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In ‘The Art of Vanishing,’ Berkeley’s Laura Smith Wrestles with Open Marriage and a Long-Lost Child Prodigy

 

An ambitious debut.

Laura Smith 

 

In her debut book, The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust (Viking), Berkeley writer Laura Smith details her struggle to reconcile her desire for adventure and independence with the slogs of work, marriage, and family. The memoir interweaves the story of Smith’s marriage at 25 with a deep dive into the life of Barbara Newhall Follett, an early-20th century author, child prodigy, and adventurer who disappeared without a trace one night in December 1939. In Follett, Smith finds a kindred spirit, and as she unwinds the mystery of the young writer’s disappearance, Smith begins to yearn for a freedom of her own, seeking adventure with her husband through an open marriage.

San Francisco: How did you decide to bring your own story into the narrative and make the book not just about Barbara Newhall Follett?
Laura Smith: The book that I sold to my editors was not the book I turned in—but part of the reason I wanted to write the book was to answer the questions that Barbara was asking. In a way, writing this book gave me license to think about these things in my life. The fear that motivated the book was that I would just be swept away to somewhere I didn’t want.

Barbara published her first novel at age 12 to great acclaim. She spent her teenage years sailing the world, hiking the Appalachian Trail, and writing. She lived an independent life, but in her early 20s, she got trapped into an unhappy marriage—until the day she walked out her front door and was never heard from again. What compelled you to try to solve the mystery of her life?
What’s so tantalizing about Barbara's story is that we don’t know what happens. In not knowing, readers are able to imagine any possible outcome for her and it’s really thrilling. But of course if you imagine, when I went through the exercise of saying, oh, she ran away with a man, or, oh, she lives in Colorado, nothing sounded that exciting. It was that all the possibilities were possible with her.

When you and your husband were considering an open marriage, you spent lots of time talking with each other and with friends about it. When you were in the middle of it, how did it live up to your expectations?
I could have never anticipated any of it, and that was part of the appeal. We were entering into a truly unknown territory.  You are a stranger to yourself, doing things that you wouldn’t expect, learning new things about your desires and how you act in new situations. That’s the definition of adventure—you don’t know where you’ll wind up.

People who haven't been in an open marriage often assume it's a string of casual hookups or a wild bacchanal with a handful of partners. Was that your experience?
It was not. I ended up forming quite strong attachments. I think for many people, that's why they do this—they want to form meaningful relationships with others, not just have sex. But of course, connecting with someone else can be really damaging to your primary relationship. A lot of people in the poly community seem to have found a way to make multiple intimacies work—but I never found a sustained way to negotiate that.

In the book, you cite a Japanese word “Bitai” which you say, “means erotic allure, or getting as close as possible to the object of your affection without actually obtaining it.” Do you think this distance from love is fulfilling?
What is the right amount of intimacy? If you spend every minute together, know every thought that the other one has, it can feel like there’s no personal privacy, no room for self exploration. It can sort of feel like your brain has been invaded. Now, several years in years in, I have appreciation for how independence is an essential part of a couple’s life. There has to be sort of natural respiratory quality to relationships.

Living abroad was the first adventure in your marriage; an open relationship was the second. Any idea what the next big adventure will be?
I have no idea! I do kind of want to have kids. My life is a little bit more stable now. I signed a year long lease in Berkeley. I guess we’ll have to see.

Smith will read from The Art of Vanishing—published on February 6—on Saturday, March 17, at 6:00 p.m., at Laurel Book Store, 1423 Broadway, Oakland.

 

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