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Coming Out 

Published September 3, 2003 at 6:48 p.m.

Once upon a time there was a second-grade schoolteacher in upstate New York -- right across the lake, in Plattsburgh -- who never dreamed that one day she'd be a published writer. This is a true story. Better, it's a story of success against the odds.

Meet Bonnie Shimko, 61, wife, mother, teacher and now author, whose first novel, Letters in the Attic, won this year's Lamda Literary Award for outstanding fiction in the Children and Young Adult category. Lamda Awards are given annually by the Lamda Literary Foundation, "the only national organization dedicated to the recognition and promotion of gay and lesbian literature," according to its promo. What the Human Rights Campaign and Lamda Legal Defense are to gay life in general, the Lamda Literary Award is to any aspiring homophile writer; you can't go any higher.

"It is our writers," Lamda says -- "our poets, scholars, historians, humorists and storytellers of all stripes -- who give voice to our remarkable community. They create us in all our wonderful colors, as they recount us both to ourselves and to the wide world."

The Foundation has headquarters in Washington, D.C., and a roster of previous award winners that reads like a Who's Who of GLBT life and letters: Dorothy Allison, Edmund White, Allan Gurganus, Adrienne Rich, Clive Barker, Paul Monette, David Sedaris, Michael Cunningham, John Berendt, Tony Kushner, "Dykes to Watch Out For" cartoonist Alison Bechdel and Marguerite Yourcenar, author of Alexis and Memoirs of Hadrian and the only woman ever elected to the Academie Francaise.

This is heavy company for Bonnie Shimko, who describes herself as "old and a little shopworn," and demurs that she's "one of the biggest nobodies around." Her natural diffidence is both sunny and self-effacing. Before her retirement in 1999 -- after spending 33 years teaching children in Peru, New York, "how to tie their shoes and use a Kleenex" -- she "never even thought about writing," she says. "It never dawned on me." Some years back, on a whim, Shimko entered a limerick contest in the old Saturday Evening Post. But "Someone else won my $100," she reports, and the sting of rejection was such that she put down her pen and didn't pick it up again for a decade.

Once retired, however, Shimko found a new calling. It took her four years and at least one abandoned manuscript to finish Letters in the Attic, and she got it published the hard way, after receiving multitudes of "those horrific, slap-in-the-face 'Dear Author' rejections." No one was more surprised than Shimko herself -- "stunned" is the word she uses -- when she heard her name called at this year's Lamda ceremony in Los Angeles, where she shared the stage with Betty DeGeneres and Judy Shepard (Matthew's mother). She beat, among others, playwright Harvey Fierstein, author of Torch Song Trilogy and a veritable queen of gay lit.

And here's the kicker: Shimko isn't gay, lesbian, "bi," "transgendered," "intersexed" or any of the other rarefied labels people feel compelled to slap on themselves. Letters in the Attic was "written from the heart," Shimko insists. It's "a mother/daughter coming-of-age/coming-out story" inspired by the odyssey of her own daughter, Sarah, who came out as a lesbian to her family in 1998, as Shimko recently told Out in the Mountains.

"It's a labor of love and also an apology for acting less than kind when I heard the news. Since then, I've come to my senses."

Mainly, Shimko credits "the wonderful members of the Burlington, Vermont, PFLAG [Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays] chapter" for "working magic" on her point of view. But it takes more than "acceptance" and adjustment to the facts to write a book as bright, funny and lovely as this.

Letters in the Attic is the story of Lizzy McMann, an unusually intelligent 12-year-old, who lives with her mother, a faded piano player, and her father, a shiftless jerk, in a run-down motel in Phoenix, Arizona. It's 1962, during the Kennedy-Camelot years, a point that wouldn't need mentioning if Lizzy's mother, Veronica, weren't so hopelessly romantic and prone to self-delusion.

"Mama's a stickler for good hygiene," Lizzy explains, "and I have followed her lead... She bought me my own jar of Tussy deodorant, so if my body shifts gear on me in the middle of any given day, I will be prepared. She tells me that any time now I will turn from a little girl into a woman, and when that happens, I will hold an odor if I'm not careful. It's better to be safe than sorry -- that's her motto. 'Remember, Lizzy,' she has told me a thousand times, 'there is no reason for anybody to go around with an offensive odor in this day and age -- soap and water are cheap.'"

With that, Shimko's off, chronicling the unexpected ways in which Lizzy does become a woman, bucking up her mother when her father dumps her for a younger model -- "the harlot," as Lizzy calls her, who "doesn't hint around about her makeup" and does "a good job matching the color of her eyelids to [her] dress..."

It's lines like these that give Letters its kick. Betrayed and abandoned, Lizzy and Veronica head to "Ridge-wood," New York -- a stand-in for Plattsburgh -- where Veronica grew up and where Lizzy will uncover a host of family, social and sexual secrets. It all works out in the end, but this isn't your ordinary adolescent fiction; and it isn't Pollyanna.

Lizzy's wise, quiet, Walton-like grandfather is balanced by a nasty, bitter, sadistic wife -- Veronica's mother -- whose redemption lies not in the changes she makes for herself but in the understanding others will bring to her. There are teachers, storekeepers, classmates, boyfriends: a whole raft of country, cornball Our Town figures who nevertheless surprise you with their independent bent. And, of course, there's Eva, the girl next door, who looks like Natalie Wood and becomes the object of Lizzy's still shapeless desire, "a riddle without any clues." With luck, being gay won't show on her face.

"This is when you have to believe that there are certain directions set out for just you to follow, like in a dress pattern," Lizzy reflects. "If you ignore them and try to put your life together yourself, you will end up wrong." On this, heroine and author might agree.

"The day Anita Miller called to say they wanted to publish my book validated me as a writer," Shimko discloses. Anita and Jordan Miller are the husband-and-wife brains behind Academy Chicago, the small but prestigious Midwestern publishers who gave Shimko her break. "The thought of people outside my immediate family and circle of friends reading my words was a real thrill. You know how it feels when you're not expecting something completely amazing to happen in your life and it does, so that you go around for the next week smiling inside and out? That's how it was."

And, for now, for Shimko, that's how it is. "I can't even stress how much fun I've been having," she tells me on the phone. Since she won her award, both her name and her sales have been rising. She's made the usual round of bookstores, done a lot of her own promotion and is prepared to "speak to any group that will listen" on gay and lesbian issues. Her daughter's reception of Letters in the Attic is "the greatest gift" she's had.

Shimko says she tries "to look like somebody who's smart and clever enough to have written a book worth spending money on." She's already started another novel, and admits that most of her ideas still come to her "in the grocery store." Which leads to her sole piece of advice for aspiring writers:

"Well, everybody's already heard the stuff about joining a writers' group," Shimko says, "not giving up, not letting rejection get you down, and reading as much as you can, so I'll mention one that's even more important: Never leave home without a pencil. A paper's good, too, but a pencil is an absolute necessity."

And while you're at it, tie your shoes -- you don't want to trip when you're just getting started.

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Peter Kurth


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