UCD graduate Freeman publishes 'Place Last Seen'

April 16, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Another graduate of the creative writing program at UC Davis has just published her first book. Charlotte McGuinn Freeman's novel, "Place Last Seen" (Picador, 2000, $23), is a hardback best-seller in the Bay Area.

She joins alumnus Robert Clark Young whose "One of the Guys" was published a year ago.

Freeman said she started working on "Place Last Seen" while she was at Davis.

"I'd been writing the sort of wretched little autobiographical stories about my childhood that everyone writes in grad school when they're just starting out," she said.

She was looking for something more compelling to write about when a mentally challenged boy disappeared up in the Sierra Nevada near Kirkwood.

"What struck me was that the newscasters kept saying: 'But his parents only turned around for a moment!' I think anyone with kids will recognize how quickly they can disappear," Freeman said.

Freeman decided to write a fictional account of a lost child, the search and rescue efforts that go into looking for a child, and the reactions of family, friends and searchers. She decided to make her lost child a girl because she had been a nanny for a Down's child when she lived in Telluride, Colo. The book is dedicated to that child, Liza Burton.

"Liza Burton is indeed a Downs child," explained Freeman, "and I was her nanny full-time for one winter ski season in 1988, and then spent another two years in the same small town, Telluride, where I baby-sat a lot and was still involved in her life.

"I left Telluride in 1991 to come to Davis, and Liza's mom, Eve, left town at the same time to go to Ft. Collins for a graduate program in occupational therapy. I have talked to Eve about the book a couple of times and she's been very supportive.

"I struggled with the ethics of writing about Liza because I think it's essentially presumptive to appropriate other people's experiences, and it's particularly tricky when you're writing a portrait of someone else's child. Without Eve's support I'm not sure what I would have done, and I'll always be grateful for her permission."

Freeman says writing fiction is largely a process of trying to imagine your way through a series of questions. When she began "Place Last Seen," she thought it would be a short story that addressed the difficult question of how a parent can come to that moment when he or she realizes that the child is really lost and it's time to hike out for help. It grew from there.

The book began at Davis, but was not finished there. Freeman left Davis with her master's degree in 1993, headed for the University of Utah. She chose the Utah Ph.D. program because it allowed a creative dissertation like "Place Last Seen."

"Utah ... has a great reputation," said Freeman. "Unfortunately it's also a very academic program, so while I learned a lot of postmodern literary theory, it wasn't as supportive a place of my creative work as Davis had been.

"This wasn't entirely bad though; at Davis I'd been one of the stars, and since I wasn't at Utah, it really forced me to be analytical about my own work in a way that I think ultimately made the book much stronger." She earned her Ph.D. in creative writing from Utah in 1999.

While work on the book continued, Freeman also attended the UC Davis writing program "Art of the Wild" that's held at Squaw Valley every summer.

"I got my agent through connections I made at the Art of the Wild," she said. "Jack Hicks was generous enough to invite me back a couple of times to just hang out with the staff, and it really saved my sanity to be treated like a real writer," she said.

She thanks writer Terry Tempest Williams who read her manuscript at a crucial moment when Freeman had lost faith in the book. "I'll always be grateful to her for that," said Freeman.

Freeman is now living in Hayward working for Cisco Systems editing technical documentation. She faces the age-old question of how to write and how to make a living.

"I work at home a lot and there's a strong possibility that I'll be able to telecommute full time in the future," she said.

Freeman will give a reading from her book on the UC Davis campus on May 16, 2000.

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