Peacock Discusses Her New Book Thursday
For years when Nancy Peacock filled out her federal tax return, a little six-digit code made her confront reality.
"Select the activity," she read in the 1040 instruction book, "that best identifies the principal source of your sales or receipts."
Although she had written two successful novels, "Life Without Water," a New York Times Notable Book (1996), and "Home Across the Road" (1999), and had essays and stories published in literary magazines, her income as an author was never enough for her to write "711510" in the little box on the tax form.
"711510 Independent Writer"
Instead, Peacock supported herself by working a dozen different day and night jobs: "722410 Bartender," "445290 Grocery Store Clerk," "238350 Carpenter," and for more than 15 years "561790 Housecleaner."
On Thursday, May 15, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines, Peacock will share her new book, "A Broom of One's Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning, and Life."
In her essays Peacock explores what it means to be a writer, and provides advice on subjects such as inspiration, craft and criticism. She also offers insight into issues of class and stereotypes, and describes how her job as a cleaning lady affects her acceptance of herself as a writer.
Nancy Peacock was born in Wilmington, Del., but grew up in and around Chapel Hill. She loved writing as a child.
"Writing suited my temperament and my lifestyle too," she says. "I was extremely shy, and I lived with a large, loud family in which it was difficult to be heard. I turned to the page when I had something to say."
She took creative writing classes through school, but when she graduated in 1972, she shunned college, and married her high school boyfriend instead.
"We split up several years later, and I began working a variety of jobs to support myself," she says.
Peacock took a series of menial jobs while writing her first novel, "Life Without Water," about an impoverished hippie family that explores commune life. She was sure that having her book published would "make me special. I would never be thought of as a mere laborer again. Just one book could do this forever. I was sure of it. Publishing would change everything, like winning the lottery.
"But in my most emotional moments, I knew I was a failure. All I'd done was prove to the world that I could write a book and get it published. So what? I had yet to prove that I could make a living at this, and now that I had been published, it seemed like that was the only thing that would make me a real writer. Maybe I wouldn't have been so sensitive if I hadn't had to return to housecleaning after the year I took to actually live the writer's life."
While writing her second novel, "Home Across the Road," about the racial injustices suffered by a black maid during the Jim Crow era, she lived on her modest royalties and partial advance, but the money soon ran out.
"The problem was that I couldn't write fast enough," she admits. "I couldn't follow one successful book with another in the amount of time it takes to be forgotten."
She did a few odd jobs and then started cleaning houses again.
In 2000, an interview she gave for what she thought was a woman's magazine ended up in the National Enquirer under the headline, "Here's One for the Books: Cleaning Lady is an Acclaimed Author."
A friend of Peacock suggested she write a book about housecleaning, and "once I thought about it," she says, "I decided that I really did have a lot to say on the subject of that particular job. I know something about the invisibility of that work. I know the thanklessness and the endlessness of it."
In "A Broom of One's Own" Peacock also tells stories that only a housecleaner would know.
"Some of the people whose houses I cleaned were extreme -- for instance the family that walked around in states of semi-nudity," she says. "Others were extremely nice, respectful of me, and appreciative of my work. Both stood out in my mind, for different reasons, as unforgettable."
At age 54, Peacock has finally tossed out her broom and her cleaning supplies, she believes, for the last time. Now she supplements her income as a writer by running writing workshops in her studio, and teaching at The Arts Center in Carrboro, The John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, and in bookstores and private homes across the state. She recently completed her third novel.
Nancy Peacock lives with her husband, Ben, and a resident box turtle named Caroline, in a small house in Chatham County.
For information, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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