Before Star Wars, filmmaker George Lucas directed 1973’s American Graffiti, a movie based in part on the summer after Lucas and his friends graduated from high school in 1962.
Judy Chicurel, who grew up in Long Beach, sets her critically-acclaimed debut story collection. If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go (G. P. Putnam’s Sons) in the summer of 1972. It is the year the book’s narrator, Katie Hanson, graduated from high school. The title refers to what Hanson, who was adopted, dreams her birth mother would say to the 18-year-old Katie, if they were to meet.
“In a beautiful and honest coming-of-age story, Katie acquaints readers with the people of her hometown—the struggles, losses, hopes and dreams—in chapters that resemble short stories, all tied neatly together by Katie’s own bid for the future,” Booklist stated, in its starred review of If I Knew…
Chicurel, a 1972 Long Beach High School alumna, chronicles most of the collection’s key figures as they leave the fictitious Elephant Beach High School in Elephant Beach, which has seen better days since it was a popular summer resort town in the 1920s. Given the era, two of the book’s older characters have just returned from Vietnam. One of them is named Luke, a former surfing star turned brooding war vet, whom Katie has her eye on.
“My grandparents and my parents bought a house together at a time when Long Beach was much more sparsely populated, especially in winter,” Chicurel said, talking about their move to Long Beach, from New York City, in the 1950s.
Much of the action in If I Knew… takes place at The Starlight Hotel, a locale Chiculrel conjured up by combining the real-life, and long-gone, Arizona bar and Americana Hotel in Long Beach with the old Seaview Hotel on Martha’s Vineyard. “I’m very character-driven, but in If I Knew…, setting and a sense of place really inspired some of these stories,” she said.
Chicurel is returning to Long Beach for a reading, and book signing, on Sunday, Dec. 14, between 2 and 4 p.m., at The Long Beach Historical Society, 226 West Penn Street. Admission to the event is free, and copies of If I Knew… will be available for purchase.
“I’d say it took me about a year and a half to write,” Chicurel stated. A graduate of the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, Chicurel has been an English teacher and a journalist, having written for Newsday and The New York Times’ Sunday Long Island section when the paper used to publish one. The project’s origins date back to 2011, when she was a Fellow in the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center’s Writers’ Institute Fiction Writing Program.
“John Freeman was one of my [CUNY] instructors and he liked my work so he published one of my stories in Granta, where he was the editor,” Chicurel said. Granta is a literary journal read closely by agents, such as Sarah Burnes, who agreed to take on Chicurel as a client.
In the book’s dedication, Chicurel writes it is, “For David, and for my father, Michael (1919-2005), who always believed.” Dr. David Kritt, an associate professor at the CUNY’s College of Staten Island, is her husband of 21 years. “We met on a blind date,” she said. Her late father, Michael Chicurel, was a U.S. Navy veteran who later worked at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, among other things.
“He always loved my writing, even during my starving artist years,” Chicurel added, discussing her late father. “He would always encourage me to keep going.” Michael Chicurel’s impact on his daughter can be seen also in where she chooses to live. The writer and her husband reside in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach section, a residential neighborhood which has the Atlantic Ocean on its southern border.