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What I wasn't expecting was all the people who would accuse me of setting the novel in their home. Who claimed to recognize my protagonist, the mother of the family, as their own mother, their own best friend, even their own self. Who showed up at the readings I gave in the Milwaukee area to chant the refrain of my childhood: if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. In a bookstore, during a question-and-answer exchange, the mother of a childhood friend stood up with tears in her eyes. "Nothing like this really happened to you!"

"You're right," I agreed.

We stared at each other helplessly.


The fervor, in part, was fueled by an article in the weekly paper which had run just a few days before I came to town. Its author, a well-intentioned local woman who knew my family in a general way, discussed the book the way one might discuss a nonfiction expose. Even my title, she asserted, was "real," and she took it upon herself to engage in a bit of investigative journalism in order to determine its origin. "Vinegar Hill" was quite possibly "Sweet Cake Hill," a small street in Port Washington.

The truth was that I'd struggled to find a title. I'd known early on that it would be the name of the street my characters lived on; I'd known, too, that its connotations should reflect the book's bitter sensibility. And yet, two months after the manuscript was finished, the title page was still blank. I was living in upstate New York at the time, and one day, driving out of town to see a friend, I glanced up to see a street sign I'd never noticed before. Vinegar Hill.

I leaned on my horn. I zigged and zagged through the autumn leaves. Never since has a title hit me with such absolutely clarity.

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