After graduating from Port Washington High School in 1982, I attended the Peabody Conservatory of Music (at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore) as a piano performance major. (I drew on these experiences in my second novel, Sister.) I left Baltimore in spring of 1984 and went to work for the American Museum of Natural History on an uninhabited island off the coast of Long Island Sound. For two summers I lived on Great Gull Island, participating in a study of common and roseate terns; winters I went to Florida, where I worked at various wildlife organizations in the Fort Meyers area. (I was a big hitch-hiker in those days.) But in spring of '85, I returned to school, this time at the University of Maine—the result of another hitch-hiking expedition—where I worked on their bald eagle project and, also, for the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History. My declared major of anthropology, a field which would become very important to my future writing career. At the time, I did not write. I had never liked reading, never kept a diary, and had hated the English classes I'd taken in high school.
I'd been experiencing increased pain and weakness in my arms and legs since I was 17; the reason I left music school was that I was unable to endure the grueling seven- to nine-hour daily practice schedule. I was also having difficulty walking long distances. By the fall of '85, I was unable to walk to my classes; I was (mis)diagnosed with MS. I took a medical leave and wound up bedridden (I lived with my parents) until spring of '87 when I was able to get around again using a wheelchair and braces. My health improved through the late '80s and seems to have stabilized since the early '90s. The current diagnosis is that I have a genetic muscle disease and that we must wait and see what happens. At any rate, by the time I was 23, it was clear to me that I needed to find something I could do sitting down.