Every four or five years when Marianne Gingher was a child, her father (nicknamed Rabbit) would buy a new car without telling her mother. When Bunny (her mother’s nickname) saw the unfamiliar car in the driveway, she’d say, “I wonder whose car that is?” Rabbit would look up from his newspaper and say, a twinkle in his eye, “Oh, Bunny, I don’t know whose car that is.”

Click to read photo caption. Photo courtesy of Marianne Gingher.

“And then she wouldn’t speak to him for five days,” Gingher says. After one such episode, little Marianne crept downstairs in her pajamas. Her father was eating dinner at the kitchen table, and when he caught sight of her peeking out at him, he grinned.

“Daddy’s in the doghouse,” he said.

Naturally, a murder in the Rabbit family was the topic of Gingher’s first short story, which she composed as a series of crayon drawings when she was six. Mrs. Rabbit lies dead on the floor in a pool of gore, a knife buried to the hilt in her back. Mr. Rabbit stands over her. His expression is unreadable.

“Promptly after Mrs. Rabbit’s funeral — at which even the old car cries tears — Mr. Rabbit, who was never implicated in the crime, goes out and buys a new car,” Gingher says. “And he’s smiling, and there’s a lipstick print of a new rabbit on his cheek. That’s how the story ends.”

The drama seemed dire when she was a little girl, Gingher says. But over the years her parents turned the business with the cars into a sort of a game.

“My parents were in a very happy marriage,” she says. And that’s one of the reasons Gingher and her brothers had such a happy childhood. Her first book about her life was called A Girl’s Life: Horses, Boys, Weddings, and Luck, if that tells you anything.

In spite of all those well-adjusted years, though, A Girl’s Life is full of sharp edges, hawk-eyed character assessments, and a girl’s wish to give in to her inner ruffian:

I once stepped into my mother’s car — she was transporting a freshly baked pie to my grandmother — and planted one sludgy boot in the middle of the pie. It was clumsy of me, ruinous and knavish, but I laughed. What did a bit of nastiness matter? I was immune to the nitpickery of cleanliness and caution. I remember thinking that my mother was fussy not to try and salvage the pie. I would have eaten around the bootprint.

Unlike Dorothy Allison, Mary Karr, and other memoir writers from the South, Gingher was at ease in her hometown. She was never neglected. She didn’t suffer at the hands of her family. In an interview with Cellar Door magazine, she said, “I didn’t have to worry about when Daddy came home like so many kids do, because when Daddy came home that was a cause for celebration. I didn’t have to worry that Mama would be drunk when I came home from school. No, Mama would be there and she’d probably made cookies. And she would sit down and play cards with me if I asked her to. It was a privilege. I didn’t do anything to earn it; it was just there. And I don’t want to have to apologize for it.”

So, you might ask, where’s the story in that?

It was Eudora Welty who said, “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” It was the serenity in Gingher’s home that grew her into such a daring, big-eared pitcher, as her mother called her.

“I was a bit of an eavesdropper,” Gingher says. “I wanted to be a spy.”

When she was growing up in the 1950s, all of Gingher’s friends loved to play at her house, in part because of the even tempers and her mother’s fragrant baking. “My home life was fairly predictable,” she says. The walls and carpet were innocuous, neutral colors; soda bottles wore little sweaters to keep them from dribbling on the furniture. “But as a kid, I had a built-in hunger for conflict. I didn’t have it at home in my beige household, so I went out and found it.”

Her favorite place to look was in the homes of her friends, many of whom had less-than-sunny family lives. She was enthralled by the hiding, the tiptoeing, the bullying fathers, the absent mothers, even the shouting matches and hair-trigger punishments.

“I loved going over to the ferocious stew of their houses, and listening, observing,” Gingher says. “I had to experience what I didn’t know about any way I could, even if it was just as a fly on the wall.”

One such friend lived in a mansion so massive it could have doubled as Gone with the Wind’s Tara, and carried the distinction of a former owner who was jailed for being a member of the Communist Party. The friend’s mother had suffered a stroke that left her almost mute and marooned in a wheelchair. The father, a college professor and businessman, ate formal dinners with the children before slipping out to attend to his secretive social life. The older children in the family were supposed to check in on their mother periodically, but they made a haphazard job of it. They were generally too busy scrambling over the roof, perching themselves on the gables, and skylarking about the ballroom.

Gingher writes about the woes of pronated ankles and adolescent awkwardness in A Girl’s Life, as well as her more sobering early encounters with death and racism. But the book is mostly a celebration of youthful simplicity — selling horse-drawn sled rides to other kids, the celebrity in being elected classroom monitor (and all the crimes she recorded in her Blue Horse notebook during her reign). In fact, the idea to write A Girl’s Life came from a book reviewer’s letter in The New York Times lamenting that there were virtually no memoirs written about happy, trauma-free childhoods.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith; ©2008 Endeavors.

Gingher’s glass is still half-full in her new memoir, Adventures in Pen Land. “But I gave it some ballast,” she says, “so it wouldn’t sail off into the rosy sunset.” The chapters cover her life from 1953 — the year of the murdered Mrs. Rabbit — to 1986, when she published her first book. A lot happened in that time, she says, and it wasn’t all happy.

It was between those years, particularly when she first started teaching, that Gingher had a series of crippling panic attacks. “They were awful,” she says. She never thought she’d put those moments on paper — the terror, the nausea before every class session she taught. Same thing with her separation from her husband, and her subsequent single-motherdom.

One chapter of Adventures in Pen Land is an exposé of some of the loonier students she’s taught in her creative writing classes since 1975. Early in her teaching career, she says, her sunny classroom atmosphere was a beacon to eccentric personalities within the major — including some who thought her workshops wouldn’t burden them with honest criticism. “One student went back to his dorm after creative writing class,” Gingher says, “and was so upset by the criticism he got in class that he set his dorm on fire.” Whether he dropped out or was expelled, she’s not sure, but he never showed up in class again.

Criticism can cast a decades-long shadow on a writer, or anyone, Gingher says. She laughs off some of the tougher reviews she’s gotten — the big red C (for “Crummy”) that her high school nemesis on the yearbook staff scrawled across her work, the writing teacher who took one look at her batch of poems and told her she was “no poet” (“He probably did both the world and me a huge favor,” Gingher says). But here she is, many years and dozens of stories beyond the Mrs. Rabbit murder mystery.

“Somebody is always standing on the periphery of your artistic jubilee, wanting to jump in and stomp it flat, at any age,” Gingher says. “And you either rise above it, or you get so depressed by what you’re told that you give up. You have to get on the horse you fell off of and you carry on. Or you get on a different horse.”

Marianne Gingher won the Johnston Teaching Excellence Award in 2007. She’s an associate professor of English and codirector of the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship program at Carolina. Adventures in Pen Land (illustrated by Daniel Wallace) will be published in 2008 by University of Missouri Press. Some segments appeared in serial form as “A Woman at Work and Play” in The Rambler. Gingher also edited GRAM-O-RAMA, a maverick grammar book published in 2007 about the similarities between grammar and music, written by Daphne Athas of the Department of English. Gingher is now compiling an anthology of short-short stories by North Carolina writers, which will be published by University of North Carolina Press.