returned.
Mackey: It came back to me. The reason I fell on that first run was my weight got too far back and my quadriceps were not strong enough to pull me back up. And so I lost it. But then, you know, it began a whole renewed passion for the sport.
Mackey is on the bounds between hard work and audacity, failure and success, for much of his life. He’s guided as much by emotion as reason. And he knows that both are vital. Around the time his teenage injury pushed him to give up skiing, another chance encounter set him on a new path.
Mackey: I remember driving around with my older brother and he had an eight track cassette, eight track tape deck. You know, we were always putting in music and he put in Beethoven’s last string quartet, Opus 135, and the scherzo movement of that has this sing-songy tune, and then it hits this—it’s in F major, and then it hits this E-flat. It hits this note that’s the wrongest note, the bluest note I’d ever heard. It was like, wow, these people are writing music for people to listen to. And they’re trying to distill all of life into a listening experience.
At the time, Mackey was also playing guitar in a rock band.
Mackey: I was also beginning to tire of, you know, “Play the Doobie Brothers!”, you know, as my band was playing our aspirational originals, you know? And so it just felt like we were playing music to get drunk by, to dance to, to seduce by, to do the laundry to, to do, you know, all reasonable things. But here was music that was meant to illuminate the human soul. And it just, I just like, that’s what I wanna do.
In the years since that car ride with Beethoven, Mackey has channeled that moment of revelation into a lifelong determination to understand music and explore its limits as a composer. Now a professor at Princeton with a happy home life and a worthy house band consisting of his wife and fellow composer, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and their two kids, Dylan and Jasper. Mackey has won a Grammy award and his compositions are much performed, but as expected, it wasn’t a straight shot from rock and roll skier to internationally recognized Ivy League composer. Mackey decided to venture into classical music at an age when most musicians already have years of experience. Still, what he lacked in time, he made up for with verve.
Mackey: Yeah, I was very naive. I went to the head of the music department at the University of California where I was a student and said, I decided I want to be a composer and I’m going to be a music major. And he said, well, that sounds good. We’ll have you audition. What instrument do you play? I say, I play the guitar. He said, well, we’ll have you sight read some things and play some prepared pieces. And I said, well, I don’t know how to read music. And he said, he just laughed. He said, you know, you seem like a nice kid, but there’s just no way at your age that you can do this. You can’t catch up. I walked out of his office, looked in the newspaper for classical guitar teachers and figured that would be the way to do it. I’ll study classical guitar. I have the left hand. I was, you know, I was a dedicated guitarist. I mean, I practiced as much as any violinist practiced. I practiced six, you know, in the summer when I didn’t have to go to school, I practiced six, eight hours a day.
The commitment paid off. Mackey graduated Summa Cum Laude, and continued to dive deeper into the underpinnings of music, eventually earning a PhD from Brandeis University, But academic accolades were never the goal. Just like that blue note in the Beethoven string quartet, he was chasing powerful musical moments and willing to endure whatever it took to get there. Like the reaction he got when an orchestra finished playing one of his early pieces, “Eating Greens” at a European music festival.
Mackey: The piece ends…dead silence, then “Boo! Hiss! Boo!” And a couple of people, “Bravo!” And then a little, I mean, just like you could hear the individual applause. I mean, there was no kind of ambient applause and that—it hurt.
But Mackey didn’t dwell on this discouraging response. On the contrary, it drove him.
Strauss: My greatest fear in a way is not standing for anything, is just being bland, I guess, you know, that’s my greatest fear is just being, yeah, not gonna hurt anybody, you know. If I love that so much, and those people hated it so much, I must therefore stand for something, you know, so I’m gonna soldier on because I really believe in what I’m doing. And I really liked it.
What he was doing was going against everything he had spent the last several years learning. Mackey’s graduate work focused on twelve-tone music, a method of composing that came about in the early 20th century. Typically music is written using a scale with one tone as the focal point that gives us the key of the composition. Twelve-tone music pushes against that. One tone isn’t more important than the other. Instead a work is composed by putting the twelve tones of the chromatic scale—that used by most Western musical instruments—into an order that is the main guide.
Mackey: You would lay the notes out in a row and that order was supposed to be maintained. So you don’t get to number two before you have number one, you could have one and two together as a little chord, and then you can have three, and then you can have four, five, six and seven together as a chord, and then you can have eight. So that was the coin of the realm. When I was in grad school, that was what people were doing. And in college I had been a physics major, you know, before I switched to music. So math, that kind of thing of charts and structures and that kind of thing came easy to me.
But once he finished school and had his degree, easy wasn’t satisfying. When Mackey arrived at Princeton, a colleague, musician and composer Jim Randall, learned he had a background in guitar. He suggested the two of them put together recordings of improvisations, Randall on piano, and Mackey on electric guitar.
Mackey: It struck me that all my favorite bits violate taboos that I learned in grad school, you know, all the things that really oh, yeah, that excites me—those are all things that I had learned not to do in grad school. One of my big influences, the jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk, man, I like the joke of Thelonious finishing the gig, and he’s kind of down in the dumps as his buddy comes in and says, what’s wrong. And he says, ah, I played all the wrong, wrong notes tonight, you know. And I’m really interested in the right wrong notes. In order to have wrong notes, there has to be a context of rightness, you know, at the basis, which is the problem for me of twelve-tone music as a blues guitar player, twelve-tone music that then I was so occupied with, you know, ultimately, you know, I understood why I wanted to move away from that. It’s because there are no wrong notes in twelve-tone music.
As he searched more and more for the right way to be wrong, Mackey’s iconoclasm expanded beyond rebelling against the music theory genre of the day. He wrote a pizza delivery into an orchestral score and incorporated unconventional instruments into his compositions.
Mackey: I wrote a piece for electric guitar and string quartet. And the review said, “Combining the electric guitar and string quartet is a terrible idea and Mackey does it terribly. The only good thing about being present at this concert is the knowledge that this will never happen again.”
But Stephen Mackey doesn’t feel he’s a contrarian rebelling against musical conventions. Instead he sees himself as part of the lineage that developed those conventions.
Mackey: Classical music, when you look at the tradition—Mozart, for example, Mozart is a combination of Austrian folk song, Turkish military music, sacred music, Italian folk song and Italian opera, 18th century counterpoint, all of these things put together. In his day, he was a mutt.
AJC: And he was also a punk.
Mackey: He was, he was a punk, but you know, 40 years after his death his music was called classical music.
Mackey hasn’t had to wait quite as long for similar recognition. In 2015, the magazine Musical America praised his composition “Mnemosyne’s Pool” as the first great American symphony of the 21st century. The piece is about the role of memory in making music. It’s fitting since so much of Mackey’s journey as a musician has been about reconciling and processing the different paths his life has taken as a rock and roll guitarist, a classical composer and academic, and even his years as a skier.
Mackey: There’s a real kind of musical connection. Having been a mogul skier, there’s a certain rhythm, you know, anything went, and so you just were putting on a show. And so I didn’t have to go put-put-put-put-put-put through the moguls, I could go put-put-put-put-poo, put-put-put-pah, and that kind of the physicality of that rhythm is in my music.
But even as he’s carved his own path into music, Mackey still thinks he’s something of an outsider.
Mackey: I still feel like I read music as a second language, right? Unlike, you know, a cellist. You put music, printed music in front of a cellist, and from the beginning, you know, a cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, they’re interpreting, you know, it’s like giving a script to an actor, right? I’m decoding still. I cover it up pretty well. People think that I’m musically literate, but I’m not a native speaker.
Still the aim for Steve Mackey was never to take on the cadence and accent of the native speaker. Instead, he’s finding his own vernacular, creating musical moments that he or we haven’t even imagined yet.
Mackey: There’s times where the music that kind of just, I stumbled into, has some, you know, flavor of some human experience. And I don’t, you know, I don’t know what it is yet, but that’s my job as a curator of my own music is to you know, to find that so that it is as close to being as powerful as possible. Yeah. I can hear some human experience in there. Let me get, let me sharpen that up until then, now, you know, I’m three quarters of the way through with the piece, now I know what this piece is about.
Just as in his music, Steven Mackey embraces the beauty of harmony and dissonance in life. He knows our most uncomfortable moments can also become our most transformative. Sometimes stumbling sometimes soaring, the key, Steven Mackey has learned, is to just keep sliding forward.