Even though Bill Gordon set his first book in his hometown of Jersey City, it’s not a memoir – rather, it’s a fictional tale of a feisty woman’s journey through adulthood.
“Mary After All” (published last month by Dial Press, 274 pp.) follows Mary Marelli through adolescence, marriage, and divorce, and almost makes Jersey City a character in the book as well.
Gordon, 40, grew up in the West Bergen section, between Marion and Greenville. He graduated from St. Peter’s Preparatory School in 1982 and from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School for Communication in 1986. After that, he tried out different writing-related careers – broadcast journalism, selling advertising space for a communications company, writing theater reviews, and finally, public relations.
“I was going to be a playwright,” he said recently in an interview in Manhattan, where he now lives. “Just like advertising switched to PR, playwriting switched to standup comedy. I performed on and off throughout my twenties. When I would perform less, I would publish more. Finally it became clear that I really wanted to write a book.”
Gordon gained entry into the prestigious Columbia University non-fiction writing program and wrote, as his thesis, a novel about growing up in Jersey City, as well as some short stories. As part of his research, he listened to the stories that his great-uncle, two great-aunts, and parents told about the way Jersey City used to be.
“When I was growing up in Jersey City in the ’70s and early ’80s,” Gordon said, “it was rough. I used to hear from my grandparents about a city that was so safe. In a way, I got to bring that city back to life.”
After listening to his aunts tell stories, Gordon said, “I sat down and wrote in the voice I heard the stories in. That’s how I kind of gave birth to Mary.”
He said writing in first-person as a woman was not so unusual, since when he wrote plays, he had to pen dialogue for different characters in different voices.
As he listened to relatives’ stories, Gordon learned of neighborhood characters such as “Charlie Cupacoffee” and “Tony the Horse,” both of whom have a place in the book. “Tony the Horse” is a gangster cousin of Mary’s, one of the first in a long line of men she believes will protect her. But in the end, it is Mary who prevails, learning to be independent and still find a place for those who disappointed her.
After Gordon earned his MFA from Columbia in 1999, he kept working on the novel. At the same time, his Columbia classmate Helene Stapinski, a journalist and Jersey City native, was working on a memoir about having grown up in Jersey City with corrupt relatives.
Gordon saw an article about a certain literary agent and passed it to Stapinski, who then sent her memoir to that agent. The agent sold Stapinski’s memoir – “Five-Finger Discount” – and it went on to have nationwide success and to be optioned for a TV show.
When Gordon finally made progress on his own book – more than four years after he started it – it was time for Stapinski to return the good deed. So she passed Gordon’s unfinished manuscript along to her agent.
The agent managed to sell it in only a matter of weeks.
Gordon was unschooled in the publishing process, although he’d had his share of trial and error with writing plays. “All I knew how to do is write,” he said. “I was surprised it sold quickly. I had worked on it for years, and then all of a sudden my whole life changed in a few hours.”
Well, not completely. Gordon still works full-time at a communications firm in Manhattan doing health care public relations for new drugs. But he is happy that “Mary After All” has finally hit the shelves.
The novel is cleanly written and instantly draws a reader in with Mary’s straightforward, conversational tone.
In the opening paragraph, she tells us, “Tony the Horse was a hit man, and he wore a size 13 ring.” Tony, Mary’s second cousin, kindly brings her stamps from all over the world for her stamp collection, when he isn’t busy planning to threaten someone.
Mary proceeds through school, deals with her mother’s illness, gets married, raises two boys, gets divorced, and finds herself all along the way.
“It’s a negotiated happiness by the end of the book,” Gordon said.
Of his character, he said, “I think Mary’s funny, and I think she’s very smart. I think the book tells the story of a century of living in Jersey City.”
Indeed, many Jersey City locales and staples of life are mentioned in the novel. Unlike Stapinski’s book, which elicited some complaints from Jersey City residents who thought it painted the city in a negative light, “Mary After All” gives a more sentimental view.
“It doesn’t trash Jersey City,” Gordon said. “A lot of great people have come out of our city.”
Gordon’s parents still live in Jersey City. His father is a retired truck driver and electrician and his mother works for the city’s Board of Education.
Gordon has been busy doing readings, as well as trying to dodge family members’ and friends’ questions about whether characters in the book are modeled after them. His sister is named Mary, but Gordon said his character wasn’t named after her.
“There are a lot of Marys in my life,” Gordon said. “They all think it’s about them.”
Bill Gordon has a reading coming up at the Housing Works Used Book Café on Crosby Street in Manhattan, Thursday, March 31, 7 p.m., free. “Mary After All” is available at all major bookstores and www.amazon.com. For more information, visit www.dialpress.com.