How I wrote “The Summer of Cancer”

When my friend Sarah was in graduate school, she and another friend spent a summer in their backyards with a fan on an extension cord and their feet in a plastic toddler pool trying to fight the Southern sun. They had a rule they couldn’t start drinking before noon because they weren’t those types of people, but the fact they had to make it a rule shows maybe they were a little bit. They called that summer “The Summer of Cancer” which was too great a title not to steal.

I have very fair skin and my summer ritual as a kid was to burn, blister, peel, and start again. My sister on the other hand tans like a pro, something I was always jealous of growing up. I never got into laying out–never understood the appeal–and for that reason alone I wanted to write about it. I don’t remember how the protagonist’s friend’s father entered the picture, but I knew when Emily walked in that kitchen after being blinded by sunspots, Mr. Mackelvoy would be there waiting for her. I liked writing this story from a point-of-view that didn’t fully understand the story she was telling, who was young enough to see only her side of a situation and whose self-centeredness could be both troublesome and, I hoped, understandable. It sucks being a kid. It sucks being powerless. And it sucks not having the ability to fully understand or express this. In the end, I knew she wouldn’t be able to see beyond herself to help her friend, but I hoped her own desperation would make her sympathetic to the reader.

And the secret concoction of baby oil and iodine really does get you tan. My roommate in college was a true California girl and used this nearly every day in the summer. I tried it once and still have the scars on my shoulders to prove it.


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