Vinegar Hill was published in 1994. It was simultaneously a meditation on my grandparents' secret and a critique of the Catholicism which had bound them to each other for life. I had written it when I was twenty-four and twenty-five, but I was twenty-eight by the time I'd found a publisher for it, and I'd just turned thirty when I finally held the first copy in my hand. After all that waiting, I'd expected to feel something like joy. Yet, what I experienced was cold, cliched dread at the thought of what my Catholic relatives would have to say about it. Their reactions, in fact, would range from enthusiasm to bewilderment to a genuine concern for the state of my soul. But none could compare with those of an audience I hadn't considered: the citizens of my Port Washington, Wisconsin: population 7,000. My home town.
Port Washington is a blip on the best of maps, set on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan. At the top of the hill is St. Mary's, an old Catholic church made of stone. Lodged in its steeple is a four-faced clock, one of the largest in the United States. Growing up, it seemed to me that no matter where I was, or who I was with, or what we happened to be doing, the eye of that clock was fixed upon me, unblinking as the eye of God. Who could resist such a landscape, so ripe for metaphor? I borrowed the hill, the church, the clock for the fictional town where Vinegar Hill is set. I also borrowed my grandparents' house, which resembled many houses in Port Washington, furnished with the same hanging jello molds, the same framed biblical portraits, the same avocado carpeting. I borrowed Lake Michigan — it is, after all, a big lake — and I borrowed a few other general details. The swimming pool downtown, for instance. A particular tourist-trap restaurant.
Not exactly the town's crown jewels.
To be fair, I was expecting some flack about the church and its clock; I'd expected to be asked if it was St. Mary's. Yes, I'd planned to say. You figured it out, you've got me there.
That, I thought, would be the end of it.