Luck, chance, serendipity and coincidence: Patricia Wood knows well these four spices of life. It was through extraordinary good luck that her father, Ray "R.J." Dahl, a Boeing retiree, won $6 million in the Washington State Lottery in 1993. It was chance that her late ex-husband, an alcoholic Vietnam vet, had a brother with Down syndrome who remains a functional two-year-old at the age of 54. It was serendipitous that Wood met a valuable mentor in novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux (The Mosquito Coast, The Great Railway Bazaar) who encouraged her to drop everything and pursue the novel she was uniquely qualified to write. And it was purely coincidental that BookPage assigned this reporter to interview Wood, who happens to be a former high school journalism classmate.
When Wood and I talk to one another three decades after graduation, it isn't to gossip about our former classmates, but to discuss her debut novel, Lottery, which opens with this line: "My name is Perry L. Crandall and I am not retarded." Wood has shaped her life-affirming book around a most intriguing premise: What if a mentally challenged shop clerk hit the big one?
We meet 31-year-old Perry, IQ 76, shortly before the death of Gram, the cantankerous, caring grandmother who instilled in him ironclad values after his self-absorbed mother left him in her care. When Gram dies, Perry's money-grubbing brothers sell her house from under him and kick him to the curb. He moves into a small apartment above Holsted's Marine Supply on the working docks of Everett, Washington, where he has worked his entire adult life. There, kindly shop owner Gary, his second mate Keith, a hard-drinking Vietnam vet, and the pudgy, pierced cashier Cherry help Perry navigate the swift currents of sudden independence.
Then the unimaginable happens: Perry hits the lottery for $12 million. Before the vulture brothers can descend, Keith helps Perry wisely choose annuity payments over the cash-out. As the family maneuvers to pounce on his millions, Perry revels in his new role as a businessman savant whose simple, successful marketing ideas spring from years spent listening to—while being ignored by—customers.
Owing to its cognitively impaired narrator, Lottery will inevitably bring to mind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Forrest Gump, though a more apt comparison in tone and emotional impact might be Ron McLarty's touching 2005 debut, The Memory of Running.
Wood, who lives with her architect husband Gordon aboard Orion, a 48-foot sailboat moored in Ko'Olina, Hawaii, was just a thesis away from completing her education doctorate on disability and diversity at the University of Hawaii when Lottery sold at auction for a handsome sum. With healthy advance orders and Hollywood sizing it up as the next Rain Man, that thesis may have to wait; she has three more manuscripts waiting to see daylight.
"I've had this kind of windfall now twice in my life," she admits. "I was under the mistaken impression that I would be able to write my thesis and promote Lottery at the same time. Ha! All of a sudden, my Ph.D. has served its purpose; I have the learning. I wanted the degree because then I could get a job. But that doesn't seem to be an issue right now."
Wood has led a varied life: She served in the U.S. Army, worked as a medical technologist, and taught marine science and horseback riding. But it was her encounter at 19 with her then-husband's brother Jeri that sparked her interest in cognitive impairments and society's often-insensitive reaction to them.
"I was uncomfortable at first; I really struggled with my feelings," she recalls. "You could tell that there were periods of time when he knew he was different." Years later, the author herself had that same feeling of otherness when her father won the lottery.
"You would think it's a life-changing moment, but it is more a change in your own cognition," she says. "The perception is that money solves all your problems. The life-altering events of the lottery are more in what you choose to do after that point. Is it going to define you?"
Her father, who was comfortably retired from the Boeing test flight program, had been playing the lottery for less than a year when a machine issued him the winning ticket. His only celebration was to upgrade from coach to first class on the European vacation he and his wife had already booked.
But an equally harsh blow accompanied his good fortune.
"Very shortly after they won, it became readily apparent that something was dramatically wrong with my mother," Wood says. "Her down-spiraling into dementia made me think, is this a pact with the devil? I started thinking, what would you want, win the lottery but know that you would be affected by dementia? I visualized one of those linear graphs—at what point as the wealth increases and the IQ decreases do you become acceptable socially? That was my premise."
Wood's mother passed away last year. This spring, Wood used part of her advance for Lottery to take her 87-year-old father on a trip to Norway to boost his spirits.
Wood received help and encouragement from Theroux, her horseback riding student, and novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard (Deep End of the Ocean), whom she met at the Maui Writers Conference and Retreat. She modeled Perry's supporting cast after people in her own life; there is much of her father in Gram, and her late ex-husband in Keith. Unfortunately, the less savory characters also resided close to home.
"The inspiration for the brothers, in part, comes from my own family," she says. "It caused hard feelings. It causes relatives to stop speaking."
Wood dismissed the suggestion of editors that she abandon the first-person narrative, knowing full well how challenging it would be at times to advance the story through Perry's limited understanding.
"The authenticity is very important. I want people who are termed normal to really feel what it's like to be like Perry. I didn't want to have another book where this person is so inspirational, and celibate. A lot of parents of these kids who have read my book say, yes. Yes. I want to believe that my child has a life."
Jay MacDonald and Patricia Wood were classmates at Shoreline High in Seattle. Go Spartans!