ONCE UPON A DAY by Lisa Tucker
The idea for Once Upon a Day came from something that happened to me when I was in New York to tape the CBS Early Show. I was on the way back to my hotel when the cab driver and I struck up a conversation. He was curious why I’d been at CBS, and I told him about my first novel, The Song Reader, which had just been released. He also told me about himself: that he was from Romania and had immigrated a decade before, that he loved New York, that he had two children, a wife, and a house in Queens. But then his voice became quiet as he told me that he was having some problems since 9/11. The World Trade Center attack had changed him, he said, and he didn’t know what to do or how to change back. Then he looked in the rearview mirror and said flatly, “I’ve lost my hope.”
I didn’t have a chance to say anything to him before we arrived at my hotel, where he picked up another fare and disappeared down the block. But I kept thinking about this man, wondering what I could have done. Wishing there was something I could have said. Wondering if there were any words powerful enough to help a person who’d lost his hope.
All of this was still haunting me as I sat down and started writing about Stephen Spaulding, the character who opens my novel. Like his real counterpart, Stephen is a cab driver who has been changed by the events of a single day. In Stephen’s case though, it’s a car accident that killed his wife and young daughter and made him give up his career as a doctor. And Stephen has no intention of telling anyone about his loss, even if they could help. But then Dorothea O’Brien climbs into his cab, and meeting her changes his life profoundly.
My characters always lead me to places I could never have predicted—this is one of the things I love about writing. What began as my cab driver novel turned out to be so much bigger than anything I’d ever written, with a larger cast of characters, three locations (St. Louis, New Mexico, Los Angeles), and two distinct time-periods: the late seventies and the present. Of course the central themes of my first two books, the things I always care about, found their way into this one, too: the struggle to come to terms with the past and find forgiveness; the loneliness of people who have grownup in poverty and are trying to make it out; the complex relationships within a family, especially a troubled one; the importance of music and the inextricable connection between music and memory.
The title comes from a passage in Don Quixote: “Dame Fortune once upon a day/ To me was bountiful and kind/ But all things change; she changed her mind/ And what she gave she took away.” One of the themes of the novel is the role of chance, coincidence and fate in our lives, especially the way everything can change so suddenly: our hearts can be broken by the events of a single day, yet a day can also bring a new chance at love and redemption. Nearly all of us have experienced the truth of this; most of us can narrate our personal histories as a series of important days: births and marriages and deaths but also first dates and a winter afternoon holding our baby that was just like every other, except that one is burned into our memory.
Of course the title Once Upon a Day also has a fairy tale quality, and this, too, relates to the novel’s meaning. One of the main characters has created an isolated world for his family: a “utopia” that is protected from danger, but also protected from the messy struggles and joys of ordinary life. And all of the characters will be forced to deal with the limitations of the dreams/fairy tales they thought they were living. They’ll lose their innocence, but they’ll each find new reasons for hope.
Now that I’ve written this novel, I’ve had dozens and dozens of people tell me the story of their own most important day. Some of the days are happy; many of them are heartbreaking, but what they all have common is the people who lived through them feel that they have been forever changed. I have days like that myself, of course. I know the day I met the cab driver will always be one of them.
About the author
Lisa Tucker grew up in Missouri and lives in New Mexico with her husband and son. She teaches creative writing at UCLA and sings jazz. Lisa is also the author of The Song Reader and Shout Down the Moon.