I worked in the editorial department of the Merriam-Webster dictionary company from 1998 to 2002. It was my first real job after college. Like my character Billy, I was lucky to get a job at all, as I’d majored in philosophy. I enjoyed working there a great deal, but I was young and foolish and wanted to try other careers outside of a cubicle. I left the company to try teaching high school English for a couple of years. I discovered that teaching high school, while a noble profession, is not for everyone. Live and learn.
In the fall of 2004, my husband and I left for rural South Africa, where we served in education posts with the U.S. Peace Corps. Without a television or Internet or any nightlife to speak of, we had a lot of free time. After school, I spent many afternoons and evenings sitting outside reading, watching goats, and handing out biscuits and apple slices to the little kids who liked to come by and giggle at our poor Setswana skills. And scribbling out the first draft of The Broken Teaglass.
I returned home to Connecticut in late 2006, and eventually got a job in the children’s room of a library. At that time, I revised The Broken Teaglass, removing all of the goat metaphors that had crept into the manuscript during the pastoral drafting stage. Staying disciplined was difficult, as during the two years we were in Africa someone had invented something called YouTube.
On The Broken Teaglass v. Reality
• The citation system described in the novel is based on my experience at one particular dictionary company. I skipped over some details that I thought were likely to confuse or bore readers, but tried at the same time to educate readers on how the basic process works. Different companies vary in their approaches and philosophies (e.g. prescriptivist v. descriptivist), but the use of citations is generally a part of the process.
• When I worked at Merriam-Webster, I was fascinated by the company’s citation files—so many little notes, going back so many years, the older ones handwritten and yellowed around the edges. It seemed the perfect place to hide—or find—a secret. The days at the office tended to be long and quiet—and a little lonely— and I’d often have this fantasy that I’d find something mysterious in the cit files, and that it would lead me into a dark and dangerous lexicographical underworld. In reality, I never once found anything remotely suspicious in the files. Only years later, long after I’d left the company, did I think to turn this idle daydream into a book.
• The people who write letters to dictionary companies aren’t usually crazy. In general, they are pleasant, polite, intellectually curious folks who happen to have questions about the English language.
• While the basic setting of Samuelson Company resembles Merriam-Webster in many ways, its characters are not based on my former coworkers. Billy isn’t based on anyone in particular. His father vaguely resembles the dentist who pulled out my wisdom teeth right before I left for South Africa. Mona is very loosely based on an old college friend. Mr. Phillips is based on the crotchety, grumbling old man who lives inside my head and encourages me to give the finger to inconsiderate motorists. And so on.